By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer

In light of layoffs due to massive budget cuts within Louisiana’s public-funded university systems, Louisiana State University faculty members are forming a union, falling in line with colleagues at other state universities.

LSUnited aims to give professors leverage in discussions about university restructuring, labor conditions and layoffs, and to push increases in retirement and benefits packages, faculty members say.

Kevin Copes, LSU faculty senate president, said that the union is unique because of the entity against which it is taking a stand.

“The target is the not the administration on the LSU campus, but rather the state government and the legislative process that has brought the university into such a grave situation as it faces budget cuts and other problems,” Copes said. “[These problems] have forced the administration to take, sometimes, Draconian measures.”

LSU Chancellor Mike Martin highlighted these measures in a video about budget information on LSU’s website:

“We have tried to disguise the impact from the core of the institution in a sense,” he said. “We’ve tried to protect jobs, and programs and student services. But clearly, we’ve lost some very good people as a result of the budget cuts.”

LSU provost John Hamilton indicated later in the video that 140 faculty members had lost their jobs as a result of the changes.

“So, there hasn’t been blood on the street, but there’s been a kind of silent assassination of faculty,” Hamilton said.

Martin said in a statement to The Lens that LSU embraces shared governance and dialogue from all parties, including that of a union.

“We are open to any discussion that will help to advance the mission of the university and service to the people of the LSU community,” he said.

A representative from the state Division of Administration, which drafts the state budget each year, could not immediately be reached for comment.

A September press release from the Louisiana Board of Regents indicated that members of the board are not happy with recent reductions.

“No matter where you take a cut, it will hurt students,” student board member Demetrius Sumner said. “If you cut faculty, it hurts students, if you cut services it hurts students, if you cut program offerings and we can no longer take the classes we need to graduate, it hurts students. The students would like to see a solution.”

Budget woes for Louisiana’s colleges and universities began in 2008, when the state Board of Regents announced the first round of budget cuts, totaling nearly $70 million for higher education. Since then, the state cut university funding by $280 million, according to data from the board, and more reductions are on the way. In September, the board announced the state’s plans to cut 32 percent, or $432 million, from higher education funding for the fiscal year 2011-2012.

LSU’s share of these past cuts totals $42 million, and when the state makes cuts for next year, the university stands to lose another $62 million, which will result in more than 600 layoffs, according to the university’s operating budget for next year.

In the past, Copes said, faculty members have been able to work out contracts and labor arrangements on a campus basis.

“What’s happening in this budget crisis, however, is that the decisions that are being made are so large in their scope, that it turns the decision of academic matters like tenure and other academic labor matters into a statewide issue, which moves the center of authority. That has, in turn, prompted faculty to find a way compensate for that decline in their leverage.”

The union’s foremost objective is to show that, united, state university system professors are a powerful and influential body, Copes said.

“At Louisiana State University, we have nearly 1,500 faculty members, and statewide there are upwards of 15,000.”

While the union is the first of its kind for LSU, it is simply another addition to the growing collective-bargaining units that faculty at other state universities have joined. The United Federation of College Teachers, a voluntary membership organization, represents faculty at five schools within two separate university systems, and is backed by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. These schools include Southeastern Louisiana University, Delgado Community College, Grambling State University, Northwestern State University, and SOWELA Technical and Community College.

Though LSU union chairman Michael Russo didn’t have a number on just how many faculty members had signed up, he said the organization operates with the help of 15 faculty organizers, and that multiple faculty members have filled out union commitment cards. As of now, he said, the union is still in the organizing phase.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...