LEWISTON – More than 600 Bates employees will get the chance to vote in early January on whether they want to form a union.

If they agree, it would be the first union in a private college in the country to include both educators and staff.

In the ruling setting the date of the union vote, National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Laura Sacks said that non-tenured faculty and the rest of the college staff, “share a community of interest sufficient to constitute an appropriate voting group.”

More than 30% of Bates College employees have filed the required paperwork in October to clear the way for a secret vote among eligible workers to decide if they want to be represented by the Maine Service Employees Association, part of the Service Employees International Union.

Ballots will be sent Jan. 6 to the workers who are found to be eligible — perhaps as many as 630 — and must be returned to the Boston office of the federal agency overseeing the election by Jan. 28. The ballots will be counted Jan. 31.

Geoffrey Swift, the college’s vice president for finance and administration, told staff late Thursday that voting, “is not mandatory, but the outcome of the election will be determined by a majority of those who vote. Everyone within the designated bargaining unit, whether they vote yes, no, or do not vote, will be bound by the outcome. The college strongly encourages every eligible employee to vote.”

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Whether or not to form a union has been an ongoing issue this fall at the elite liberal arts college, with some workers worried a union could undermine the collegial atmosphere they enjoy, while others insist that joining together formally would give them the negotiating power to improve life for college employees.

Bates sought to argue that faculty and other staff should not be part of the same bargaining unit, because their interests are so divergent. But the college failed to file its paperwork on time, Sack’s ruling said, so it was not considered.

The college’s effort to have an in-person vote on whether to form a union did receive scrutiny. Sacks rejected it.

She said that Bates argued an in-person vote would be best, despite the pandemic, “because the on-campus positivity rate is low” and because eight employees may be illiterate.

Sacks said COVID-19 is widespread enough in the community that it shouldn’t be ignored. She dismissed Bates’ professed worry about illiteracy, by pointing out that its employee handbook is only available in writing and no provision has been made to indicate there are workers who can’t read it.

Bates has 938 employees in total, which include about 135 who are tenured or on a tenure track, making them ineligible for the union.

In addition, there are about a hundred people with hiring authority who cannot be in the union.

In addition, some personnel, from college President Clayton Spencer to head coaches, are also excluded from the group that can be unionized.

Of the roughly 630 who can vote in the union election, about 395 are hourly workers, including 228 who work for the college’s dining hall. About 235 others are paid monthly.

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