Full-time faculty members like the idea of being part of associations that would represent their issues and advocate on their behalf. But they are much more skeptical of having those associations be unions.
That is the key finding of a new poll of full-time faculty members at public colleges and universities who are not unionized, but who are in states where unions would be legal. The poll was commissioned by the AFL-CIO and conducted by an independent pollster.
The results have organizers for the American Federation of Teachers, the largest union of faculty members, thinking that there is significant potential for organizing more professors -- if the union can find the right approach to faculty members.
"There is a conflict around what kind of organization would best represent their interests," said Paul E. Almeida, president of the Department of Professional Employees at the AFL-CIO. "But this shows that there is a desire to have representation."
The conflict is evident in responses to two questions in the poll. Asked if they favor creating an organization to help represent their interests, 52 percent of faculty in the poll said Yes. But only 37 percent favor a union.
Support for the idea of creating a union also depends on professors' success without one. Professors on the tenure track but without tenure are more likely than those with tenure to favor a union (45 percent to 34 percent). And those who aren't satisfied with their jobs are more likely to support a union than are those who are satisfied (55 percent to 31 percent).
The poll also asked faculty members what they feared about unions. Among fears listed as "very serious" or "fairly serious" by professors are: creating tension with management (52 percent); strikes (51 percent); and protecting poor performers (43 percent).
When faculty members were asked for convincing reasons to have an organization in the workplace, the top reasons focused on professional needs and institutional finances, not just the bread-and-butter issues of salaries and benefits. The top reasons in this category were gaining a stronger voice on state and national policies (53 percent); fighting trends that hurt professional quality (53 percent); and protecting colleges from budget cuts (52 percent).
A report accompanying the poll, which was also conducted on nurses and technology workers, said that a "broad messaging conclusion suggested by these research findings is the central importance of speaking to these employees' professional identity and values."
Jamie Horwitz, associate director of public affairs for the AFT, said of the results: "People are looking for what a union can do, but don't want to call it a union."
Horwitz expressed confidence that the information in the poll could be used effectively to boost union drives. He noted, for example, that while faculty members fear that unions will lead to strikes, such job actions take place in only a very small fraction of cases, and the norm is that contracts are negotiated without anyone missing a day of work.
Almeida of the AFL-CIO said he realized that faculty members and other professionals have images of unions that need to change. "We need to debunk the idea that we're all about Hoffa and that we're mobbed up," he said.
The need to emphasize professional issues was evident at the AFT's annual higher education meeting,  which was held this month. While there were plenty of sessions about negotiating contracts, there were numerous sessions on professional issues, and discussion of such topics as affirmative action, distance education and curricular trends. And the policy issues that drew the most attention -- the Academic Bill of Rights and cuts to state budgets -- were discussed in terms of their impact on all professors, not in terms of contracts or salaries.
At the same time, however, a union culture was clear -- in the rousing applause for criticism of President Bush, in some session leaders calling on audience members as "Brother" and "Sister," and with many speakers at sessions and in informal discussions introducing their ideas by saying "As a unionist...."
Horwitz said that even with these cultural challenges, the AFT can succeed in organizing more professors. He noted that part-time faculty members (who were not polled) meet the characteristics of those more likely to support unions, and that the shift away from tenure-track positions is leaving more faculty members looking for protection and support. The AFT currently has major organizing drives of faculty members in West Virginia and Washington State. And more are coming, he said.