More Than Money

Scholars of collective bargaining in higher ed say wage gains from unions are minimal at four-year institutions, but significant at community colleges -- and that in both sectors, impact goes beyond pay.
March 7, 2011

The rhetorical volleys exchanged in the battles over collective bargaining in such states as Ohio and Wisconsin have aimed straight for the gut. When governors and legislators have proposed bills to strip the collective bargaining rights of public employees -- a group that in those and other states includes faculty members -- supporters of these bills have framed the situation in two dire words: "We're broke."

In response, the rebuttals have heaped scorn on the authors of such measures, or more precisely, "shame," as the refrain went Thursday in Ohio after the state Senate passed its bill.

While tensions around this dispute have increased and been felt viscerally, the arguments have remained theoretical -- and the assumptions underlying them largely unexamined. To critics of unions, the salary and benefits offered to unionized workers in the public sector are so disproportionate to what's available to those in the private sector that they have become economically unsustainable. To supporters, public sector unions represent the last bastion of a labor movement that has long been under siege, but that played a major role in creating and sustaining the now-vanishing middle class.

Observers have been left to wonder what impact unions -- especially, for the purposes of this article, those in higher education -- have on state budgets, and what the benefits and drawbacks of these unions are. For those with expertise in studying academic labor, the experience of watching the debate has been as maddening as it has been bewildering, as some assertions flatly contradict the evidence.

“We’re not even in the realm of any empirical touchstones in the arguments," said Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at Hunter College, City University of New York. "We're in Alice in Wonderland where data doesn’t matter.”

How Much Do Unions Cost the State?

In December, Scott Walker, who was then still the governor-elect of Wisconsin, summed up his view of public unions during a speech at the Milwaukee Press Club. "We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots," he said. The statement, and the state's $3.6 billion projected deficit over the next two years, formed the avowed rationale for his proposal to demand higher contributions from K-12 teachers and college faculty for their health care and pensions, and to remove their right to collectively bargain. While university faculty generally comprise a small percentage of the rolls of public workers overall, their salaries, levels of education and visibility compared to other public employees have made them targets of late.

The assertion that public employees are overpaid has been rebutted elsewhere. Jeffrey Keefe, associate professor at Rutgers University's School of Management and Labor Relations, has argued that the opposite is true, once you compare people of similar levels of education and experience, and the size of the companies at which they work.

And, if one shrinks the size of the sample even further -- to full-time university faculty -- research offers little support for the argument that unionized faculty laborers are more costly than non-unionized ones. In 2002, Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, along with three of his undergraduate students at the time, Daniel B. Klaff, Adam T. Kezsbom and Matthew P. Nagowski, analyzed several existing studies on how collective bargaining affects faculty salaries relative to faculty who are not covered by such agreements.

How big was the difference between the two groups? Not very. "These studies suggest that, at best, faculty unions increase their members’ average salaries by a very small percentage and some find that faculty unions have had no effect," they wrote.

Such findings should not be surprising, continued Ehrenberg and his co-authors. They noted that most faculty members covered by union contracts lack the legal right to strike. They also describe the two major sources of revenue that pay for faculty salaries -- tuition and state appropriations -- as controlled, most often, by the legislature and governor, not by the trustees of the institution. "With little bargaining power and very few monopoly rents to extract," they wrote, "one should expect very small union impacts on faculty salaries."

Since then, other studies have produced similar results. A paper to be published in the upcoming issue of Industrial and Labor Relations Review looked at the effect of collective bargaining on faculty salaries. The authors -- John Krieg, associate professor and Steven E. Henson, professor of economics at Western Washington University, along with David W. Hedrick, professor and Charles S. Wassell, Jr., associate professor of economics at Central Washington University -- examined the pay of faculty at four-year institutions around the country and controlled for regional differences in cost of living as well as whether a campus was engaged in collective bargaining. They also corrected for measurement error and other factors.

