Last spring, 12 faculty members from the University of Arizona drafted a letter to President Dr. Robert C. Robbins and senior leadership after the university’s furlough plan came out in late April following the university’s shutdown due to COVID-19. The letter accumulated over 2,000 signatures in support.
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Only five months later, those 12 faculty members have now expanded to over 700 members of the Coalition for Academic Justice at UArizona and their newly formed union. This rapid growth and support can probably be accredited to the attractiveness in what the coalition stands for and what they hope to accomplish.
“The coalition’s mission is to create a better university, a more compassionate university, one that respects shared governance and transparency for all students, faculty and staff,” said founding member of CAJUA and faculty member in the School of Journalism, Celeste González de Bustamante, who has been at the UA for over two decades.
The coalition began with the letter against the furlough plan, but members quickly realized that was not just the only issue that members of the UA community were facing.
According to González de Bustamante, CAJUA was formed in late April, but continued to take action when the reentry plan was announced, which caused widespread concern among faculty, staff and students alike. These were the two driving issues for the coalition over the summer, then adding another point of action when Robbins announced the disputable acquisition of Ashford University for UA Global.
The day after the announcement of the acquisition of Ashford, the coalition announced they would be unionizing, an incredible feat for a group to accomplish in only three months.
“It’s a long time coming at this institution. There have been other efforts in the past to unionize that didn’t happen for various reasons, but now we have the support of hundreds of people that are really upset and there are reasons for unionizing," González de Bustamante said. "It’s a historic moment for us and we’re really excited about this."
The union was formed on Aug. 18, 2020, to further the work done by the coalition. Officially called the United Campus Workers of Arizona, the union is part of the greater national movement of the Communications Workers of America, which has branches at schools including the University of Colorado, the University of Tennessee and the University of Mississippi.
According to UA staff member and steering committee member Miranda Schubert, the union is also available to all three public universities in Arizona. The union will continue to do the work that the coalition does, just with more resources that will aid in the coalition’s various efforts to stand up for university workers.
“We’re considered a wall-to-wall union, meaning that anyone at the university who gets a paycheck can join the union, so even undergraduates can be a part of our union,” González de Bustamante added, “it’s powerful because it means we’re all working together to make a better university.”
Apart from forming the union, other members have focused their energy into specific action groups within the support of the coalition. After the announcement of the reentry plan, many members of the UA community and the greater Tucson community found concern in the plan while still in the middle of a pandemic.
A faculty member began the Health and Safety Action Group, which sought to raise awareness of concern and fight for safer health and safety conditions at the university.
Nick Halsey, current point person for the Health and Safety Action Group, joined the coalition initially because of reentry concerns, then found the action group working to fight for these exact concerns.
“I felt this desperate sense of ‘Oh my god, we have to do something,'” Halsey said.
The action group has done multiple things to empower people involved with the UA as reentry continues to progress each week, beginning with the distribution of a survey asking what specific things members of the UA community wanted to see regarding reentry plans.
From this, they drafted an open letter with over 1,500 signatures to Robbins and Reentry Task Force Director Dr. Richard Carmona, task force director for the UA's campus reentry plan. Along with this, the group has sent multiple other letters to Robbins, Carmona and the Pima County Health Department, spoken to the media and held meetings with public health officials, school officials and neighborhood groups.
The accumulation of the group’s efforts though was the resource page created on the CAJUA website to aid in reporting concerns regarding non-compliance at school and in the workplace.
Once reentry was imminent, the group was most concerned about non-compliance going unchecked at the university, leading to the creation of a resource that lets you report non-compliance. The resource page also has information consolidated from a variety of different places and websites so that people can easily find resources for their specific concerns.
The group is still working towards holding the university accountable in being transparent with the metrics they are using and following Pima County Health Department’s guidelines.
“I do believe the university is being more aggressive in bringing students back and rushing into phase 2 so quickly," Halsey said. "Blaming the students is not getting to the source."
Aligning with the efforts of the Health and Safety Action Group, the Graduate Students Action Group of CAJUA has held multiple die-in protests this semester protesting against reentry, the first being just before school started.
CAJUA has brought in graduate students from the beginning, attracting students because of their connections with real stakeholders and a lessened hierarchy, something that stood out to graduate student and graduate assistant for Native SOAR, Felisia Tagaban, who is now a member of the coalition’s steering committee.
Tagaban mentioned what had attracted her to CAJUA was that of their proactiveness in reaching out to different groups on campus, like Native SOAR, that have felt in the past that their voices were not heard among senior leadership.
The coalition has since integrated representatives from various groups around campus to ensure all voices are being heard. The coalition reached out to Tagaban for her efforts in Native SOAR, finding common ground with her on the ideas of shared governance and accountability among senior leadership.
Most recently, Tagaban spoke at the coalition’s State of the University address on Oct. 6, addressing what she envisioned for the university as a graduate student.
While issues like health, safety and pay of workers are some of the biggest issues the coalition is fighting for, fighting for the voices of unheard members of the community is also an issue they address. The Social Justice Action Group is another focused group among CAJUA that advocates for social justice.
“The group was created because there were issues being brought to us that clearly fit social justice," Schubert said. "It was one of the main reasons I joined the steering committee of the coalition."
The steering committees of the coalition and of the union are loosely the leaders of both. Schubert described the steering committee as the closest thing to officers or board of directors that help focus energy, enacting leadership that’s not hierarchical or top-down, but at the same time will step in if things become unorganized. González de Bustamante, Tagaban and Schubert are all members of the coalition’s steering committee.
Since its foundation, CAJUA has been in communication with university senior leadership, influenced the numerous faculty senate meetings that have taken place since the late spring, started and involved members into the general faculty financial advisory committee within the faculty senate, helped influence the early ending of the furlough plan, formed the Global Campus Senate Advisory Committee within the faculty senate to investigate the Ashford acquisition, created the union and most recently held the State of the University public forum.
“I’ve been at the university in some capacity for the past two decades. … I’m a very strong supporter of this university, I’m not doing this to criticize or create problems for the university, I’m doing this, as many of us are, because we love this university and want it to be a better place and for well into the future, and for young students who are thinking and dreaming about coming to this university,” González de Bustamante said, “We want this to be the best place possible for them, it’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Going forward, the coalition hopes to keep advocating for campus workers and the issues most important to them through their new union, ensuring that shared governance is present in the way it should be at a public institution.
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