Tufts School of Medicine tenure and tenure-track faculty file for union elections

Tenured and tenure-track faculty from the Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last Dec. 11 to hold on campus union elections, which has been challenged by the TUSM administration partially on grounds of legality.

The faculty petition, if successful, would allow 70 members of TUSM faculty. including assistant, associate and full time professors, to join Faculty Forward, a division of the Service Employees International Union Local 509 (SEIU), according to a Dec. 14 press release from SEIU.

According to Professor of Developmental, Molecular and Chemical biology Karina Meiri, attorneys for both the administration and the faculty submitted final arguments and evidence about the petition to the NLRB in final briefs this past Wednesday. Faculty are expecting to learn the final decision by the NLRB on the case two weeks following the submission of the final briefs, she said.

Executive Director of Public Relations Kim Thurler said that part of the motivation for Tufts challenging the faculty’s petition lies in legal precedent in the 1980 NLRB v. Yeshiva University ruling, which found that tenured and tenure-track professors were not eligible candidates for unionization due to their significant managerial roles.

“That 1980 Supreme Court ruling … recognizes the substantial authority faculty members hold and their significant voice in determining curriculum, academic standards and policies,” Thurler told the Daily in an email. “Many NLRB decisions since 1980 have followed this Supreme Court precedent.”

The Supreme Court decision, also referred to as the “Yeshiva Ruling,” deals directly with the ability of tenured and tenure-track faculty to unionize, according to Meiri and Henry Wortis, professor of integrated physiology and pathobiology. At the time, the Supreme Court found that tenure and tenure-track faculty at Yeshiva University had notable participation and influence in administrative decisions at the university, disqualifying them as eligible candidates for unionization.

If the NLRB decides that the faculty does not have significant managerial roles, then the faculty will be allowed to move forward with elections, Thurler explained.

“[The university] hope[s] that the Regional Director [of the NLRB] will agree with the School and recognize the significant authority that our faculty members have in critical areas of the School’s management,” she said. “The NLRB may instead find that tenured and tenure-track basic science faculty are not managerial or supervisory employees, and therefore can vote on whether to be represented by the SEIU for all matters affecting compensation, hours and tears and conditions of employment. If that is the NLRB’s finding, an election will be conducted.”

According to Meiri and Wortis, support for the union among faculty members is high.

“One of the reasons we selected SEIU was the success of the SEIU faculty union on the Medford campus in reinforcing these faculty responsibilities within a spirit of cooperation,” Meiri and Wortis wrote to the Daily in a joint email.

Prior to filing for a union election with the NLRB, SEIU Local 509 representatives helped pass around voting cards to the faculty members to gauge support for union elections. To file for an election, 30 percent of the faculty needed to express interest in holding elections in order to proceed with filing the petition. After tallying the cards, almost 60 percent of the faculty voted to file for an election, they said.

“Somewhat fewer than 40 percent of the faculty did not send in a card indicating interest in holding elections,” Meiri and Wortis said. “This may mean they do not want a union or that they do not feel strongly enough about it to actively support a petition.”

The administration’s challenge to the petition necessitated a hearing before the NLRB back in December that took approximately one week and concluded on Dec. 13, according to Meiri and Wortis.

“The purpose of our hearing was to determine whether we as TUSM faculty also hold managerial and supervisory roles in the context of the university,” Meiri and Wortis said. “Up to now, very few tenured and tenure track faculty at private universities have been give permission to unionize, and so successfully petitioning the NLRB would be very significant.”

The faculty petition follows the rapidly increasing movement for better working conditions for higher education professionals across Greater Boston and the United States. These tenure and tenure-track faculty would join both part and full-time professors at Tufts University Medford/Somerville Campus, who unionized in the fall of 2013 and winter of 2015 respectively. If successful, they will also join 3,200 non-tenure track faculty members across the Greater Boston area who are represented by SEIU Local 509, including those at Boston University, Lesley University, Northeastern University and Bentley University.

Meiri and Wortis cited issues regarding salary and research funding as one of the main motivations to unionization. Faculty salary at TUSM is significantly augmented by National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, which comes from the Office of Extramural Research (OER). The OER intends to provide financial support as well as a certain quality control including “ensuring scientific integrity, public accountability and effective stewardship of the NIH extramural research portfolio,” according to the office’s mission statement.

According to Meiri and Wortis, the availability of these funds has been steadily decreasing. Currently, a faculty member who submits a grant to NIH has an average seven percent chance of receiving funding for their research, they said. In response to the decrease in funding, the TUSM administration created an incentive-based program to encourage faculty to apply for more grants.

“The problem was that the incentive was negative,” Meiri and Wortis said. “If faculty were unsuccessful, [in their application] as they were pretty much bound to be, given the odds, their salaries would immediately be cut, often by very significant amounts.”

Instead of encouraging applications for grants, the program created uncertainty for the faculty, Meiri and Wortis said. Faculty could not know if they would receive the grant, and a declined application could put their salaries at risk, they explained.  In addition, they noted that many felt that their ability to speak up and influence administrative decisions was rapidly decreasing.

“Faculty frustration with this scheme was not solely because it is analogous to a business plan based on faculty winning the lottery,” they said. “Also because the extreme lack of financial transparency leaves them incapable of judging whether this was truly their best option under the circumstances, as it was described, or whether there might be other approaches to plugging the financial gap more likely to be successful. Most faculty irrespective of whether they support unionization, feel that their ability to influence this kind of questionable planning is being irreversibly eroded.”

By forming a union, the faculty hopes to restore some transparency and decision-making power as well as stability and security in terms of salaries and working conditions, according to Meiri and Wortis.

“Our strong belief is that the educators and researchers at a university need to be deeply involved in decisions that shape its mission and that unionization will provide a path towards…the return of collegiality,” they said.

Faculty Forward, the union the faculty are petitioning to join, works to counteract the shift toward a more business-oriented model that many universities have adopted in recent years, according to the division’s mission statement. University focus on financial advancement has harmed both faculty and students due to dropping salaries and rising costs, the statement says. The website lists three primary goals, including a demand of $15,000 total of compensation and benefits, per course taught by each professor.

Meiri and Wortis explained that Tufts is not unique in its transition towards a more business-oriented model. After the 2008 recession, many universities began to focus more heavily on managing finances, the two said.

“Many universities have chosen to save money by shifting the burden of teaching to part-time untenured…adjunct faculty members,” Meiri and Wortis said. “Others have increased the cost of enrollment to plug financial holes. University priorities are increasingly being set by financial rather than academic agenda.”

Tufts has been particularly hard hit by the recession, in part because of the small size of Tufts endowment and also due to the way the medical school functions in relation to the rest of the university, they added.

TUSM is financially separate from but affiliated with the Tufts Medical Center (TMC), making TUSM unique from most medical schools in the United States, which generally share some of the income from their affiliated hospitals.

TUSM does not receive any clinical income,” Meiri and Wortis said. “In most of the country clinical income flows from the hospital to the medical school. Without it, TUSM depends on tuition and research to pay its bills. Even philanthropy is limited because patient-related donations flow to the hospital, not to TUSM.

According to the two of them, the university must make difficult decisions regarding funding.

“[The university] has to decide how much, if at all, it wants to spend to support the medical school,” they said. “The university responds by continually pushing the medical school to reduce its expenses, whether by reorganizing or by reducing the cost of faculty salaries.”

Faculty members at many universities have begun to turn to unionization as a potential solution, according to Meiri and Wortis.

“Across the country whenever universities are being managed as corporations rather than collegial institutions faculty are increasingly looking towards unionization as a means to re-assert the original model of shared decision-making,” they said.


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