Back in the prelapsarian days of faculty unionization in the 1970s, when there were few laws on the books empowering and regulating collective bargaining in higher education, it was not uncommon for administrators to recognize a union simply because faculty had voted for it. It was an almost unspoken tenet of campus collegiality -- and a precursor to today's embattled concept of shared governance -- that institutions should honor the clear majority wishes of their faculty. That is essentially what happened recently to the graduate employee union drive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After a decade's struggle, the enlightened chancellor -- who has since resigned -- simply recognized the union.
There was a difference, however; the graduate student vote had taken place years ago and been dismissed as legally nonbinding. What graduate student employees had to do to apply a bit of leverage was to occupy the administration building. Details of that story are in Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy (Routledge, 2004). There is a general lesson in the Illinois strategy: you can get a union if your employee group has majority support for it and if you are willing to go the distance, to disrupt daily life on campus by nonviolent civil disobedience. That may well be what will be required at New York University this fall.
Every unionization drive now includes an aggressive anti-union campaign organized and funded by the administration. Why? Why has the civility of an earlier (and far from utopian) era disappeared? Why do administrators fear graduate student employee unionization drives? I'd like to propose some answers to these questions:
1. The character of higher education administration is changing. I still prefer the model of an eloquent and progressive administrator whom one can admire. That is my notion of appropriate campus leadership. I encountered such people several times at my undergraduate college (Antioch) and have done so repeatedly at Illinois, but in the last decade I have increasingly witnessed administrators who make exploiting the campus workforce a primary aim. When an administrator prefers to deny campus employees decent health care, satisfactory retirement benefits, a living wage, safe working conditions, and effective grievance procedures, that administrator is an adversary. Unionization does not invent adversary relationships in such cases; instead it recognizes them and tries to negotiate them in a rational way.
2. Every administrator wants full control over the budget and maximum personal power. Unions alter the forces effecting budget allocation. They change campus priorities. Even the modest gains graduate employees have won represent a symbolic loss of centralized power. Administrators fear the symbolism as much as the real impact. But the message successful collective action sends about the potential to change campus power relations more generally is a potent one that worries administrators considerably.
3. Unionization threatens the increasing use of contingent labor. A legally binding union contract may be the only way to limit the growing reliance on contingent labor. A contract can potentially restrict the percentage of courses taught by part-time faculty and by graduate students. Administrators would prefer to decide the ratio of full-time to part-time employees themselves.
4. Union solidarity and negotiation threatens increasing administrative desire to control both appointments and the curriculum. I have encountered growing administrative discomfort with traditional faculty control over appointments and growing administrative resistance to faculty control over the curriculum. Some administrators want the power to shift appointments and curricula quickly to meet corporate needs. Others simply want to emphasize more profitable majors.
5. Union solidarity strengthens academic freedom. With tolerance for campus dissent decreasing, administrators should welcome union organized support for academic freedom. Yet some administrators would prefer to capitulate to outside political and corporate pressure. It is depressingly clear that some administrators at our most prestigious campuses have no fundamental understanding of or respect for academic freedom. For them unionization seems a threat, not a benefit.
6. Unions can seek a role in defining the institution's mission. Not only administrators but also governing boards have shown interest in redefining the basic mission of colleges and universities. Where faculty senates are weak and submissive, both faculty and graduate students need a vehicle to express their views of the institution's purposes and goals. Mission statements that faculty and students find abhorrent need to be resisted.
7. Union contracts counteract the dramatic differences in campus compensation. More and more are campus salaries mimicking the increasing gap between corporate managers' earnings and those on the shop floor. As the gap between administrators' salaries and the salaries of those who teach or perform other campus work widens, the sense of common purpose is undermined. Yet too many administrators are comfortable with this trend and fear union power to resist or reverse it.
8. The greatest worry is with for sciences. A union representing research assistants in the laboratory sciences is likely to have the power to initiate grievance procedures. The secret of how some such labs are run in science and engineering is not well known. Students are often privately warned they cannot expect positive evaluations or recommendations unless they work 80-120 hours a week in the lab. Even with beginning grad students, who do not yet have dissertation projects, the time above 40 hours is treated as the student's personal research. Often it is actually virtually all research for the faculty member in charge of the lab. Established grad employee unions have regularly won grievance complaints against such practices, and that has real budgetary implications for the labs at issue. Exploitive labs are often established around a core of foreign students, many of whom do not have family in the United States and all of whom increasingly risk being thrown out of the country or denied entrance in the first place. Once a core of lab employees accepts the requirement of an 80-120 hour work week it is then possible to integrate American citizens into the same culture. Some of the other rules such labs put in place are equally surprising. Grad employees may be denied standard university holidays unless they work overtime in advance to "pay" for them. They may be assigned breakage fees for the loss of ordinary glass equipment. All these abuses will be fought by a good union.
9. Relations with faculty will be poisoned. This is a false fear, because unions tend to displace potential student/faculty confrontations. Instead of grad employees in a lab having to protest unfair working conditions to their supervisors, union negotiators initiate far less emotional and confrontational grievance procedures. Having experienced union representatives negotiate grievances reduces rather than increases antagonism. That is true both for exploitive labs and for humanities or social science courses that overwork teaching assistants. It is not in fact unusual for humanities department faculty to endorse grad employee union drives. They do so because they want their students to be better paid and because they do not see themselves as employers in any case.
10. Unions promote new identities for faculty and students. The last decade has seen a growing tendency for members of a given union to reach out to other employee groups on campus and the community. After several decades in which the self-interested, entrepreneurial faculty member has seemed the major identity available in higher education, unions have begun to promote socially responsible, community oriented identities. Some American Association of University Professors unions have reached out to help their grad employee colleagues organize for collective bargaining. Grad students and faculty have joined city-wide living wage campaigns. Grad employee unions especially have joined other campus and off-campus unions in job actions. The new Ph.D.'s who come of age in these community oriented unions enter the profession ready to pursue not only their own careers but also the well being of the whole community in which they live. An enlightened administrator has nothing to fear in this development and every reason to welcome it. But administrators who worship corporatization, not community, are coming to fear the rise of a faculty class who identify with all workers.
The American Association of University Professors recognizes the right of all campus groups to decide for themselves whether they wish to negotiate their salaries and working conditions collectively. The organization takes no position on whether they should opt to unionize. It simply recognizes that the right inheres in each employee group. Increasingly, campus administrators seek to deny that right. Several campuses have spent more fighting these drives than they would be likely to spend paying for benefits won in contact negotiations. Perhaps the reasons above help explain that anomaly.
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.