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University of Kansas faculty, academic staff prepare for vote on forming collective bargaining unit

By: - November 15, 2022 10:40 am
University of Kansas faculty and academic staff on the Lawrence and Johnson County campuses are working to organize a union to press for better working conditions and a stronger academic environment for students. Two other universities in the Kansas Board of Regents system have faculty unions. (Lily O'Shea Becker for Kansas Reflector)

University of Kansas faculty and academic staff on the Lawrence and Johnson County campuses are working to organize a union to press for better working conditions and a stronger academic environment for students. Two other universities in the Kansas Board of Regents system have faculty unions. (Lily O’Shea Becker for Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Faculty and academic staff at the University of Kansas are organizing ahead of a secret-ballot vote on formation of a collective bargaining unit to represent 1,500 people on the main campus in Lawrence and a satellite campus in Johnson County.

The union would be known as the United Academics of the University of Kansas and be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors.

One factor contributing to the movement at KU was approval by the Kansas Board of Regents of an expedited process enabling the six public universities in the system for dismissal of tenured faculty and other academic employees.

KU officials declined to make use of the policy, but Emporia State University relied on it to terminate 33 employees.

“KU has long enjoyed high rankings for academics and recognition as a premier research university, but that status is at risk,” said Lisa-Marie Wright, an associate teaching professor in the sociology department. “Faculty and academic staff need a voice in decisions, especially when the student experience is at stake.”

Berl Oakley, a distinguished professor in molecular biosciences, said a labor union would strive to “retain outstanding teachers and researchers that provide the quality of education our students deserve.”

The KU union would represent full-time and part-time tenured and non-tenured-track faculty; teaching, research, clinical and online professors; lecturers; curators; librarians; scientists who conduct grant-funded research and other categories of faculty and academic staff. Graduate teaching assistants at KU unionized in the mid-1990s after winning a dispute about whether they were state employees.

Issues of concern among the KU faculty organizers included the policy on firing tenured faculty as well as reliance on short-term contracts for teaching faculty, stagnant wages and a decline in state funding of the university.

In Kansas, faculty unions exist at Pittsburg State University, Fort Hays State University and Johnson County Community College.

More than 300,000 faculty and staff at universities across the country belong to unions affiliated with AFT and AAUP.

In California on Monday, thousands of teaching assistants, researchers and other workers in the University of California system went on strike to amplify demands for pay increases. The students and employees involved are represented by the United Automobile Workers.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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