Paul Ortiz: Furloughs and the face-to-face mandate for spring 2021

Federal law entitles you to a safe workplace. Your employer must keep your workplace free of known health and safety hazards. You have the right to speak up about hazards without fear of retaliation.
                                         —The United States Department of Labor

It has been quite a semester already, hasn’t it? I recently listened to a corporate media broadcast about education during the global pandemic. One of the so-called experts opined that “the educators and professors are merely doing the jobs they are being paid for. Nothing more.” 

I regret that this was not a call-in program because I would have loved to have given this “expert” a piece of my mind. I talk to our members every day and I know that you are doing incredible and hard work far beyond what you are being paid for. It is a tremendous privilege to be the president of the United Faculty of Florida-UF because I get to see heroes in action: UF counselors working intensively with students dealing with severe trauma. Librarians risking their health to ensure that students, faculty, and staff have the educational resources we need. Lecturers assisting tenured faculty in applying for grants to study racial equality. Chemistry instructors and graduate assistants facilitating F2F labs and tirelessly working to ensure everyone’s safety. Wow!

I also touch bases with many of you during weekends. While some Americans are unwinding and watching “the big game” on Saturday afternoons, our members are writing letters of recommendation for former students, serving as outside referees for tenure and promotion cases at other universities, updating departmental bylaws or talking with an HR rep from a Fortune 500 firm considering hiring a UF grad. 

So much of the work we do goes unobserved or underappreciated by the larger society and we are OK with that. As educators, archivists, program directors, museum curators—among many other fields—most of us see the work we do as a calling. Of course, we need to pay our bills, but to paraphrase presidential candidate Joe Biden, “A job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about dignity.”  

I am so proud of the contributions that our members have made recently on the campus and broader communities. At the start of the fall semester, many of us participated in the student-led movement to ensure that Levin Law School was able to offer two Black Lives Matter-oriented courses safely in a remote environment. Several current members as well as retired colleagues participated in the successful effort to rename J.J. Finley Elementary to Carolyn Beatrice Parker Elementary, thus recognizing a brilliant African American woman scientist from Gainesville who served her nation during World War II. At the same time, we gave public testimony in support of the City of Gainesville’s Renter’s Rights Ordinance—it passed!

UF Proposal on Furloughs

This week, WCJB aired a report on the discussion of proposed furlough plans at UF. Vice President Meera Sitharam did a wonderful job of explaining UFF-UF’s position on the proposed furlough plans. Dr. Sitharam emphasized that any proposed furlough plan is not a fait accompli; it must be collectively bargained. WCJB also highlighted the letter released by Graduate Assistants United-UF on the furlough issue.

The WCJB report is an excellent primer on the furlough discussion, in less than 2 minutes! Watching it lowered my blood pressure by about ten points. Great job, Meera. The report is being viewed and shared across the state. Please share this WCJB story broadly with colleagues and community members.

As we begin the process of bargaining the proposed furlough policy with UF let me be absolutely clear: we are not going to allow ourselves to be coerced or steamrolled into accepting any changes to our terms and conditions in this area. Along with GAU-UF, our union’s bargaining team has requested full disclosure from UF regarding the existing financial resources available to cover budget shortfalls. We are convinced that there are many other alternatives to explore before even embarking on the road to furloughs. 

The Push for Face-to Face Instruction in Spring 2021

As many of you know by now, the University of Florida—as well as most institutions of higher education in Florida—are priming to offer more face-to-face instruction and services in the spring semester. While plans are still emerging, I disagree with this trend. I believe that higher levels of F2F instruction and service puts our students, staff, and faculty in harm’s way. I can assure you that the United Faculty of Florida is going to fight harder than ever in the weeks and months to come for the collective safety of campus and community.

I started this message by quoting federal labor law concerning workplace safety. As union members we need to continue reminding everyone on campus that a safe workplace is not an option in the United States; rather, it is the law. Equally important, Article 15 of our Collective Bargaining Agreement, on “Office Space and Safe Conditions,” remains in force. This article explicitly provides protections for individuals who “blow the whistle” on unsafe working conditions of any kind: “No faculty member shall suffer an adverse employment action for making a report under this section.” In other words, if you see something unsafe, say something. 

Given the recent news regarding the spring semester, we will also be emphasizing that it is impossible to ask faculty, graduate students, and staff on the one hand to do more work and to once again radically change the methods of course delivery, while simultaneously raising the specter of layoffs. I am a historian, not a mathematician. However, even I can do the math here: More F2F = More Effort. This translates into more staff time needed to ensure sanitation, health and safety conditions which in turn will support our teaching, research and service missions. 

Bargaining Sessions More Important than Ever

Please encourage colleagues to attend our Friday, 3:30 Bargaining Sessions with UF. Many of the issues I’ve discussed in this communication will be addressed in bargaining over the next few weeks. Turnout is important! Meeting links can be found on the UFF-UF website.

Attend the UF Board of Trustees Meeting

The September 29 Board of Trustees meeting will address the proposed rule change regarding furloughs. Though any furlough policy would have to be bargained, we believe it is important to remind members of the Board of Trustees that we are concerned about this rule, which would grant wide latitude to UF to use furloughs to address staffing needs, now and in the future. Your presence will help send a signal about our concerns.

Board of Trustees meeting: Tuesday, September 29, 2020 10:30 a.m.  (301) 715-8592, ID#: 95930073987

Finally:  Ask your Colleagues to JOIN UFF. We are stronger together.