The Union Impact and Non-Impact

Study finds that in much of higher education, collective bargaining hasn’t stopped erosion of tenure-track lines. Community colleges may be different.
June 3, 2008

One of the major growth areas for academic unions in recent years has been among adjunct professors. More of them are forming unions – either in their own units or with their tenure-track counterparts. In recent weeks, adjunct unions have won recognition at Henry Ford Community College. As this movement has grown, all three major faculty unions in the United States have adopted a goal of seeing colleges create more tenure-track lines and of reversing the “casualization” of the faculty.

The trends together raise an obvious question, especially since the union movement in higher education is far more successful in some areas than others: Does the presence of unions minimize or even prevent the erosion of tenure-track faculty?

The answer of two University of Michigan social scientists -- who are themselves active in the labor movement -- is No. An article they have published in the new issue of Labor Studies Journal (abstract available here) compared the faculty make-up in Canada and the United States (the former being far more unionized) and among unionized and non-unionized colleges in the United States. The scholars found “to our surprise and disappointment” that unionization doesn’t seem to protect the tenure track.

The authors are David Dobbie, a doctoral student in social work and sociology who is past president of the graduate students’ union at Michigan, and Ian Robinson, a non-tenure-track faculty member in sociology and labor relations, and an officer in the lecturers’ union at Michigan. (Both unions are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.)

In their analysis, Dobbie and Robinson note the vast differences in terms of union presence in academic labor. In three large states (New Jersey, New York and California) more than 60 percent of higher education faculty (including graduate instructors) have collective bargaining. In a total of 19 states, no faculty are represented by unions. Generally, Dobbie and Robinson find no correlation between high union representation levels and lower than average reliance on part-timers. At least part of the explanation, they write, may be that tenure-track faculty members were focused on their own economic well being, rather than the changing shape of the professoriate. The authors arrive at this conclusion based in part on trends in organizing.

At the community college level, they find more success at protecting tenure-track lines. Faculty unions at community colleges, the authors note, tended to be far ahead of their four-year counterparts in recruiting non-tenure-track members – at least in part because a larger share of the community college professoriate has always been off the tenure track.

"Since many of these union locals included tenure-track and (full-time) non-tenure-track faculty in the same bargaining unit from the outset, we might expect successive rounds of collective bargaining to reduce substantially the compensation differential between the two faculty statuses. In addition, virtually all two-year faculty focus primarily on teaching, avoiding the potential research/teaching division that often maps onto the tenure-track/non-tenure track division at four-year schools,” the authors write.

Minimizing the gaps in pay, benefits and job security between tenure-track and adjunct faculty members is a key issue, many labor experts say, because part of the incentive for colleges to hire off the tenure track is to save money. If hiring without the possibility of tenure doesn’t save money, the theory goes, the incentives may change.

In contrast, the authors note, most union organizing at four-year institutions was focused for years on the tenure track. “If, in the 1970s and 1980s, most of the organized faculty were tenure-track and the focus of those unions encompassing both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty was mostly on advancing the interests of the tenure-track majority, then unions might have increased the incentives to hire more contingent faculty by increasing the gap between the cost of tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty,” the authors speculate.

If this is the case, the authors suggest that more may be required to prevent the erosion of tenure-track positions than unions for adjuncts. It is “possible – perhaps even likely – that non-tenure-track unions will never have as much bargaining power as tenure-track unions, and so will never be able to substantially narrow the gap between tenure-track and non-tenure-track compensation and job security on their own, even though they may significantly improve the situation of their members.” Since such a scenario would not narrow the gaps between adjunct and tenure-track professors, the authors says, the ultimate push for the tenure track and true protections for all who teach will need to come from the “enlightened self-interest” of those on the tenure track, in their unions. The authors write that they view this as possible, but note that it may be difficult politically for unions to pull off the necessary emphasis on protecting the tenure track as an institution -- as opposed to just the conditions of current tenure-track faculty members.

Lawrence N. Gold, director of higher education at the AFT, said that he had only had time to skim the study so far. Based on an early read, he said that "I'm glad to see that they and other researchers are starting to seriously explore the connections between achieving full equity for contingent faculty and organizing effective unions. It will obviously require more research and more time to get a really firm handle on what works best under what circumstances and the more data we have the better."

Gold said that the "basic conclusion the authors reach about the need to vigorously organize contingent faculty conforms to our own view and is the reason why contingent faculty organizing is AFT's top organizing priority in higher education." He also acknowledged that "the authors also point to the importance, and some of the difficulties, of building solid support networks between tenured and untenured colleagues." The FACE campaign (for Faculty and College Excellence), AFT's main effort in this regard, has a dual goal of shifting more faculty slots back to the tenure track and also of improving pay and working conditions for adjuncts.

As to the study's suggestion that adjuncts need more support for those on the tenure track, Gold said he agreed that "contingent faculty leaders, whether in shared locals or not, deserve strong support from their full-time tenured colleagues."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top