MARQUETTE - As Michigan continues to emerge from the Great Recession, union members at Northern Michigan University are hoping that they'll be remembered as they negotiate new contracts with NMU's administration.
Members of all five NMU unions were represented at a labor rally held on campus in the academic mall Wednesday as they sought to inform students and community members about the negotiations currently under way between NMU's chapter of the American Association of University Professors and United Auto Workers 1950, which represents technical office professionals.
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. passers-by were given information on what unions had accomplished in the way of workers' rights and were asked to sign a petition that would add an initiative to the November general election ballot that supports union collective bargaining rights in the state.
Northern Michigan University Professor Ron Sundell, who is also president of NMU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, stands behind the AAUP’s information table during a labor rally Wednesday in NMU’s academic mall. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
Handmade signs are displayed during a labor rally which featured all five unions from NMU. At least two unions are currently undergoing contract negotiations with the university’s administration. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
The AAUP's current contract expires June 30 and UAW Local 1950 has been working without a contract for close to one full year.
Michelle Kimball, senior library analyst at the Learning Resources Center and president of UAW Local 1950, said her union has already held several informational pickets on campus, but was glad to see the support from other local unions, adding that she hopes to see more students involved as well.
"Students are traditionally the type of people who do sit-in demonstrations and who organize demonstrations of other natures. They participate in stuff," Kimball said. "They're active and it's because they're idealistic at that age. They haven't been beaten down by administration."
Kimball said she believes the state legislature and the private sector are leveling attacks on the middle class and that if students don't get involved now, they may regret it once they graduate.
"While it might not affect them now, when they're out there job hunting and there are no jobs with decent benefits, now is the time to sign the petitions. Now is the time to write the letters. There's still a chance we can change what's happening," Kimball said. "This is an educational opportunity on a different level, but one that is really going to affect them once they graduate. I feel for them, I really do."
NMU-AAUP President Ron Sundell said now that the state's economy is beginning to turn around, faculty and staff at Northern will be looking to the university's administration to provide better wages and build a better benefit package.
"As the economy starts to heat up again, and as things get better, if they don't treat their employees, and not just the faculty but the staff, by giving them an appropriate contract, it's not going to bode well for the quality of education here on campus," Ron Sundell said. "(NMU) President (Les) Wong, just a month ago at an academic senate meeting, said the financial crisis was over. Well, that tells us something right there."
During a university forum held April 19, Wong began his speech by lauding the importance of collective bargaining rights. He also outlined several major construction projects that could potentially occur throughout the summer months.
Sundell said he believes the administration should focus more on the people at the university and less on the buildings.
"Buildings are fine. Certainly good classrooms and good facilities are necessary, but also what you need for that is to have good quality faculty and support staff to make those buildings work," Sundell said. "A building is just a building unless it's housed with people and it's there for students."
He said he worries that NMU will have a difficult time retaining its current faculty and staff and attracting new ones without offering a better contract.
"There's indicators that the economy is turning around. I'm concerned that if we don't, I'm real concerned about retaining our younger faculty and attracting new faculty," Sundell added. "We need to stay competitive. It's critical to stay competitive."
NMU Communications and Marketing Director Cindy Paavola said the administration could not comment on current negotiations with its unions.
"We really feel that the university and the unions have a process," Paavola said. "We don't negotiate in public. We don't do it through the media. We do it at the negotiation table."
Members from the Marquette County Labor Council were on hand, handing out frisbees that said "Stop the Attacks! Support the working class" and collecting signatures for their petition.
A total of 345,000 signatures are needed to get the initiative on the ballot, but the council's president said he is hoping for many more than that.
"We're shooting to collect one million signatures," Mike Thibault said. "It will send a message of how serious we are about the initiative."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.