Professors at Montana State University who want to kill the 4-year-old faculty union were leading by five votes late Tuesday, but the final outcome may hinge on six disputed ballots.

Casey Kyler-West, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industry in Helena, said the disputed ballots would be taken this morning to a state hearings bureau to decide whether or not they can be counted.

Both the pro- and anti-union sides are arguing that the people who cast the six ballots shouldn’t be allowed to vote, Kyler-West said. However, she said, Windy Knutson of the department’s wage and hour collective bargaining unit, who is in charge of the election, had verified everyone who was eligible to vote before ballots were mailed out last month.

The state sent 403 ballots, and 375 were returned, she said. The question on the ballots is whether the Associated Faculty of MSU union will continue to represent MSU’s tenured and tenure-track professors.

The vote didn’t affect the separate AFMSU faculty union that represents 200 non-tenure-track or adjunct faculty. The election was called after more than 30 percent of MSU’s tenure-track faculty members signed cards requesting a vote on decertifying the union.

Professors said last month that the issue had polarized MSU’s faculty, creating hard feelings and making some colleagues feel like adversaries.

The two sides disagreed whether the union had won better raises and benefits, whether it made MSU more or less democratic, and whether it threatened MSU’s ambitions to be a top-notch research university.

Professors who opposed the union argued that MSU’s old system had treated people fairly and rewarded highly productive faculty, while pro-union professors argued the old system rewarded a few campus stars, but unfairly left many others with paltry or no raises.

Sandy Osborne, president of the Associated Faculty of MSU union, and Bennett Link, a physics professor active in the pro-decertification group, couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Professors predicted last month that the vote would be close. When the union first won in April 2009, the vote was 168 to 156, a 12-vote margin.

MSU was the last campus in the state without a faculty union.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582–2633.

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