Reflections on Cleveland State’s Unionization Experience 20 Years Later

This is a guest post by Rick Perloff, a professor in the communication department at Cleveland State University. His article, “Organizing Cleveland State,” appears in the newest issue of Academe and goes into greater detail about the unionization campaign at CSU.

It was the unlikeliest of stories at the most improbable of institutions. Cleveland State University, a bricks-and-mortar, urban state university bereft of much faculty culture (to say nothing of a faculty club, which, try as they might, faculty and administrators could never get off the ground), spawned an all-out grass roots effort to mobilize faculty in favor of AAUP unionization. It transfixed the university two decades ago. And the amazing thing is that the movement succeeded: Faculty voted to unionize, grievance procedures were implemented, gaping salary inequities were addressed, and the much-discussed dissolution of faculty-administration ties never materialized.

As a professor at Cleveland State in the early 1990s, when the union movement caught fire, I remember the battle for unionization well. Scrappy, at times scruffy, and emboldened by bright-eyed zeal, the union activists caught my eye and garnered respect. Few thought that a sometimes-ragtag band of bright, impassioned warriors could convince their Enlightenment-liberal colleagues to embrace unionization. But the campaign succeeded against striking odds for a host of reasonsself-interested, symbolic, and ideological.

At the time I was impressed by the ardor and conviction of so many of the insurgents devoted to the cause.  And although my personal style was much different than union leader professor Rodger GoveaI gravitated to the inward world of ideas and research, while Govea championed pragmatic politics directed at institutional reformI respected his bravado, as well as his braggadocio.  When I heard he was retiring, I recalled the passions that drove him in his younger years, my thoughts returned to the academic barricades of 1993, and a feature was born.

Thanks to concerted university efforts, Cleveland State is a different place today than it was two decades ago.  The austere, Soviet-style architecture has been replaced by a more outward, inviting sweep of buildings, the campus is greener, and the whole place even radiates charm.  Faculty members have rights and protections, and economic safeguards.

History is replete with the tattered shards of what might have been. Cleveland State’s union story boldly showcases what can happen when people tenaciously believe and toil to translate beliefs into action.

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