Faculty unions say strike ban for Ohio college employees would create power imbalance

Sheridan Hendrix
The Columbus Dispatch

While legislators say a proposed higher education bill that could prohibit faculty from striking during contract negotiations is about fairness, union members say the result would be the exact opposite.

Senate Bill 83, also known as the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, would overhaul campus life at Ohio’s 14 public universities and 23 community colleges. Included in a long list of possible changes is a plan to bar campus employees from striking when negotiating their contracts with administration.

The bill would add faculty to the list of public employees who aren’t allowed to strike in Ohio, which includes first responders and corrections officers.

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Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee Chair Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, told The Dispatch last week that this facet of the bill is about being fair to students.

“Students pay for their instruction upfront at the beginning of a semester,” Cirino said. “That’s a contract between the student and the state, and nothing should stand in the way of those students getting the instruction they paid for.”

But faculty at those unions say the bill would only further the chasm between employees and administrators, creating inequity and a power imbalance on campus.

“The right to strike is paramount,” said Tom Shanahan, a legal studies professor at Columbus State Community College and immediate past president of the Columbus State Educators Association.

Shanahan, who led Columbus State’s faculty union for six years, said taking away a union’s right to strike removes one of the biggest tools it has during the bargaining process.

“Taking away strikes takes away any leverage faculty have and gives all the leverage to the administration,” Shanahan said.

“If there is no right to strike, it incentivizes administrators to dig in their heels,” he said. “What incentive do they have to negotiate in good faith?”

David Jackson, president of Bowling Green State University’s faculty union and a political science professor, said SB 83 is a “comprehensive radical restructuring of higher education in one bill.” But, he said, it’s also far reaching for the wrong reasons.

“It’s a classic solution in search of a problem,” Jackson said.

Strikes involving campus faculty have been on the rise nationwide, with work stoppages hitting a 20-year peak in 2022, according to Bloomberg Law. In Ohio, though, faculty strikes are more rare.

Faculty at Wright State University, near Dayton, went on strike for about three weeks in January 2019 over health care and pay disputes. And Youngstown State University workers went on strike in 2020 over pay disputes.

At Bowling Green, Jackson said the union’s past two contract negotiations went well, using interest-based bargaining. While striking is not an oft-used tool among Ohio faculty unions, it’s still a vital one to have when mediation fails, he said.

“The autonomy we’ve been given thus far has been working. We should be allowed to work without being micromanaged by the state,” Jackson said.

Steve Mockabee, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and communications and political engagement chair of UC’s American Association of University Professors chapter, said the university’s faculty union is “vehemently opposed” to SB 83’s prohibition of striking.

“The right to strike is critical to the balancing of economic power between workers and employers — especially those as large as many of Ohio’s public universities, which are often the largest employers in their base cities,” Mockabee said. “Without the leverage that the possibility of a strike provides, collective bargaining is reduced to collective begging.”

Mockabee said the proposal eliminates “a fundamental right of workers, and there is no reason to think they will stop with college employees.” He expects that SB 83 will be opposed by union organizers across Ohio.

Even public schools without faculty unions are talking about the proposed ban.

Pranav Jani, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University and president of it’s American Association of University Professors chapter, said SB 83’s strike ban hasn’t deterred faculty from an interest in organizing. Rather, it’s sparked more conversation.

“If anything, it’s gotten more people asking, ‘Why the issue of strike? What about faculty power are they so afraid of?'” Jani said. “They’re showing their cards.”

Sheridan Hendrix is a higher education reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. Sign up for her Mobile Newsroom newsletter here and Extra Credit, her education newsletter, here.