KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
West Virginia University is just one of countless institutions across the US currently undergoing a radical, destructive transformation at the hands of unaccountable administrators and politically appointed decision makers. Unlike many of those institutions though, our fight at WVU has become national news. Our struggle has drawn the attention and support of alumni, parents, community groups, labor leaders, local and national politicians, and more. President Gordon Gee, other administrators, and members of the Board of Governors have faced far more personal scrutiny and derision than they ever anticipated when this process began. Why is WVU different? Because West Virginia campus workers are organized!
The forces we are up against are formidable, and the laws protecting us are inadequate, but in fighting for our jobs, our students, and the future of higher education, we are proudly continuing a history of fierce worker struggles in West Virginia.
WHAT IS A UNION?
A union is fundamentally just a group of workers who have united to achieve common goals.
HOW DO UNIONS WIN CHANGE?
The power of a union comes from:
- Numbers. The more workers are united, the stronger a union will be.
- Organization. Having strong organizational structures connecting workers across departments, classifications, and locations facilitates information sharing, democratic decision making, and powerful collective actions.
- Independence. Unions are not controlled by employers. Only union members can choose leaders, set priorities, decide when and how to take action, and set terms for meeting and discussing issues with the administration. The employer does not have access to membership information, union resources, or communication platforms.
- Labor power. Recognition of workers’ vital role in the day to day functioning of their institution.
- Strategic organizing. By identifying decision makers, potential allies, points of strength and weakness, and opportunities for collective action, unions have been able to successfully take on their employers and even their states.
- Collective action. Collective action combines workers’ numbers, organization, strategy, and power in the workplace to create pressure on decision makers to meet workers’ demands.
DO WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE A UNION AT WVU?
YES! As campus workers in the US—domestic or international—we have the legal right to organize with our coworkers. At the most fundamental level, our constitutional freedom of speech and freedom of association protect our right to join or support a union, and to collectively advocate for improvements in our working conditions.
COLLECTIVE BARGAINING RIGHTS
Public university workers in West Virginia do not have collective bargaining rights.
- What is collective bargaining? Collective bargaining is the process by which unionized workers negotiate a mutually binding contract with their employer that addresses things like wages, hours, and benefits.
- Why don’t we have that right here? Collective bargaining is not illegal for public sector workers in West Virginia, but there also isn’t any legislation saying that employers are required to bargain with a union that has been formed, or creating a process (like a union election) for obtaining official recognition.
- What can we do without collective bargaining rights? We can organize! Collective bargaining rights are helpful, but they are no replacement for a powerful union. No union can win a good contract without a large, active, and democratic membership that the employer knows is willing to take action to get what they want. With that same kind of power, we can create pressure for change that will make our employer wish they were at the bargaining table!
RIGHT TO WORK
“Right to work” refers to a collection of anti-union laws passed in states across the country. These laws claim to grant employees who already have a union in their workplace “freedom of choice” by giving them the option to not become a member of their union. However, it was already illegal to force anyone to join a union. What right-to-work actually does is force unions to provide the benefits of union membership to workers who choose not to join or pay their fair share in dues. The goal of right-to-work laws is to drain unions of resources until workers can no longer effectively advocate for change or defend their interests.
While right-to-work laws do make it more difficult to sustain existing unions, they do not prevent us from joining or forming a new union. Contrary to common belief, being in a right-to-work state does not make it easier for our employer to retaliate against us for supporting unions, or prevent us from winning change through collective action.
What kinds of actions can we participate in?
- Activities protected under the “Free Expression on Campus” provisions of the West Virginia code include, but are not limited to, “any lawful verbal and nonverbal speech. This may include lawful and protected forms of peaceful assembly, protests, speeches and guest speakers, distribution of literature, carrying signs, and circulating petitions.”
- Protests, specifically “…lawful protests in the outdoor areas of campus generally accessible to the members of the public (except during times when those areas have been reserved in advance for other events), or minor, brief, or fleeting nonviolent disruptions of events that are isolated and short in duration.”
- The creation of “Free Speech Zones” by the university is not allowed. “The outdoor areas of campuses of state institutions of higher education shall be considered public forums for the campus community, and state institutions of higher education shall not limit free speech by creating “free speech zones” or other designated areas of campus outside of which expressive activities are prohibited.”
What kinds of actions are prohibited?
- Public sector strikes are illegal in West Virginia (but this recent law is under the public K-12 schools section of the West Virginia code and may only apply to those workers).
- Activity that is considered significantly disruptive, including actions that “significantly hinders another person’s or group’s expressive activity, prevents the communication of the message, prevents the transaction of the business of a lawful meeting, gathering, or procession, or interferes with or prevents the operations and functions of a state institution of higher education by:
- Engaging in fighting, violent, or other unlawful behavior;
- Physically blocking or using threats of violence to prevent any person from attending, listening to, viewing, or otherwise participating in an expressive activity;
- Using sound to drown out or muffle expressive activity; or
- Violating a state institution of higher education’s reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.”
THE LAW IS A SHIELD, NOT A SWORD.
It is an unfortunate fact that the law has rarely been on the side of workers in the United States. Every protection that we have as workers was ultimately won through struggle in streets and workplaces, not courtrooms.
The Academic Transformation program currently being rolled out at WVU is enormously destructive, but is not necessarily illegal. The WVU administration and Board of Governors have been aggressive in forcing through rule changes and using weaknesses in laws protecting higher education in order to push through their austerity agenda. While we will explore every option to fight these disasterous cuts, the strongest tools available to us are collective action, not litigation.
If you have a legal background, or are interested in helping to exploring legal avenues for challenging the Academic Transformation policy, please contact us.
EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION
Under the EEOC, workers have a right to:
- Receive equal pay for equal work.
- Not be harassed or discriminated against (treated less favorably) because of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, or gender identity), national origin, disability, age (40 or older), or genetic information (including family medical history).
- Receive reasonable accommodations (changes to the way things are normally done at work) that are needed because of their medical condition or religious beliefs , if required by law.
- Expect confidentiality of any medical information or genetic information that they share with their employer.
- Report discrimination, participate in a discrimination investigation or lawsuit, or oppose discrimination (for example, threaten to file a discrimination complaint), without being retaliated against (punished) for doing so.
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE
International employees and student workers in higher education have all of the same rights to join and form unions, and advocate for improved working conditions, as their domestic colleagues. It is illegal for your employer or supervisor to threaten your immigration status for participation in legal union activities. International workers have been active members and elected leaders in countless college and university unions for decades without negative impacts on their immigration status or careers. For more information about your rights as an international worker, read the documents shared below.
This document from the US Department of State outlines the labor rights of international workers in the US, including public and private colleges and universities.
This document from the NLRB outlines the rights of international workers in the private sector, including private non- and for-profit colleges and universities.