Sunday, April 15, 2012

YSU's Union History

As a YSU faculty member and YSU-OEA officer, I am, of course, not an objective bystander when it comes to the union.  But my interest in its history is not just about my investment in its work.  When John Russo and I wrote Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, we included the story of the founding of the faculty union, because it reflected the strong connection many people in this community made between work and unions.  We believed that it wasn't at all accidental that Tom Shipka, the son of local labor leader Al Shipka, was the lead organizer of the faculty union.  As Tom explains in our interview, his father didn't push him to become a labor organizer.  He didn't need to.  Tom understood not only how a union could benefit workers -- even professors -- but also how to organize.  He knew that organizing is about conversations with people about their experiences and concerns.  And he knew that in order to succeed, a faculty union would need community support.  The leaders of the YSU-OEA today know that we have to keep doing both kinds of work: talking with members and working with the community. 

What I appreciate most about Tom's work, and about his perspective on the union, is his explanation of how the faculty union helped make YSU a better university.  Improving the quality of the faculty, providing support to allow the faculty to conduct the research that keeps them engaged with their fields and able to bring the latest ideas into the classroom, practices like teaching evaluations and well-defined processes for evaluation by department chairs -- all of these are elements of the union contract that help YSU maintain a high-quality, highly-productive faculty.  If you read the local paper, all you hear about is what faculty get paid, but the union is about so much more. 

Talking with Tom also reminded me of how important administrative support is.  Tom built an incredibly productive department -- not just in terms of scholarship but also in terms of great teaching and significant contributions to the university and local community.  He understood that the most important thing an academic administrator can do is try to create conditions that encourage faculty to do their best work. 

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