‘I’m pretty tired': Miami University’s painful journey toward a bargaining union

Keith BieryGolick
Cincinnati Enquirer
Cathy Wagner is a full professor with Miami University in the English department. From her home in Northside, she talks about the push to unionize the faculty. It would impact 996 full-time faculty members.

When Cathy Wagner started teaching at Miami University in 2006, she was divorced and looking for somewhere to raise her 2.5-year-old son. She’d previously taught at an online college, where she was paid $900 to teach a class and couldn’t pick her own textbooks. 

Before Miami, this was her life. She wasn’t a cigar-puffing elite in a tweed jacket; she taught on short-term contracts with little job security. And it was awful. 

In 2006, she had several options to continue her teaching career, but Miami provided a track to tenure. She didn’t have family in Ohio, but she liked the small-town feel of Oxford. Even though it would be difficult, she felt like she could make it work. And she did. She brought her son to campus with her. They rode bikes around town. 

Flash forward to a Wednesday afternoon in May, a few weeks after Miami’s graduation. Her son is in college, and Wagner is sitting on the couch in her Northside home. She rubs her hands into her face and runs them through her hair. 

“I’m pretty tired,” she says. 

Wagner, a poet and creative writing professor, is one of the faculty leaders trying to form a bargaining union at Miami University. She calls it the busiest time of her life.

A few weeks ago, she was grading finals and working through the administrative headache that comes with the end of a semester. At the same time, her union efforts entered their most critical juncture yet.

'I believe that we are on the cusp of a new era':Miami University provost resigns as faculty moves toward unionizing

Bargaining unions common at Ohio universities

Of Ohio's 14 other four-year public universities, 10 have collective bargaining agreements with faculty, including the University of Cincinnati

Miami University is Butler County’s largest employer, with about 3,720 full- and part-time employees. Wagner says whatever happens here could have a major impact on other universities such as Ohio State University and Ohio University, neither of which have unions. 

Wagner is the president of Miami’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, an advocacy group with no bargaining power. She’s attended trustee meetings and tried to organize faculty for years. There’s been talk of a union before and even one attempt more than two decades ago, but she never thought she’d be here.   

That changed in 2020.

Todd Edwards is a professor who teaches students who want to be teachers. He graduated from Miami. His wife graduated from Miami. His daughter is currently attending Miami. He’s been a professor here for 16 years. He loves it about as much as anyone can. 

His wife was a Miami professor, too. But while he has tenure, his wife was a visiting assistant professor, the kind of professor without the same job security. The kind of professor more and more universities across the country rely on

Until they don’t.  

Miami University

Jennifer Edwards, her husband said, didn’t know if she was coming back to Miami each year. She was on a short-term contract that for years had been renewed. In the fall of 2020, facing uncertainty during the pandemic, Miami University did not renew the contracts of 309 full-time and part-time faculty.

A university spokeswoman said the university still hired more teaching, clinical professors and lecturers and expects to hire even more this fall.

At 50 years old, Edwards no longer had a job. And she struggled to find another one. She applied to more than 100. 

“It was inhumane,” Todd Edwards said of the university’s actions during the pandemic. “We call it the great purge of 2020.”

Last summer, Jennifer Edwards found a job teaching English as a second language at Hamilton High School. Todd Edwards was never anti-union, but his wife's experience made it real. This made it personal. And when Wagner and others started asking around, he felt a responsibility to help. 

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t,” he said. 

University, union opponents respond: ‘We should not overreact’

Wagner, the creative writing professor, says this is when support started building for a union. She says faculty signed petitions and tried to save those positions during the pandemic. They couldn’t. 

“It was an ugly time,” she says. 

At Bowling Green State University, the most recent public school in Ohio to unionize, Wagner says faculty who weren’t renewed during the pandemic were given severance packages.

At Miami, school officials have said choosing whether to unionize could be the most important decision faculty will ever make. The administration does not support it. The spokeswoman says 80 percent of full-time faculty are on a tenure track.

“Collective bargaining would negatively impact both the student experience and the University’s reputation for excellence and academic rigor,” officials wrote on the university’s website. 

Miami University students graduate from the College of Creative Arts at Yager Stadium on May 14, 2021.

While union advocates say bargaining would increase academic freedom because of more job security and improve the student experience by managing class sizes, the university says a union could stand in the way of individual voices being heard and lead to unnecessary barriers for students and teachers. 

Jim Kiper is a professor in the department of computer science and software engineering at Miami. He is against unionizing.

“The pandemic was a once in a 100-year event,” he wrote in an essay explaining his position. “We should not overreact to it.”

What happens next?

About 20 people attended the first formal meeting about unionizing. Leaders spent almost two years interviewing faculty one-on-one. Wagner spoke to more than 100 professors herself. 

In April, the group began circulating authorization cards expressing support for the union. They need at least 30 percent support to take formal steps with the State Employment Relations Board to move forward. Wagner would not say exactly how many cards her group has collected, but she said it is more than a majority of professors. 

The Faculty Alliance of Miami seeks to represent 996 full-time faculty members. Under Ohio law, part-time employees cannot unionize.

If enough cards are certified, the university can choose to recognize the union or conduct an election. If an election occurs, a majority of full-time faculty would need to vote to approve it. Wagner hopes this might happen before the fall semester. 

But it could be a long process. At the University of Pittsburgh, faculty unionized last fall after five years of campaigning. During that time, the university spent more than $2 million on a “union avoidance” law firm, according to financial disclosure forms reported by the university’s student newspaper

Miami University has retained legal counsel, officials say, to ensure compliance with the law. 

When Wagner first started going to university government meetings, before she got tenure, she was concerned by what she viewed as rubber-stamping and a lack of input from faculty. But she didn’t always speak up.

Tenure changed that. “I didn’t actually realize I was silencing myself until I got that security."