After Yearlong Wait, Bates Unionization Vote Fails

After over a year of waiting for the results of a union election that would have brought together non-tenure-track faculty and staff, union organizers heard the outcome. They lost.

March 27, 2023
The wooded Bates College campus.
Bates College
(Bates College)

In January 2022, Bates College employees voted on forming a union that would include non-tenure-track faculty, dining employees, custodians and others.

Their employer, a private liberal arts college in Maine, argued that—if there were going to be any unions—there should be separate bargaining units for faculty and staff. At one point, the college argued there should be four separate bargaining units.

The college’s appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, coupled with a Trump-era NLRB rule, kept the filled-out ballots from being counted. The AFL-CIO union umbrella organization sued the NLRB. Finally, in January 2023, the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned the rule that automatically impounded votes when there was a request for NLRB review.

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On Thursday, union organizers finally learned the result they had been awaiting for over a year.

They had lost, 186 to 254, all the way back in January 2022.

William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, said in an email Friday that “A vote against representation by faculty, other professionals and/or staff in higher education has been rare over the past decade.”

“Our data indicates that the last time a faculty group voted against representation was in 2018,” he wrote. “Vote tallies in 2022 and 2023 in graduate assistant elections have been overwhelming in favor of representation.”

In a vote counted before the main vote, the “professional” employees—the NLRB’s terminology for non-tenure-track faculty and some staff such as librarians and technology consultants—voted 62 to 37 in favor of being in the same union as the nonprofessional employees.

But when it came to the vote on actually forming the unified union, and when the nonprofessional ballots were mixed in, the upstart union lost.

“There’s a lot of different kinds of emotions,” said Keiko Konoeda, a lecturer in Japanese and a union organizer. “Obviously, it’s not what I hoped for, so there is disappointment. There is some level of surprise considering the college administration prolonged this process, and that communicated to us that they felt we had so much traction that they had to be fearful of us.”

Roughly 40 percent of the votes were to unionize, which Konoeda said she feels “is a significant number when we consider that we were trying to do something very unusual. This is our very first attempt at doing at this, and the college has spent quite a lot of money in lawyers, in spreading the message that made everyone fearful of whatever this union is.”

As for apparent opposition from the nonprofessional group, she said, “I think part of it is some of the lowest-wage earners that had more pressure from their supervisors, and also in these [college-sponsored] meetings fearing that if they were supportive of the union they may not have a job.”

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“I think there was probably some group of people that we probably did not reach … reach at all or reach in a way that resonated with them,” Konoeda said. She said she didn’t think she could answer whether organizers will contest the election or try to form a professional employees–only union.

The union planned to affiliate with the Maine Service Employees Association, part of the Service Employees International Union.

The college published answers to frequently asked questions on its website. The answers included the following in response to “The union has promised many things to improve my employment at Bates. Can it guarantee those changes?”

No. The union can promise anything in exchange for your vote, but the SEIU cannot guarantee any of those promises. The law does not require either party to agree to a particular proposal or make any particular concession. Both sides are free to propose changes to existing compensation and working conditions in bargaining.

And this, in response to “Does joining a union guarantee higher wages?”

No. If employees choose the union in the election, the SEIU and Bates would engage in a good-faith effort to negotiate a contract. However, neither party is required to agree to any particular proposal. Thus, while a union will propose wage increases, they are not guaranteed. Indeed, most recently, many union contracts negotiated during the pandemic—including SEIU contracts—had zero increases in pay.

And this, in response to “What happens if there is a strike?”

Faculty in the bargaining unit who withhold their services and engage in a strike would not be paid while on strike and, in a lengthy strike especially, would be subject to replacement so that the courses can continue to be taught.

The college also suggested employees ask three general questions: “How much money will this cost me?” “Where does my money go?” and “Who is representing me?”

In a statement Thursday, Clayton Spencer, the college president, wrote, “I recognize that this process has been long and challenging, and individuals will likely have strong—and differing—reactions to this news. Bates aims to provide all employees with competitive wages, strong benefits and the opportunity to participate in a vibrant campus community. These fundamental values will continue to shape our work together to serve our students and provide a transformative undergraduate education.

“Additionally, during the union organizing campaign, colleagues raised many important issues that merit our attention and action to enhance the employee experience at Bates. Work on these issues has already begun, and I look forward to continuing our progress as a community.”

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