Faculty Unions: A Terrible Idea

Editor’s note: For an opposing view on faculty unions, see Cary Nelson’s article for the Pope Center.

If faculty unionism were wholly voluntary it should not be prevented. But American faculty unionism as it exists is not even close to being voluntary. Voluntary unionism would mean, inter alia, that each faculty member would be free, as an individual rather than by majority vote, to choose whether or not to associate with a union that is willing to associate with him or her. There is no room in voluntary unionism for forced association with, or forced support of, any union.

The vast majority of unionized faculty in higher education are employed in government colleges and universities. This is because in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court, in National Labor Relation Board v. Yeshiva University [444 US 672], ruled that faculties in private higher education are “managers” and hence are exempted from the mandatory recognition and bargaining provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Private sector college and university administrations may choose to recognize and bargain with faculty unions, but they are not compelled to do so even if a majority of faculty members want them to. By contrast, unionization in government colleges and universities (as well as K-12 education) is controlled by individual state laws. Where they exist, such state unionization laws are patterned on the NLRA, and the NLRA is based on coercion.

Consider the worst feature of NLRA-style unionism: exclusive representation. If fifty percent plus one of the members of a faculty vote to have, say, the local National Education Association (NEA) union be their representative in bargaining with their university over the terms and conditions of employment, all of the faculty members who were eligible to vote must accept the NEA union’s representation “services” whether they want them or not. Faculty who prefer another union or some non-union organization to represent them are out of luck. They are even forbidden to represent themselves. This violates the right of each faculty member to freedom of association. It is blatant forced association. We don’t vote to determine which religion, if any, to follow; neither should we vote to determine with which union, if any, we associate.

Unionists justify exclusive representation on the grounds that it is workplace democracy. Most faculty accept the legitimacy of majority rule in governmental matters. So, unionists argue, to be consistent faculty must accept its legitimacy in the workplace. This is a silly, inapt analogy. There are three branches of American government—executive, legislative and judicial. There is no fourth branch of government called unions. Democracy, forcing a numerical minority to submit to the will of a numerical majority, is appropriate in governmental decision-making but not in private decision-making. The sale and purchase of one’s labor services is a private matter.

To make matters worse, in many states faculty members who are, because of exclusive representation, forced to have a union represent them are also forced to pay fees to the union for the representation services they do not want. This is called “union security.” It protects unions against faculty members who do not want to support them. It is another form of forced association.

Unionists defend union security with the spurious “free rider” argument. They argue that since exclusive representation forces a union to represent all faculty members, all faculty members should be forced to pay for the service.

Otherwise some would get the representation services for free. They would be free riders. But some faculty members may place a negative value on those representation services. They would be forced to pay for something they don’t want. They would be forced riders, not free riders. Moreover, if unions represented only their voluntary members there could be no free riders. The alleged free rider problem is an artifact of exclusive representation.

If asked, most academics would agree that coerced associations are anathema to the academy. Too many academics fail to apply this admirable principle to faculty unionism. Logical consistency and academic freedom demand that they do so.

From the time of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, academic freedom and scholarly creativity have been highly prized academic values. Ideally, successes and failures of individual academics are based on the values that other academics (and students) place on their work. Performance, not politics, is what counts. Of course all academic institutions fall short of the ideal. Even at the best schools campus politics intrudes into decisionmaking. But when it does, most academics struggle to minimize its impact. As soon as faculty unionism intrudes power politics replaces reasoned discourse. All degrees of freedom in decision-making are swallowed by slavish adherence to “the contract.”

Think about it. Which faculty members might benefit from unionization? Certainly not those who actively publish and creatively teach. They are protected by the reputational capital they create for themselves. The only possible beneficiaries are the indolent. A union contract treats all faculty members alike. The excellent and the indolent are treated as perfect substitutes in an undifferentiated miasma of mediocrity. Steps and seniority replace merit as the basis of pay. Indeed, the very concept of merit is challenged by the absurd idea that all performance is meritorious in some way. Faculty unionism reduces higher education to an industrial assembly line operated by mindless cogs in a wheel, subject to the arbitrary whims of others.

Heed this cautionary tale. In 2006-07 the new dean of the College of Business and Economics (CBE) at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB) was trying to get the College in shape for a reaccreditation review by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). It had been some time since the previous review, and in the interim faculty performance had been allowed to decay. CBE faced the very real prospect of losing accreditation. The new dean tried to entice the faculty into better performance by offering pay bonuses and reduced teaching loads to those who would publish in peer-reviewed journals and otherwise participate in significant professional activities. Unfortunately, CSUEB was a union-impaired university. Indolent faculty complained to their union that they were being discriminated against and that the collective bargaining contract made no provision for such invidious distinctions. The university administration supported the union against the dean, who then resigned. The AACSB subsequently put CBE on probation because not enough faculty were what the Association calls “academically qualified.”

AACSB has a rule that says newly-minted Ph.D.s are automatically considered to be academically qualified for five years. The university administration responded to the probation by giving CBE money to hire enough newly minted Ph.D.s to bring the number of academically qualified faculty up to minimal standards. AACSB then granted reaccreditation. It remains to be seen what will happen at CBE when the next AACSB review takes place. CSUEB continues to be union impaired, and huge deficits in the California state budget could mean that there will be no money for another CBE bailout.

It might be comforting to think that a unionized faculty can and will uphold standards of academic excellence, and there may even be an example or two where that has happened. However, NLRA-style unionism is based on conflict. “Solidarity” is the watchword. It is us versus them. In business the “them” are allegedly greedy employers and capitalists. In government colleges and universities the “them” are … who? Not university administrations. They and the faculty unions with which they bargain have a common interest—to pick the pockets of taxpayers. The “them” are taxpayers. The “them” are also the students who want their teachers to work hard, to stay current in their fields, and to be effective in the classroom. A union sells itself to prospective dues payers by promising them that they can prosper while doing less on the job. There should be no room in academia for such an idea.