"Making all of these adjustments simultaneously reduces the union wage premium to statistical insignificance," they wrote. Krieg said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that the goals of eliminating collective bargaining and trying to lessen labor costs were "mutually exclusive" because their research indicated that the connection between the two was so flimsy.

The research does not account for the largest share of the academic labor force in public higher education: adjunct faculty. (And, to many who are familiar with the current state of higher education, using the image of an aging, tenured and well-compensated professor as the face of the entire professoriate makes little sense.) Many adjuncts cobble together part-time jobs on multiple campuses in order to earn a living, and their rights to unionize vary in wide and complex ways between campuses and states. In some cases, adjuncts can join their own unions, while in others they belong to the same bargaining units as full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty members, which has been a source of friction. "The problem," Ehrenberg told Inside Higher Ed, "is that data on adjunct compensation is so limited and sketchy that it would be very difficult to see what the impact of collective bargaining is on them."

Within higher education, a significant difference does exist in the wages of unionized and non-unionized faculty -- at two-year institutions, where teaching loads tend to be heavier. Stephen G. Katsinas, professor, and David E. Hardy, associate professor of higher education at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, worked with Jose Frank Maldonado of Tarrant County College to study salaries at more than 1,000 community colleges. When comparing faculty salaries of unionized faculty to those of non-unionized ones, the differences could be stark. At small, rural community colleges where faculty members were allowed to collectively bargain, salaries were 11 percent higher than at similar types of colleges where the faculty could not. The difference increased to 48 percent at suburban campuses. Across regions, Katsinas, Hardy and Maldonado found that unionized faculty at community colleges earned, on average, over $13,000 each year, or 32 percent, more than those who worked on campuses that did not collectively bargain.

The research has comparatively little to say about the differences in pensions and health care between the public and private sectors. But some observers acknowledge that both have become valuable commodities for the average private sector worker as employer-provided pensions have grown scarce and health care premiums have skyrocketed. Nick DiGiovanni, a lawyer with Morgan, Brown & Joy in Boston, who has been part of many union negotiations on the management side of the table, said that health care is where the most pitched battles tend to occur. Unions push hard on what share of health care premiums their members will pay, or whether they will be responsible for, say, a $10 or a $15 copay for a medical visit. "That’s a constant battle," said DiGiovanni. "Unions will fight very hard for that issue." It is here, perhaps, where Walker's critique of the haves and have-nots resonates most strongly.

A similar disparity is evident in pensions. While many private sector workers have seen their employer-paid pensions scaled back or disappear, or had the risk placed entirely on their shoulders via defined contribution plans, the majority of those who work for state governments, including college faculty members, still participate in defined-benefit plans with guaranteed payouts. DiGiovanni said that, in his experience, pensions for faculty are often invested in 403(b) plans and do not frequently figure into negotiations. In other cases, faculty pensions are part of the broader, state-managed plans, whose solvency -- some estimates project their shortfalls at $1 trillion or more -- has attracted considerable worry.

The dire fiscal straits of such plans have been attributed by some, such as Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, chiefly to the drop in the stock market between 2007-9. Ehrenberg said that states also underfunded their obligations during the stock market boom. "Often, they didn’t put the money into reserve accounts," he said, referring to state governors and legislators. "This isn’t unique to faculty unions. I think, in general, the unions are being blamed now for what is the responsibility of government officials."

After all, Ehrenberg added, decisions about pensions are essentially long-term commitments that are made by politicians with short-term interests. "It’s easy to give in on benefits because the costs of the benefits don’t show up until down the road," he said.

Politics and Power

If, as a whole, faculty salaries don't increase markedly as a result of unionization, it raises a different set of questions. For starters, why have faculty unions in the first place?

Faculty advocates say that unions' real role lies elsewhere: in shaping the working conditions of the faculty they represent and in giving input into the workings of the university. "All things considered, it’d be nice to have better wages, but it's not our primary purpose. It’s to secure the prime conditions for the integrity of the faculty," said Tom Auxter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida and president of United Faculty of Florida, which is affiliated with the Florida Education Association, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the AFL-CIO. Florida has also seen its share of recent labor strife, as when the UFF fought successfully in November for the reinstatement of 21 tenured faculty members at Florida State University; a bill has also been proposed in the state house, which would force collective bargaining units to seek recertification if they represent fewer than half of eligible employees in an organization.

