Voting begins this week among Montana State University tenure-track professors to decide whether to kill or keep alive the 4-year-old faculty union.

The effort to “decertify” the union has polarized MSU’s faculty, created hard feelings and made colleagues feel like adversaries, some professors said.

Those on opposite sides disagree on whether the union has actually won better raises and benefits, whether the union has made the campus more or less democratic, whether MSU treated all faculty fairly before the union contract, and whether the union threatens MSU’s ambitions to be a top-notch research university.

Ballots are being mailed out today to 400 tenured and tenure-track professors, after more than 30 percent signed and submitted cards to the state Department of Labor and Industry requesting a decertification vote. Ballots must be signed and received by the department’s collective bargaining unit in Helena by 3:30 p.m. on April 16.

“It will be close,” predicted Bennett Link, physics professor and a proponent of decertification.

In April 2009, the vote in favor of creating the Associated Faculty of MSU union was 168 to 156, a margin of just 12 votes.

The decertification vote doesn’t affect the separate AFMSU union representing roughly 200 MSU adjunct or non-tenured faculty members. Both unions are affiliated with the MEA-MFT.

Professors on both sides of the issue sat down separately in recent weeks to explain why they feel strongly for or against the union. Pro-decertification professors were mainly male, with one exception, and came from physics, chemistry, biochemistry and economics. Pro-union professors were mainly female, with one exception, and came from family and consumer science, psychology, nursing and math.

“Many feel the union is a negative force on campus that has hurt teaching and scholarship, and has made a once collegial environment adversarial,” Link said.

Link and other decertification supporters argued the union has “added a thick layer of bureaucracy that’s paralyzing us”; has won “minimal or non-existent gains” in pay and benefits; has been “untruthful” about gains; and has been undemocratic, with only a small group of active union members making decisions.

Sandy Osborne, union president, argued the union has given the faculty a stronger voice and ensured that promises are legally binding in the contract, not subject to the whims of new administrators. The first contract secured substantial increases for sabbaticals, 2 percent pay raises for professors’ promotions, and $200,000 each year for merit and market raises, Osborne has said.

The first contract is only 2 years old, Osborne said, arguing it would be wiser to “stay the course” and make it better, rather than eliminate the union.

Pro-decertification professors said they believe the union threatens MSU’s ambitions to be a top-notch research university. Patrik Callis, physical chemistry, said during his 45 years on the faculty, MSU has “grown tremendously in quality, numbers and salaries,” all without a union.

The union creates an “us vs. them” attitude toward management, instead of treating administrators as colleagues, which is counterproductive at a research university, said Bern Kohler, a chemistry professor who supports decertification.

Jessi Smith, an associate psychology professor and union supporter, argued that MSU’s research hit a new record since the union came into existence. Rather than being “paralyzed” by the union, she said, the university is currently conducting 40 searches to hire tenure-track faculty, its biggest year yet.

Smith and political scientist Sara Rushing argued in a letter that MSU’s hard-working professors have “succeeded impressively and in an environment of persistent deprivation” and they will continue to excel in teaching and research, even if there’s a union to help win better pay and job protections.

Pro-decertification professors contend the union’s gains have been “insignificant,” and that MSU faculty received the same pay raises from the Board of Regents – 1 percent plus $500 and 2 percent plus $500 – as all other university employees. They argued recent raises were already in the works, but were delayed by union negotiations, and then the union took credit for them.

Union supporter Jim Robison-Cox, associate math professor, said before MSU unionized, Missoula’s faculty union would bargain for raises “and we’d get the leftovers, or try to get the same.”

Smith said when the University of Montana faculty union won a 3 percent raise, MSU would get 3 percent, too – but the provost’s office would take 1 percent, to use for things like merit raises, and the deans would take 1 percent. That left many faculty members with much less than 3 percent.

“This is the first time we get the whole thing,” Smith said. “We want everybody treated fairly and equitably.”

Before the union, many went for three years with no raises, said Christina Sieloff, associate nursing professor.

The “old system,” Smith and Rushing wrote, meant, “Access for the few, good deals for some, promises made and left unfulfilled for many.”

Decertification supporters said there’s a danger that “reducing things to average” will lead to “mediocrity.” MSU’s nonunion salaries were actually higher on average than UM’s, they pointed out.

Pro-decertification professors contend the union is undemocratic and secretive, with only a small number of union members voting on major issues. Pro-union supporters argue that the union is a grassroots organization that welcomes people to participate.

“I feel passionately – we are the union, the faculty,” Smith said.

Union opponents said if decertification wins, faculty members would get an automatic “raise” by not having to pay union dues of $631 a year or a mandatory “representation fee” of more than $400, paid by roughly half of professors who don’t belong to the union.

Rather than give professors a stronger voice, physics professor Randy Babbitt said, the union makes it harder to discuss important issues with administrators.

“We’re all silenced,” Babbitt said. “We develop new knowledge through debate and discussion. This puts up barriers. You can’t generate new knowledge if you’re afraid of what to say.”