The Unions’ Role in Dividing the Faculty

Unions have long extolled their ability to secure higher wages, greater job security, and better working conditions for their members. This “union premium” can be as high as 28 percent in wages alone in contrast to those of unorganized workers.69

But for college professors, little evidence exists to support a union premium. Research is scant, and what little there is indicates that unions have little or no effect for tenured faculty, and virtually none for those off the tenure track.

Studying faculty salaries at four-year colleges from 1988 to 2004, David Hedrick, Steven Henson, John Krieg, and Charles Wassell Jr. found that higher education unions had a “weak effect” on wages and that the union wage premium was statistically insignificant.70

Hedrick and his colleagues reaffirmed the earlier research of Gordon Tullock (1994), who wrote: “Unions may be able to shift funds around among the faculty but . . . there is little chance of increasing total salaries.” At the same time, Hedrick et al. hypothesized that “the presence of faculty unions may result in improvements in amenities, benefits, and working conditions.”71 In 2011, Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Peter Schmidt analyzed the data on academic unions and came to a similar conclusion in “What Good Do Faculty Unions Do?”72 He subtitled his article “Research Sheds Little Light on Quantifiable Benefits of Collective Bargaining” and wrote that “many faculty members work without union contracts without feeling particularly exploited.” He further wrote: “The chief benefits of unionization appear to have less to do with getting faculty members more bread than in giving them some say over how it is sliced.”

Hedrick et al., however, studied only the salaries of full-time faculty. The scope of their study excluded the nation’s one million college professors who teach part time off the tenure track; Schmidt too concentrated on full-time faculty.

In Unionization in the Academy, Judith Wagner DeCew describes the only study conducted on adjuncts and unions: Managed Professionals: Unionized Faculty and Restructuring Academic Labor (1998), by Gary Rhoades, former general secretary of the AAUP. DeCew writes, “Despite claims by unions that they want to protect part-time faculty’s procedural rights, Rhoades found they had done little to enhance working conditions for part-time faculty. He found a striking absence of provisions about process and personnel actions surrounding hiring and firing for part-timers in 80 percent of 183 contracts.”73

Summarizing the conclusions to be drawn from Rhoades’s research, DeCew writes that faculty union contracts “do not often protect, but actually further marginalize, part-time faculty. . . . Consequently, the national unions may claim to be advocating for part-time faculty, but the contracts do not show that they have made much progress.”74

These findings align with the data presented herein, demonstrating that the two-track system divides the faculty into haves and have-nots and grants advantages to the tenure-track faculty at every turn, whether in salary, benefits, or working conditions. These inferior conditions are the rule even where the faculty have been organized into unions. If America’s college campuses are sweatshops, they are in fact unionized sweatshops.

Throughout the United States, by virtually every measure of union success, collective bargaining has failed the contingent professors. Why?


Employer-Dominated Unions

The labor movement has worked hard to abolish “employer-dominated unions” and tried to remove supervisors from the bargaining units, so as to avoid the resulting conflicts of interest. Unions that are set up and run by management are obviously sham unions, and employees are unlikely to be well represented by their own bosses. And whenever supervisors are in the same unit, employees lack the power to push for their own benefit, and face retaliation for doing so.

Per the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 (Section 8(2)), employers are not allowed “to dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it.” Yet the US Supreme Court’s Yeshiva decision (1980) establishes that because of their participation in “shared governance,” tenured professors are “managers,” and therefore not entitled to unions in private colleges and universities.75 Public institutions are not covered by the NLRA; they fall under state public employment commissions.

Whether or not one agrees with Yeshiva’s characterization of tenured faculty as managers, wherever there is a two-track system—in other words, everywhere in the United States—the tenured faculty serve as de facto supervisors of the contingent workforce who often have marginal contact with college administrators. While tenure-track faculty might not be called “supervisors” by the colleges or the unions, they do in fact play an undeniable role in the managerial functions of hiring, evaluating, and rehiring the adjunct professors; in assigning classes; and in large measure determining the curriculum. Further, it is the tenure-stream faculty who generally bargain the contracts.

The benign interpretation of this state of affairs, offered up by union leaders in its defense, is that it is appropriate for the full-time tenure-track faculty to be dominant since they are on campus more often and know the college better. They also have job security, which makes it safer for them to engage in the conflicts involved in bargaining. And the adjuncts are dismissed as often being too busy and too scared to get involved. So it is customary for union leaders in mixed units to handpick a bargaining team headed by a tenured faculty member, and usually containing only one handpicked adjunct professor.

Let us take a closer look at two areas already mentioned: increments and overloads. In the Washington State community colleges, incremental step raises have been bargained by the local unions, who have made sure that all of the full-timers get regular, hefty pay raises for their longevity. At the same time, these same unions have not bargained any increments for two-thirds of the colleges, and only a few tiny steps for the others.

When it comes to “turnover” money, captured when a more expensive professor leaves or retires, all of the locals have made sure that the full-timers get to recapture and share this money, and none of the part-timers. And when part-time activists have gone to state capitals to pass legislation to correct this unfair increment system, the unions have put up vigorous opposition, even though it would not take anything away from the full-timers.

An egregious example is allowing full-time faculty the right to teach overloads, while restricting part-timers from teaching even full-time, and in so doing deliberately preventing them from ever qualifying for tenure, which is what Wobbly leader Bill Haywood would have called a “job trust.” They are able to restrict not only the number of tenure-track jobs, but also who gets them.

Protecting the ability of full-time faculty to teach course overloads sheds light on why the three faculty unions (the AAUP, the AFT, and the NEA) have failed to bargain any meaningful job security for the contingent faculty. Job security would embolden the contingent faculty to become more involved in their unions and to demand “fair representation” for all members, as required by court rulings since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.

Unfortunately, the contingent faculty face limited choices since the entire labor movement has been exempted from antitrust law and loathes competition. Article 20 of the AFL-CIO Constitution forbids raiding other AFL-CIO unions. And the AAUP and the AFT are now conducting joint organizing of faculty at research universities, and insisting that the tenure-track and contingent faculty both be placed into the same bargaining units.

In Washington State, in 1994, the AFT and the NEA prevented Green River Community College faculty from remaining outside the union at a branch campus in Kent. The unions filed a complaint with the Washington Public Employment Relations Commission and won a ruling that there could be only one faculty union at each community college.

As Seattle Community College adjunct ESL professor Douglas Collins wrote to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:


Metaphorically, part timers are in an abusive marriage with the full timers, but they are not allowed to seek a divorce. For many, the only recourse is to keep smiling—or else lose their jobs. If part timers had a fair choice to organize their own unions, they would get a lot more respect. Having the choice makes the difference. Changing state policy to allow union choice would be a big positive step forward.76

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