Education

State College of Florida faculty members petition to unionize

SCF trustees end tenure for future faculty

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MANATEE -- A week after the State College of Florida's board of trustees voted to end tenure for any instructors hired after the start of 2016, the majority of the faculty is petitioning the state to allow it to unionize.

The United Faculty of Florida, a union and lobbying group that represents college, university and other post-secondary instructors, announced Wednesday it delivered more than 80 signed cards from SCF instructors to the Florida Public Employees Relations Committee, calling for certification of a collective bargaining unit at the college.

The cards represent about two-thirds of the 120 members of the college's faculty, well in excess of the 30 percent required by Florida state statute.

Courtney Ruffner, a SCF language and literature professor who is one of the leaders of the unionization effort, said the move is intended to compel college trustees and administration to negotiate terms of employment at the college. At present, she said, the board dictates employ

ment policy.

"We're together. We have solidarity," Ruffner said. "If the election takes place and the union is voted in, we're in a position where we can bargain instead of beg."

At a Jan. 26 meeting in which trustees voted 8-0 to cease offering continuing contracts -- commonly known as tenure -- to qualified faculty, Ruffner accused the trustees of being influenced by Gov. Rick Scott to vote for the measure. Several board members denied the accusation.

With the vote, the school became the only member of the state college system to do away with tenure. Twenty-seven other schools still offer it.

Throughout the five-month process during which the trustees moved toward ending tenure for new faculty, relations between the board and faculty deteriorated publicly. In November, 118 faculty members signed onto a vote of "no confidence" in the board.

Several faculty members started the unionization drive shortly after Thanksgiving. They collected the signature cards in three weeks.

Ruffner said the union petition was intended to move forward regardless of how trustees voted on the tenure issue last month.

"For the past few years, the respect for faculty has diminished," she said. "Morale is paltry here."

Marshall Ogletree, the interim executive director of United Faculty of Florida, said it was "exciting stuff" to see the SCF faculty organize in such a short period. If PERC approves the proposed union, it will be the 26th or 27th chapter in United Faculty of Florida.

"Their voice is being stifled by the board of trustees," Ogletree said.

Florida state employees have the constitutional right to collectively bargain, but are prohibited from striking. Ogletree said unionized employees can instead pressure trustees and administration by organizing. They can also bring grievances to enforce salaries and working conditions when necessary. Arbitrators provided through PERC can address those grievances as an outside, impartial party.

SCF administration learned of the union filing Wednesday. It issued a statement that did not indicate support for or opposition to the move.

"SCF Manatee-Sarasota's administration has been made aware of faculty's indication to petition PERC and seek union certification," said Jamie Smith, the college's communications director, after consulting with SCF President Carol Probstfeld. "As an institution of higher education, we respect the right of those involved and impacted to explore and consider all their options of representation and voicing their difference in opinion."

Ed Bailey, chairman of the school's board of trustees, did not immediately respond to the Herald's request for comment.

Faculty have received moral support from United Faculty of Florida. Jennifer Proffitt, the organization's president, addressed SCF trustees in person in October concerning the tenure issue. In a press release Wednesday, she said the board's tenure vote "reflect(s) a complete lack of understanding of higher education's mission."

SCF is one of two public colleges whose faculty is going to the employee relations committee this week with a petition to unionize. The majority of instructors at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland also signed cards this week that are to be delivered to the committee.

United Faculty of Florida stated a union representation election for SCF faculty will be scheduled soon. The employee relations committee will supervise the vote. Fifty percent of the faculty plus one more faculty member is required to approve a unionization vote.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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