Union officials and activists were giddy Wednesday at the news that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would begin remotely counting ballots from a Bates College employee unionization vote that happened more than a year ago.
Bates College filed a legal challenge against the planned union in 2022, which led the NLRB to impound the votes that would determine whether Bates employees would unionize under the auspices of the Maine Service Employees Association-Service Employees International Union Local 1989 (MSEA-SEIU 1989).
For the last 14 months, members of the Bates Educators and Staff Organization (BESO) have demanded that those votes be counted, and MSEA officials have privately projected a victory. One source even told the Maine Wire to expect a super majority of votes in favor of unionizing.
But Thursday afternoon when the all of the votes were counted, Bates employees had rejected the union, 254-186.
The outcome was first reported by Ellie Wolfe, a reporter for the college’s student newspaper.
Had the employees voted to unionize, the MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 stood to gain between 650 and 1300 members, making Bates College workers the second largest bargaining unit within the union.
The vote is a humiliating defeat for MSEA officials and organizers.
Pro-union Bates employees formed the Bates Educators and Staff Organization (BESO) in 2021, partnering with the SEIU chapter early on to begin organizing.
The vote was the product of a long-running and ongoing effort by the MSEA to gain members through Maine’s colleges and universities. Employees with Maine Maritime Academy and Maine’s Community College System are current MSEA members.
The union spent a significant amount of money and time on the legal effort that culminated in today’s count, but now they will see no return on that investment.
Currently, most union members pay roughly $11 per week in dues. (Employees in some bargaining units pay a percentage of their total salaries.)
If the vote had prevailed and 650 Bates employees had opted to join the union and pay dues, that would have represented as much as $370,000 per year in new revenue for the union.
But it was not to be.
Workers at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and Colby College in Waterville are not currently unionized, but there has been some pro-union activism on the campuses.
The failure of today’s vote at Bates may prove discouraging for workers and union leaders.
The MSEA has long been a juggernaut in Maine politics, contributing significant money and manpower to electing Democrats to local, state, and national offices.
But that loyalty has not translated into bargaining power under Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.
As reported by the Maine Wire, MSEA officials filed a complaint against the Mills Administration on March 3 with the Maine Labor Relations Board alleging that Mills and her representative, Director of the Bureau of Human Resources Breena Bissell, have negotiated in bad faith.
The MSEA complaint alleges several labor law violations on Bissell’s part, and the pattern of behavior alleged by the MSEA suggests the Mills Administration does not consider appeasing its union allies a top priority.
In 2022, Bates reported an endowment worth $446 million.
Attending the college for a single year now costs more than $80,000.
UPDATE: Clayton Spencer, the President of Bates College, issued the following statement after the vote:
I write to provide an update on the union election conducted by the Regional Office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Boston in January 2022. There were 440 valid ballots cast from the designated bargaining unit, and all verified ballots have been counted. A majority of those voting have voted against union representation at Bates, with 254 against and 186 in favor.
I recognize that this process has been long and challenging, and individuals will likely have strong — and differing — reactions to this news. Bates aims to provide all employees with competitive wages, strong benefits, and the opportunity to participate in a vibrant campus community. These fundamental values will continue to shape our work together to serve our students and provide a transformative undergraduate education.
Additionally, during the union organizing campaign, colleagues raised many important issues that merit our attention and action to enhance the employee experience at Bates. Work on these issues has already begun, and I look forward to continuing our progress as a community.
Thank you for your patience and commitment to our students, fellow colleagues, and the mission of the college. The work ahead is to make Bates a community where everyone is seen, heard, respected, and valued.