Right to Work for Less

Posted on Moscow’s Vision2020 on January 30, 2006

Note: Phil is an active Republican in Latah County and Jeff is a UI business professor. 

Dear Phil and Jeff:

I’m not sure that I want to accept compliments for my union work from two guys who support “right-to-work (for less),” the most vicious and cynical anti-labor movement in American history.

If the right-to-work movement was actually made up of rank-and-file workers with funds from laboring men and women, then they would have more credibility.  But no, this is a DC lobbying outfit, funded by the likes of Coors beer, that sets up temporary offices in target states and launch a gross misinformation campaign that plays their misleading motto “right-to-work” for all its worth.  (Just as misleading as “right to life” and just as effective.) Most blue states have not fallen for their propaganda, but a majority of Idahoans proved to be a willing victims.

My union experience and knowledge have all come from the public sector where employees, when given the right to choose a union, have voted for union representation. Standard practice there has been an “agency shop,” where employees don’t have to join the union, but they are required to pay an “agency fee,” which what a judge or labor board determines is cost of collective bargaining and its benefits.  I don’t know why this has not been proposed in the private sector, where it would have more success in keeping the beer soaked right-to-work-for-less hounds at bay.

As Phil and Jeff complimented me for my union work, I felt like a dachshund, chained and muzzled, being petted on the head: “Nice union doggy.  Aren’t you happy with the rights and freedom that we Republicans have given you?”

Yes, the AFT in Idaho has done well, but we have succeeded despite major handicaps. In higher education we have no official status because Idaho does not allow campus elections that, if we won, would lead to collective bargaining. It wasn’t until the Hoover presidency, 22 years after our founding in 1973, that we ever received answers to our communications and acknowledgment for our salary surveys.  Democrat John Evans was the last Idaho governor to answer my requests and letters. In September 2004, I wrote a long letter to Dirk Kempthrone about the abuse of part-time faculty, but I have yet to receive a reply.  His attorneys most likely advised him that he should not communicate with an unofficial union.

Instead of formal grievance procedures and binding arbitration, we were forced into long and costly legal battles to bring justice for aggrieved faculty.  And instead of negotiating a salary scale that would have taken us to the top of our peers, we are still buried at the bottom of the heap destined never to catch up.  Even Jeff’s colleagues in business would be happy with the salaries our step system would have given them.

Nick Gier chained and muzzled, what a joke, some veteran UI faculty would charge!  OK, not chained and muzzled, but fired and long gone from Moscow.  That’s exactly what ISU administrators tried to do to Tom Hale, but they lost dearly because he was tenured.  Jeff, you are correct that academic tenure was created in 1940 by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to protect the freedom of professors to teach and research any controversial topics they desired.  It was not accepted widely enough in the 1950s to protect many faculty from the effects of McCarthyism.

These days faculty are rarely attacked from the outside; rather, they are more and more confronted with administrators, constantly pressed by budget constraints, who sometimes dismiss faculty with no good reason. For example, several years ago, the UI eliminated the College of Mines by moving the geology department to the new College of Science and firing all faculty in geological and mining engineering.  According to UI policy, the nontenured faculty could be let go at the end of the year, but all reasonable means were to be taken to reassign the tenured faculty.  The Dean of Engineering, who has now been fired for gross incompetence, said that he had no use for the three faculty, even though there were vacancies in his college, and that, as specialized civil and mechanical engineers, they could teach basic engineering classes. The AFT and AAUP intervened and fortunately these fine teachers and researchers are still on the UI payroll.

So I have a hypothetical for you, Jeff, and it parallels the case that we just settled for the two tenured NIC faculty in computer education.  Let us say that your new dean decides, by some odd calculation of the likes we saw at NIC, that the UI accounting department has too many faculty.  He then decides that Professor Harkins has to go.  At NIC untenured faculty in computer education were kept on because they were teaching in “high demand” areas.

Academic freedom is not an issue here; it is simply an unjust firing, and tenure gives you a property right to your job that cannot be taken away except by due process of law.  But wait, you do not believe that tenure should be used as job security.  So I guess you would waive your tenure rights in this regard and say “Go ahead, good, fine dean, you have the right to fire me at will, and the Idaho Supreme Court has ruled that you don’t have to give me a good reason or any reason at all.”

AFT membership is not required to receive moral and financial help, so our AFT Grievance Committee would be standing by to help Jeff defend his job, and you  can bet that, in lieu of protections of a union contract, we will always use the legal protections of tenure to defend any Idaho teacher from unjust dismissal.  It would be negligence of the highest order not to. In the 33 years that I have handled grievances, I know of only one tenured professor that should have been fired for professional incompetence.  (The AFT was not involved.) The UI administration lost its nerve and chose not to exercise its prerogatives in this case.

Jeff and Phil believe in the “right to choose,” but that does not seem to include the right to choose a union of your choice in a democratic election in your workplace.  The Republican governor of Indiana just revoked the right of public employees in his state to have an official union, and Bush made sure that the 100,000 employees of the Homeland Security do not have the right to choose a union of their choice. So, Phil and Jeff, let me see you tell your Republican friends in Boise to support collective bargaining for public employees.  Self-determination at all levels our lives is the American way, and the natural imbalance of management and labor requires enabling legislation for that freedom of self-determination to take place. 

Let me conclude an already excessive long post by quoting Jeff’s compliment: “Thanks for all your help in assisting those whose employment status was interrupted by application of a flawed or manipulated termination process.” You are welcome, Jeff, but this is what I heard from about 70 other UI faculty members I visited just before Christmas.  Most of them were much more positive about unions than you, but only nine of them joined AFT. I’m sorry I didn’t knock on your door, Jeff, but somehow I didn’t think you would have been a good prospect.

Just before my dear mother died at Moscow Care Center in 1997, she reminded me of how she disapproved of my cohabitation arrangements with my partner.  As the best wit of the family, she used an old saying: “Why buy a cow when the milk is free?”  Very few Idaho faculty are paying for services that even Jeff admits have benefited all Idaho faculty.  That is why I believe in both the right to work and the right to require an agency fee for union services rendered.

Yours for a free, secure, and safe workplace,

Nick Gier, President, Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO