Union Organizing at Bates

Dear Colleagues,

I write to address issues and questions that have arisen in the context of union organizing efforts at Bates and to outline how the college intends to support all employees as we move through the process. 

As you may know, early last week, Bates received notice from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that the Maine Service Employees Association, part of the Service Employees International Union, had filed a petition on behalf of non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, instructors, and lecturers at Bates to be represented by the union for purposes of collective bargaining. On Friday, we were informed by the same union that they had filed a second petition expanding the group desiring representation. In addition to the initial faculty group, the union seeks to represent all staff at Bates who are not managers, tenured or tenure-track faculty, confidential employees, guards, or supervisors.

The Election, Related Rights, and Informed Choice

The union petitions have initiated a legal process that will likely lead to an election in the coming weeks. The election will be run by the National Labor Relations Board, and it will be conducted by secret ballot. Just like a political election, the outcome will be determined by a majority of those who actually vote, not by those eligible to vote. Prior to the election, the NLRB will determine whether the various employees the union is seeking to represent belong in the same group and whether all eligible employees will vote in a single election. At this point, it is not clear exactly who will be eligible to vote and who will not be eligible. We will keep you posted as the union petition is processed by the NLRB. 

As we move forward, I want to assure you that Bates will protect the rights of all eligible employees to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to be exclusively represented by this union. Every employee has the right to support or not support the union and to express their point of view. We will not tolerate or engage in interference with these rights, and we will respect the outcome of the election, whichever way it goes. 

The college will not, however, remain silent during this critical period, as has been urged by some faculty and other members of the community. No one can make an informed choice if they hear only one side of a story. That is simply not how deliberative processes or democratic elections work, particularly at an educational institution. 

We stand as a college for free inquiry and open discourse, and we trust our employees, as we trust our students, to think for themselves, to ask questions, to discuss issues, and to make decisions based on complete and accurate information. If the way to ensure a fair and democratic election were to suggest that the college say nothing, the law would not allow employers to say anything during a union campaign. Instead, the National Labor Relations Act specifically allows both employers and employees to express views, arguments, and opinions on the topic of unionization (Section 8.d of the Act).

This election will likely be one of the most consequential decisions that any of our employees will ever make in their workplace, and they deserve to understand the process of unionization and its consequences, what it can do and what it cannot do for them. They deserve to hear all sides, to think for themselves, and to sort out the information that will help them decide whether or not they want a third party coming to the college to represent them.

Having an outside labor organization become the exclusive bargaining representative for many if not most of our employees would have long-term effects for both employees and the college. On a practical level, this is a decision that is made only once. Unions do not stand for reelection. Employees do not get to vote every year on whether to keep the union. Rather, once a union is in place, it stays in place, except in cases where the union is “decertified,” which happens very rarely. This is why it is so critical for everyone to be informed about this process.

Over the next several weeks, we will share information with the Bates community about how union representation works. We will also answer questions that may be on the minds of employees who are trying to decide how they wish to vote or on the minds of faculty and staff who are trying to understand how union representation could affect the culture, hiring, supervising, or operations within their departments or the college as a whole.

The college has compiled some basic information and frequently asked questions for individuals wishing to learn more. We will post additional information as we go along.

Important Context

We are coming off a particularly difficult period with the pandemic, which has placed significant burdens on many employees and created a sense of vulnerability and risk for many members of our community. Inevitably, the particular challenges of the past 18 months came on top of other issues that are deeper and longer standing.

We have been working on these structural and cultural issues over a period of years, and we have made progress that has benefited both employees and the students we serve. Some examples include: 

  • Systematic increases in compensation and wages for hourly employees, beginning in 2016; 
  • Greater opportunities for professional development and internal promotion across many departments in the college; 
  • Progress on equity and inclusion in curriculum and pedagogy, hiring and mentoring practices for faculty, and racial equity education and training for staff; 
  • Greater flexibility in working arrangements, allowing individuals to work remotely where it is consistent with their job duties and in agreement with their managers; and 
  • Positive changes to the evaluation process and contract terms for Senior Lecturers approved by the faculty last year. 

These changes have been possible because faculty and staff leaders, who know their employees and understand the work of their individual departments, have had the flexibility to recognize good ideas and work directly with the individuals on their teams to put them into action. Engaging the talents of our staff in new ways was a huge factor in enabling us to manage through the pandemic so successfully.

Unlike many colleges and universities across the United States, Bates did not furlough or lay off a single employee because of the pandemic. Moreover, when we succeeded in coming through the pandemic with our finances intact, thanks to the hard work of everyone on this campus, our first priority was to restore retirement benefits in full for all employees and to resume annual raises in compensation.

We have our challenges, undeniably, and we have important work to do as an institution. But Bates thrives because of the effort and commitment of every member of our community. Those who choose to work here make important, inspired contributions for the good of the college every day. And each one of these contributions makes us better and stronger. 

As we make our way through the next several weeks, I hope that we will all take advantage of this moment to listen and learn from each other on these issues of vital importance to each of us and to the college as a whole.