Auxter said such "prime conditions" for faculty include due process, grievance procedures that end in binding arbitration, transparent and fair evaluations and clear, objective tenure guidelines. Full-time faculty members in Ohio recently pointed to similar conditions, and to unions' roles in such comparatively low-cost and small-scale victories as domestic partner benefits.

More generally, the existence of unions sets up a more predictable relationship between management and labor, both sides say. Collective bargaining, grievance procedures and binding arbitration offer systematized ways to resolve disputes, said Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, which, while best known as a professional association, is also a union on some campuses. "You don’t have all-out confusion and war. It can actually reduce conflict," he said. "It’s counterintuitive, but it’s ideally what collective bargaining is doing."

He predicted that states moving to kill collective bargaining will come to see that the alternative is unappetizing. "I think what they’re going to find in Ohio is they’re going to be in the midst of expensive litigation that will end up costing Ohio taxpayers a lot more money."

More important, what unions do is give faculty some leverage over the workings of the university, and the kinds of labor conditions that have an impact on learning -- such as class size or the availability of campus office space for adjuncts, said Rhoades.

Recent research confirms this point. Stephen R. Porter, associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University, and Clinton M. Stephens, a graduate research assistant there, looked at a national survey of presidents and faculty senate leaders. They measured the level of shared governance at 341 public universities. "We find," they wrote in November, "that unionization greatly increases faculty influence over decision-making in areas such as setting faculty salary scales, individual faculty salaries, appointing department chairs, and appointments to institution-wide committees."

Implicit in such research and in the complaints of many professors is that faculty senates have little impact on their own. Too often, they provide advice that is ignored, many professors say. Some of these bodies have been suspended outright, as has happened on campuses from Idaho to New York. In contrast, a union gives the senate more legal force, said Rhoades. "This is about power," he said. "Senates would not negotiate workload; they’d be meeting and conferring -- or more accurately, meeting and deferring -- over a range of issues."

But critics of unions in higher education see the combination of collective bargaining and tenure as providing an undue level of protection to the professoriate (including the worst among them). "With that sort of belt-and-suspenders security you can expect that even the laziest, most incompetent or radical professor won't get fired," Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of the upcoming book, The Faculty Lounges ... And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the Higher Education You Paid For, wrote in an op-ed Thursday in USA Today. Riley and others also see union members' desire to weigh in on curriculum, class schedules and grading as a case of overreach. "They want to influence how the whole system works," she wrote.

Rhoades, on the other hand, sees overreach in the efforts of some Republican lawmakers to target unions. He also predicted political blowback, and pointed to recent polling showing a nearly 2-to-1 ratio of support for public workers. "I believe they will pay for that," he said. "One way of thinking of it is that our country has not grown by taking away people’s rights."

Many have argued that, ultimately, the recent efforts to scuttle collective bargaining are really a bid to weaken the power base of the Democratic party. "This is not an economic issue. This is a political issue," said Rhoades. "This is a battle over power, not state budgets."

Such efforts may yet prove to be a shrewd political calculation, said Jefferson Cowie, associate professor of labor history at Cornell. "The problem is that the divide-and-conquer strategy works very well," he said. While he was surprised that Wisconsin, with its history of progressive politics and friendliness to labor, became the staging ground for a battle over public sector unions, he said the targeting of public unions was the inevitable result of a campaign against organized labor whose last signal moment was President Reagan's firing of unionized air traffic controllers.

For years, middle-class wages have stagnated and income inequality has risen, he noted. In the end, struggling private sector workers have come to resent the pension or the less onerous health care costs of, say, their neighbor, the parole officer. "It’s a complex story with a simple political answer," said Cowie. "Bash the unions."


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