What Faculty Unions Do

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

When faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago began mobilizing for a union recognition drive in 2010 they were motivated in part by concern that the central administration was drifting away from the campus’s historic commitment to its urban mission. Located in a substantially racially segregated city with many minority families having no college graduates, the campus had long studied urban life and offered upward mobility opportunities for local residents. Rather than just plead this cause with the administration, faculty members increasingly saw the need to sit down and negotiate binding levels of support for this mission.

When I visited the University of Northern Iowa in 2010  a different topic was under discussion. Faculty members were increasingly concerned about the debt levels their students were accumulating. They felt their union should make it a priority to address the issue and propose solutions to the problem.

At the University of Rhode Island the faculty union took on the task of helping graduate student employees there organize for collective bargaining. Wages and working conditions for teaching and research assistants needed improvement. The only way to get them was to organize. A few years later they helped part-time faculty organize. Though it is not guaranteed, unionized faculty are more likely than their nonunionized counterparts to promote the welfare of all members of their college or university community.

Faculty unions are not simply about their own bread and butter issues. Indeed research shows that, although unionized community college faculty earn more than their nonunionized counterparts, full-time unionized and non-unionized faculty at four-year institutions earn about the same. Most unionized faculty, however, have stronger benefits packages, and union contracts have proven good protection during a recession. Contractual raises were honored, and contracts prevented administrators from imposing furloughs without faculty consent.

Yet the need to protect and enhance shared governance is instead often what motivates faculty members to form unions. Shared governance refers to the structures the administration and the faculty put in place to assign primary responsibility for various elements of campus life. As professional educators, faculty members are particularly concerned with their role in curriculum design, setting hiring priorities, and shaping instructional budget decisions.

Unfortunately, on too many campuses the faculty is being supplanted in its areas of expertise by administrators who have no experience in or training for making decisions on academic and educational issues. A union contract is the best way to secure agreements on these matters. Thus a unionized faculty often has a better chance of putting its professional judgment to use, judgment that can otherwise be depreciated or dismissed.

Since the parties to a contract negotiation can have different interests and priorities, the process can be tense and difficult. Negotiations can break down if either or both parties are acting in bad faith or are unwilling to compromise. Yet the process offers a structure fundamentally directed toward resolving conflicts, not exacerbating them. Union negotiations can in fact restore working relations between faculty members and administrators on a campus where they have broken down.

As corporatization increasingly penetrates campuses, as business men and women come to dominate boards of trustees, and as a burgeoning class of career administrators with no classroom experience takes charge of decision-making, faculty members often realize they need to level the campus playing field if they are to have a chance to win support for the values they believe should define higher education. Of course, for the thousands of faculty members who teach part-time or full-time on temporary appointments, most of them cut out of any meaningful role in campus governance, unionization is literally the only route to a living wage and decent working conditions. Not only may they have no health care coverage without a union contract; they may have no office space or campus mailbox without one. But even tenured faculty increasingly feel disempowered. A faculty senate can bewail a campus trend to decrease investment in the primary mission of instruction. A union can negotiate to guarantee reinvestment in instruction. As one common slogan has it, “United We Negotiate, Divided We Beg.”

A union can negotiate actual agreements for hiring the teachers departments need. Faculty unions have negotiated agreements increasing the proportion of the full-time faculty necessary to provide students with fully committed teachers. Many such faculty contracts benefit students by establishing required office hours, teaching loads, and student course evaluations.

Union contracts can also win contractual status for the fundamental values of academic freedom and shared governance. A legally binding contract is a much stronger guarantee than a faculty or staff handbook. The AAUP recommends specific language to secure these and other critical values, and union negotiators for faculty members, academic professionals, or graduate student employees can get that language included in contracts. A good union contract can protect the right to speak forthrightly about campus policies. Without that protection, faculty members and academic professionals are vulnerable to sanctions or dismissal if they disagree with administration policies or proposals. A corporation can demand conformity from its employees; a university should not be able to do so.

On many campuses, faculty members and other employees can be punished for vague, improper, or unsupported charges without any opportunity to defend themselves or confront their accusers. Sometimes the only appeal is to the very administrator who acted rashly in the first place. Union contracts typically establish clear, enforceable procedures to assure that faculty members, academic professionals, and graduate student employees receive due process. And they make the experience of pursing grievances far more orderly by assigning them to dispassionate negotiation. For some people the due process clauses in a contract will prove its single most important feature. They ensure that justice can prevail at critical moments in a professional career.

Maintaining these values requires constant work. As I argue in my book No University Is an Island (New York University Press, 2010), faculty unions can grow stale over time, the passion of their founders can be supplanted by the complaisance of later generations. Those faculty unions that have lost touch with their larger, community-oriented social missions need to recover them. The current assaults on public employee unionization may trigger exactly that sort of renaissance.

Critics of faculty unionization often argue that faculty members are not like workers in an auto plant. How can such individualistic people benefit from a union? But as the paragraphs above suggest, a contract for faculty members or other academic professionals is a very different document from one for an assembly line worker. A good higher education union contract protects the freedom of choice and expression we value in members of a university community. It should embody fundamental universal AAUP principles of academic freedom and shared governance but also reflect an institution’s distinctive character and mission and the priorities of the local faculty. A well-written union contract helps faculty members become the individuals they want to be. The disparaging contrasts anti-union commentators have drawn between faculty members and industrial workers are fundamentally contemptible. Neither industrial nor campus solidarity is a form of herd mentality. Faculty solidarity is a collective method for securing individual rights and freedoms and a way to give authority and leverage to the values faculty endorse. Collective bargaining restores the balance of power that has been distorted by increasingly centralized administration.

In that context, the wave of anti-union legislation that has overtaken state houses in 2011 is revealed to be far more sinister than an effort to cut investment in public higher education, wretched though that is for equal opportunity in a democratic society. It embodies a much larger cultural agenda, larger even than the aim of undercutting unions’ impact on future elections. In the case of the attack on faculty unions at public colleges and universities, it is, I believe, an effort to produce docile campuses, campuses where faculty members and academic professionals who speak their minds can be cast out of the community because they no longer have unions to protect them. That is one impulse behind the special vengeance Ohio legislators have focused on faculty unions. Convinced by aging culture warriors that American campuses are overwhelmingly progressive, Republican legislators want to legislate a Silent Spring in American higher education. Those who care about higher education and academic freedom should spare no effort to defeat these efforts and restore the fundamental right of all employees to organize their voices as they choose.