By a startlingly close vote, the faculty of Pasco-Hernando State College unionized last week, joining educators across the state who are pushing for a stronger say in decisions about policy and pay.
Three weeks of mail balloting ended in a close count: 64 for, 62 against. On April 11, the Florida Public Employees Relations Committee, or PERC, announced the PHSC faculty as the newest chapter of the United Faculty of Florida.
"It wasn't a landslide or anything, but I'm glad that we won," said Caitlin Gille, an associate professor of natural science at PHSC, who led the charge for unionization. "The shared governance means we will have better policies for faculty and students."
Following the news, PHSC president Timothy Beard said he hopes the change will foster a closer relationship between faculty and administrators that will lead to more engaged discussions about what goes on at the college.
"It will give us great documentation and accountability," he said, adding that unionization will make clear to faculty: "This is what we expect from you; this is what you can expect from administration."
In recent years, Beard said, state budget cuts for Florida colleges have made it difficult for his administration to offer raises and incentives that were available to educators in the past.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott has continued to push his long-standing stance on affordable college tuition, so rates for students haven't been raised in about five years, he said.
"Long story short, we have had to make some cuts," Beard said. "It creates some morale issues."
Educators' push for a stronger role in the college's decision-making processes began in December, when 60 percent of the 144-member, full-time faculty submitted petition cards asking for a union election. At the time, Gille lamented that the college's policies were being "unilaterally decided by the administration."
One of those decisions was to scale back incentives for faculty members to further their education.
Rather than raises they were promised for earning a doctorate degree, the PHSC administration decided faculty members would earn a one-time bonus.
Once the faculty-wide vote was planned, Gille said, Beard and another administrator sent letters to the faculty, "urging us not to unionize, basically. Telling us it wouldn't be in our best interest."
Last week, Beard explained the move.
The promised incentives were put in place in the early 2000s, he said, before he became president in 2015. As the budget grew tight, deciding what to cut was tough.
"We have always put the priority to not have layoffs," he said. "We want to protect our human capital, so we look for other ways to cut expenditures."
At the recommendation of staff and approval of administrators, he said, incentives for degree attainment and longevity fell on the chopping block.
"When you cut any type of funding, folks don't like that," he said. "It all comes down to resources."
As a former faculty member at Florida A&M University, Beard understands educators' concerns. PHSC is the first institution he has worked for that didn't have a union-joined faculty, he said, so he is familiar with and prepared for the coming talks.
"It doesn't have to be adversarial," he said. "I do believe that we have the best interest of our students at heart, and we are going to capitalize on that."
There is a small window of time for the college or faculty to contest the results of the election, Beard said. If that doesn't happen, PERC will make an official order. Collective bargaining would begin in three to six months, he said.
In the meantime, Gille said, she hopes to gain more internal support for the union.
Staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at email@example.com. Follow @mareevs.