‘A Voice That Needs to Be Heard’

The American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers are teaming up to boost faculty say in legislative affairs and in academe’s future.

March 8, 2022

The American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers on Monday announced plans to expand their affiliation and become a stronger faculty voice in national, state and campus-based discussions about the future of higher education.

Under the tentative agreement, each group would maintain its independent mission and organizational structure, but union organizing activities would be combined. The AFT would also contribute to the AAUP’s nonunion advocacy efforts regarding academic freedom and tenure. The AAUP would also continue to censure institutions for alleged violations of faculty rights.

Irene Mulvey, president of the AAUP and professor of mathematics at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said the groups are expanding their partnership as professors face challenges on multiple fronts, from continued attacks on tenure to legislation limiting their ability to discuss certain topics in the classroom.

“There are so many problems right now.” Mulvey said. “One of the best things about the agreement is that it will enable us to do more work at the federal and state legislative levels. The combination of AFT, with their state federations, and the AAUP, with our expertise and our 107-year history of setting principles and standards for higher education—together we can really make some headway and have an influence on legislation.”

Ultimately, Mulvey continued, the AAUP and AFT “really complement each other. So the tentative affiliation agreement maintains entirely distinct organizational strengths, and at the same time creates a powerful structure that will enable us to combine these complementary strengths to enhance the faculty voice in higher education—to make the academic labor movement more powerful.”

Asked about specific legislative goals for this new enhanced partnership, Randi Weingarten, AFT president, cited the AFT’s and AAUP’s previously announced New Deal for Higher Education. The proposed legislative agenda seeks reinvestment in higher education at the state and federal levels, the end of mass employment of low-paid adjunct instructors, academic freedom surrounding the teaching of inequality and U.S. history, student debt relief, and increased college access.

Weingarten said the expanded relationship between the AFT and AAUP is a “game changer for higher education, and I think it’s a game changer for democracy. Democracy is under assault, and a strong higher education movement is needed to bolster and protect it. And I think this partnership is more than the sum of its parts.”

The AAUP, which has both advocacy and collective bargaining chapters, currently has about 44,000 members. AFT is the nation’s second-largest education union, behind the National Education Association, with about 1.7 million members total—most of them in K-12 schools.

This new agreement, if approved by the AAUP’s delegate assembly in June, would bring the number of faculty members the AFT and the AAUP represent to about 300,000, the largest such faculty alliance in the U.S.

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Both groups have more than a decade of formal joint union organizing, with AAUP-AFT–affiliated union chapters currently representing more than 20,000 faculty and staff members.

Going forward, all higher education union chapters affiliated with the AFT or the AAUP would be affiliated with both groups.

The AFT also plans to become more invested in the AAUP’s advocacy related to academic freedom and tenure.

The AAUP’s and AFT’s most recently established joint union chapter is at the University of New Mexico. A contract agreement reached there last year increased pay for both full-time and part-time professors and increased job security for part-timers.

Mulvey said that organization is already “a big part of what we do, but this enhances our capacity to organize. And so we’ll be able to look forward to organizing community colleges, graduate students, R-1 [research] institutions, contingent faculty.”

The AAUP’s governing council voted over the weekend to recommend the plan, ahead of the delegate assembly vote.

As for whether the AAUP’s delegate assembly will approve the deal, Mulvey said, “faculty I’ve talked to were really excited about it. I’m optimistic that it will pass.”

AAUP advocacy chapters have been growing in number since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In 2019, 36 chapters were chartered, compared to 69 in 2020, for instance.

According to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, union petition filings across higher education have increased in the past several months. This is likely due to the effects of COVID-19.

Rudy Fichtenbaum, professor of economics at Wright State University, former AAUP president and current nonvoting member of the AAUP Council, said he personally thinks the affiliation is a “great idea.”

“Clearly, higher education, academic freedom and democracy itself are under attack,” he said. “The key to defending the values and the principles of AAUP, which the AFT totally supports, is collective action. This affiliation will strengthen the ability of faculty—tenured, tenure track, full-time non-tenure track, part-time, graduate students and researchers—to fight back against the attack on knowledge and science, attacks on academic freedom and political interference with teaching students and engaging in scholarship, as well as fight for a New Deal for Higher Education.”

Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University who studies labor in higher education, and who is the current president of Rutgers’s AAUP-AFT–affiliated faculty and academic staff union, said, “Whether we’re talking about attacks on academic freedom and what goes on in the classroom, or about manufactured austerity being imposed on universities, or even the student debt crisis, we’re facing so many challenges that it’s really important to think bigger and think more broadly in order to address them.”

Givan said she hoped that the new partnership would therefore be “an effective voice for higher education,” including in advocating for a “massive and massively increased investment in higher education.”

Howard Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University who’s previously held national and state leadership roles within the AAUP, specifically those focused on collective bargaining, said, “Whether on campuses where unions are possible or not, this agreement will help give academic workers more of a voice—and it is a voice that needs to be heard, now more than ever.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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