Alibi V.28 No.13 • March 28-April 3, 2019 

On Assignment

UNM Faculty Organizing

Unions give workers a needed voice

Matias Fontenla
Matias Fontenla, Associate Professor of Economics, UNM
August March

The University of New Mexico has always been of special interest to the editorial board at Weekly Alibi. As the official flagship secondary education institution here in The Land of Enchantment, we sincerely believe that the happenings and culture on campus are a reflection of what’s going on in the greater metropolitan area.

We’ve touched on some coverage of the sports programs, both their problems and their successes. We followed along with the rest of the city as the stadiums were renamed, as football coaches came and went, as the PIT was modernized and as the athletic department struggled with the questionable actions of former athletic director Paul Krebs.

But sports isn’t the only beat we’ve covered with regard to Loboland.

We also reported on instances when individuals at the university acted outside of ethical bounds that are foundational to UNM. We reacted with glee at the appointment of a new university president, Garnett Stokes, and looked forward to a movement for the students, faculty and administration of an institution that has long suffered from underfunding and shortsighted management at the expense of their intellectual and academic culture.

So we were surprised to hear that the relatively new university administration had balked when confronted with the latest attempt to right UNM’s ship of state. When certain faculty members decided to move forward with a plan to unionize, the administration—through the University General Counsel and at the behest of Stokes—attempted to quash labor organizing efforts.

In order to get a better idea of what’s at stake here, Weekly Alibi met with associate professor Matías Fontenla, one of the professors responsible for organizing his cohorts and calling for union representation. Here’s a transcript of that conversation.

Weekly Alibi: Matías, what’s happening at UNM?

Matias Fontenla: I’ve been at UNM for 12 years. I’m an associate professor in the Economics Department. Ever since I’ve been at UNM, and in my personal history of UNM, faculty don’t have a voice. Faculty are left behind; faculty are the last ones to be heard.

Even though the University supposedly has that “shared governance” idea in play?

Yes. So, I’m also a senator; I’m on the faculty senate. We do have three main bodies [of representation] for the faculty. We have the faculty senate, the committee on governance and the freedom and tenure committee. Those three bodies are strictly advisory. We also have a faculty handbook, but the truth is that the regents have not listened to us. We only have an advisory role to begin with.

Did any of that change with the coming of the new president, Garnett Stokes?

No. It hasn’t because, really, it’s the regents that have the power.

There’re going to be five new regents; do you seen any potential progress there?

There are five new regents. The regents are personally selected by the governor, so for the past eight years we had a set of regents that were on the side of Governor Martinez. Now we have a new set of regents. We’re excited, we’re hopeful about them. Hopefully they’re going to be better for the university. Still, we’ve been organizing, and organizing just doesn’t happen out of the blue. We organize because we feel we aren’t being heard, because we feel like we haven’t gotten salary adjustments. We feel like good faculty leave and they are not retained by UNM. We are organizing because we feel, especially during the past eight years, that we have not been heard by the administration.

What are you doing to organize?

Initially, we contacted the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and they are helping us with staff and to organize [at UNM].

How’s that going?

We already did all that work. We have clearly over 50 percent of [UNM] faculty that have signed on, in favor of organizing a union. On February 13, we filed a petition with the UNM labor board, saying that we wanted to unionize, because we have a clear majority of faculty in favor of that.

I hear that petition was not well received by the University.

The university responded saying they need more time. And then they hired a union-busting law firm, a firm that’s famous for anti-union activities.

One of your colleagues sent me the name of that firm, it’s called the Jackson Lewis firm. They advertise themselves as “a union-busting law firm.”

Exactly.

And the University hired these guys to thwart your plans?

President Stokes hired the firm. When we saw that, we saw the writing on the wall; they were going to fight our efforts.

Why would the university be against faculty organizing and forming a labor union?

For President Stokes, it kind of makes sense. She doesn’t want to share power.

Do you feel like college faculty in general are getting marginalized like that?

Yes, perhaps—and over time—there’s more and more movement towards bloating administrations.

So as a result, there are less full-time faculty, fewer tenured faculty?

That’s true and that’s been a movement that’s probably been noticeable at UNM. We’re a poor university in a poor state, so there’s never enough money.

Does that lack of money result in control issues? Do the people in authority want more authority because they can’t afford anything else?

I’m not sure if that’s part of the problem. The issue is that we’re always fighting with budgets, especially during the last eight years. Part of this has to do with the legislature, the money that’s allocated for the university, meaning less money or not enough money and of course no money to account for inflation. We’ve been getting less money. Another problem we’ve seen over the past few years is that attendance has dropped. As a consequence we have less revenue from tuition.

Is there a problem with providing faculty a living wage?

Yes. Over time, if salaries are not adjusted for inflation, if you don’t get a cost of living adjustment then, in real terms, your salary is falling. If inflation is running at three percent and you don’t get a three percent wage increase, then you can’t keep up with the rest of the economy. That has been happening at UNM.

What are the consequences?

People suffer, morale is low among faculty and people leave. We are, compared to our peers in study after study, making way less than faculty at other, similar institutions.

We’ve heard over and over that because of the economy, the best and the brightest leave the state. Is that a problem at the university?

Yes. We don’t have enough money to make [substantive] counter-offers.

How does that affect the mission of the university?

Well, a high quality faculty is fundamental for a high quality of education to take place. The mission of the university is to serve New Mexico and New Mexicans through education and research. To serve the community. If our best and brightest leave, the quality of the mission suffers.

That brings me to the main question. How is organizing, forming a union going to forestall or even ameliorate those problems?

Unions have been very effective at accessing pots of money to engage, retain and generally promote faculty. When you have a union, they bargain for funding by addressing issues of inequity. If somebody, if for example females are making less than males and they have similar CVs, then they can help adjust salaries so that all is equitable. If somebody is being recruited by another university, they can help match an offer. Such efforts are all aimed at retaining quality people, creating equity at the university and making faculty feel happier, more empowered. As a consequence of that, the university is going to function better. The mission of the university is going to be easier to implement.

Would having a union provide a better liaison to the legislature, the regents and the president?

More than anything, the union focuses on labor issues. But at the same time, whatever work the faculty senate does, whatever work the other advisory bodies work on, is supported by the union. If the faculty senate makes certain rules, the union can then make them part of the collective bargaining agreement. Then the law’s on our side. They can’t just unilaterally make decisions that affect people’s lives. Right now, as it is, we have no say.

What’s the next step?

So the university responded through their lawyers, through the University Counsel. Basically they said they don’t respect our efforts to unionize. They threw a whole array of crazy, ludicrous things at us. They said things like part-time people aren’t faculty, people at branch campuses are not really part of your faculty. Lecturers are not faculty. That’s not going to stick. Those are just delaying tactics. We want a vote this semester. We want all 1600 faculty to vote on the matter. But they’re delaying things, trying to test our resolve. They may even use real union-busting techniques like starting a disinformation campaign to stop us. If we win, the administration would have to negotiate with the faculty in good faith. We are not going away.