Battles over unions for private college faculty members have been relatively rare for more than 25 years. The Supreme Court's 1980 decision  rejecting collective bargaining for professors at Yeshiva University -- finding that they were managerial employees -- largely shut down organizing drives. Many private institutions with unions had them decertified in the wake of the Yeshiva ruling. (Public colleges are not covered by federal labor laws, so faculty members' ability to unionize there depends on various state statutes.)
Some private institutions, however, never did so -- and collective bargaining has continued. That's because while the Supreme Court said that private colleges faculty members didn't have a right to unionize, it didn't ban the practice. This year, one of those institutions sought and won a ruling to decertify its union.
The action, by Quinnipiac University, was little noticed. But this weekend, the American Federation of Teachers prepared at its national meeting to censure the Connecticut institution and to begin a campaign to win back collective bargaining rights. AFT officials say that Quinnipiac has already taken advantage of its union-free status to strip librarians of certain rights, including the right to seek tenure. "This is a matter of principle and democracy," said Rob Callahan, a national organizer for the AFT.
The AFT had represented faculty members at Quinnipiac since 1975 -- and relations there were "generally collegial," Callahan said. (The union represents professors at 27 other private institutions, but most of its higher ed members are at public institutions.)
In January, Quinnipiac President John L. Lahey gave a speech to faculty members  in which he announced his plan to end the union. In his speech, he said that none of the best private universities have faculty unions, which he said create an "adversarial structure and culture." Lahey said that he was not anti-union -- and that the university had no problems with the unions that represent its secretarial and maintenance workers. These employees, he noted, "are not part of the shared governance of the university in the way that faculty are."
Lahey then filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to decertify the union. The NLRB -- based largely on the Supreme Court's analysis of Yeshiva University's faculty members in 1980 -- agreed with the university  and ended the union's representation rights.
According to Callahan, Quinnipiac has been offering faculty members good raises since it kicked out the union, but he characterized this as "an attempt to buy off" the faculty members, rather than a reflection of the university's real intentions. Those goals are more clearly seen, he said, in Quinnipiac's move to declare that librarians would no longer be considered faculty members. While librarians with tenure were not stripped of tenure, new librarians will no longer be eligible, a huge loss of their job security and protections on academic freedom, Callahan said.
Callahan added that the NLRB decision went against the union, but he said that the legal questions weren't all that mattered. Should a university be able to change the way it has been dealing with faculty members for more than 30 years, without any vote by those faculty members? he asked.
The AFT plans to seek political support to put pressure on Quinnipiac to recognize the union, even if the law doesn't require it to . This is of course the strategy being used -- to date without success -- by the union of graduate students at New York University. There, the United Auto Workers affiliated union wants NYU to negotiate even though an NLRB ruling said that private institutions' graduate students should be considered students, not employees.
"Political strategies can work," Callahan said, adding that the AFT has historically had success in organizing education groups "ahead of the law" and that institutions can feel the need to deal with "facts on the ground."
Callahan declined to name members of the Quinnipiac faculty who were backing the union -- he said that many of them were afraid to go public, fearing retaliation would come from the administration. Several faculty leaders reached by phone declined to comment on the situation.
A spokesman for Quinnipiac declined to comment on any of the specific statements the AFT is making about the university. But the spokesman released a statement by Lynn Bushnell, vice president for public affairs, in which she said: "The NLRB and the U.S. Supreme Court, not Quinnipiac University, dissolved the faculty union. If the AFT wants to censure someone, it should be the U.S. Supreme Court or the NLRB, not Quinnipiac."