Invoking the National Labor Relations Act. the president moves to terminate a shutdown of the major Bowl Games following work slowdowns, student riots and threatened strikes by college football players. Ending the lockout may be good news for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, local economies in cities with major bowls, those counting on television revenues and football fans, but leaders of the United Auto Workers, Teamsters, United Electrical Workers, unions already representing graduate and undergraduate students, and a host of public unions say the president’s move will enable them to rally voters for midterm elections.
Does this scenario sound plausible? Given the recent ruling of a National Labor Relations Board regional office to back a bid by football players at Northwestern University to unionize, the answer is yes, in theory at least, although we are years away from resolution of this case. The accelerating trend toward unionization in higher education — far beyond athletics — suggests that public officials, policy makers, corporate leaders, legislators and especially educators might take a second look at why academic institutions are proving fertile grounds for organizing efforts.
History provides some context. Undergraduates working in resident halls, libraries and other ancillary units of universities have been organized for over a decade. For example, at the University of Massachusetts, the UAW overcame opposition at the state labor board and successfully organized over 300 undergraduate residence hall workers. At the University of California, undergraduates are found in unions representing teaching assistants, readers and tutors, although the majority of members are graduate student employees. Graduate student unions have been successful at many public universities including the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin and Oregon, and union organizing drives are nascent at many elite private universities, pending a ruling of the NLRB on such unions. , one more sympathetic to organizing. Over the years, labor management conflict with graduate students has involved New York, Yale, Brown, and Columbia Universities, among others.
While those who oppose graduate student unions regularly talk as if the sky would fall at their institutions, it’s also the case that places like the University of Michigan – unquestionably one of the best places in the country to earn a Ph.D. – have had T.A. unions for years, with no notable diminishment of the graduate school.
Across a wider landscape, adjunct and part-time faculty have organized successfully and, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education located at Hunter College CUNY, nearly 40 percent of full-time U.S. faculty (and many athletic coaches), primarily in large public state and city systems, have been unionized for decades. Particularly in states with enabling public sector labor legislation, whether red (Alaska) or blue (New York), the determining factors are administrative agencies, legal support and legislation allowing public employees to organize.
In the private sector (Northwestern) bargaining falls under the National Labor Relations Act, where the situation is more complex in academic organizations following a 1980 Supreme Court decision involving Yeshiva University, which effectively denied tenure-track faculty at private institutions the right to bargain. Here again, however many who work in food services, craft and laborer units, transportation and libraries, have been organized.
In the last 45 years, higher education has become one of the most heavily unionized sectors in the U.S. Why?
Although U.S. postsecondary education is emulated throughout the world, and our universities are clearly associated with greater productivity, economic vitality, upward mobility, democratic values, and higher career incomes, there has been, unfortunately, a decline in public support and resources. As resources are scaled back institutions identified alternative ways to generate new revenue streams and lucrative competitive sports contracts have been one such approach. Think about how much time leading university presidents have spent on conference realignment in recent years – does anyone really think the motive wasn’t money? And at the same time, there is more and more evidence that playing college football may not add up educationally (look at the low graduation rates at some institutions) or even physically (think about the emerging research about concussions). Is it really a surprise that some football players look at their role through an economic prism?
While many will shake their heads about the implausibility of student unions and labor conflict (the latter has been relatively rare in higher education), the questions we should be asking ourselves concern what we value, and what the purpose of education should be. Constituencies within postsecondary education have been organizing, first into crafts and disciplines, followed by union affiliation, for over 100 years. They have done so to assert control over what they view as their professional prerogatives, to achieve better working conditions, and as a reaction to external authorities who fail to appreciate the nature of shared authority in colleges and universities.
And this applies across the board. Do you think that if Ph.D. students earned their doctorates in five years, and had a good chance at a tenure-track job, and had decent health insurance and stipends, that they would be spending time on unionization?
The idea that unions and professionalism are incompatible is not substantiated, nor do unions by themselves hurt competitiveness or profitability (professional sports, an extremely profitable industry, is organized wall-to-wall). To date it has been difficult to say what exactly the impact of unions in higher education has been. What the Northwestern case presages is that we might have to look carefully at the roll of the NCAA and better-separate terms and conditions of employment from academic matters. Ultimately, universities may have to stop leveraging faculty time with the employment of part time, casual, and adjunct employees and students or face additional union drives.
It is our responsibility to ensure students and employees an ethical and transparent working and learning environment and we should also be cognizant that organized labor in America, particularly unions in shrinking industries where traditional members are disappearing, will vie with colleges and universities for the allegiance of students and employees. The alternative to lockouts rests in our ability to adequately fund and manage higher education while responding intelligently, respectfully and effectively to all, be they students or represented or non-represented employees.