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Bonneau Says: Is Unionization Good For Faculty?

  • Bonneau Says:

    Is Unionization Good For Faculty?

    Faculty Union?

    One of the hot topics on my campus is the possible formation of a faculty union. In the past, I have been opposed to faculty unionization, but given some of the recent changes to higher education, specifically the threats to academic freedom, use of faculty evaluative metrics by administrators, and budget woes in several states, I am starting to reconsider.

    It seems to me that there are two key questions that need to be answered when evaluating whether one should support unionization: (1) is unionization good for the faculty in general, and (2) is unionization good for me as a faculty member. Separating these two questions seems especially important given the range of duties and responsibilities of different faculty members.

    At most institutions, there are full-time faculty who have responsibilities for teaching and service. There are also a number of contingent faculty who have responsibility for teaching a course or two, but who are more transient; they are not full-time employees of the university. At research universities, there are also faculty who have primary responsibility for conducting research. At a typical research university, you have tenured and tenure-track professors responsible for teaching, research, and service; full-time lecturers who are responsible for teaching and maybe some service; and part-time instructors who are just responsible for teaching. Given this wide variation in duties, it is not clear how one can engage in collective bargaining that adequately represents all groups. This can be exacerbated when there are branch campuses associated with a main campus.

    This is not to say that it cannot be done—or done well. Indeed, several of my colleagues at research universities work in places with a faculty union.  And, for the most part, those universities seem to have no problem attracting and retaining faculty when other universities try and poach them.

    It seems to be that there are four arguments in favor of faculty unionization:

    Fairness and transparency in salaries. At many institutions, faculty salaries are largely at the discretion of the Chair and/or the Dean, and faculty have little recourse to dispute them. Moreover, at places where salaries are not disclosed, faculty have no opportunity to investigate whether they are the victim of discrimination in their salaries. This is a classic Lilly Ledbetter situation: if you don’t know your salary is unfairly low, you can’t take steps to remedy it.

    Regularized wage increases to keep up with inflation. Many of my colleagues across the country have not received a raise in years, despite performing exceptionally on their annual reviews. As state legislatures have decreased funding to institutions, faculty has seen their salaries stagnate, and in some cases have even had to take furloughs (effectively a wage cut). A union contract could ensure that faculty salaries keep up with inflation.

    A process to file and process grievances. As a member of my university’s Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee since 2011, I have seen a number of faculty who have legitimate grievances, but who are unaware of how to act. Additionally, in many cases the faculty member is on his/her own to navigate the process or how to pay for counsel out of their own pocket. A union would provide advice and counsel to these faculty members.

    Predictability and transparency in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. While every place has policies over the hiring (and firing) of faculty, the fact is that internal policies can be ignored when it is convenient. Having procedures codified in a contract would protect all candidates and help ensure fairness.

    That said, in my opinion, there are some significant negatives associated with unionization:

    Lack of flexibility. When everything is collectively bargaining, the administration loses a lot of flexibility to accommodate faculty requests. Things such as extra research money, courses off, a rearranged course schedule to accommodate a crisis, etc. may all be off the table. For example, instead of teaching two courses each semester, it is possible to me to negotiate with my Chair and the Dean to teach three one semester and one the next if I needed to do so for some medical or family reason. If we had a collectively bargaining contract stating what my responsibilities are, that may be off the table.

    Lack of merit pay. At many universities, there are pay increases for “merit” as well as cost-of-living. How would merit pay work under a contract? Would it be reduced? What of additional supplements to correct salary compression?

    Tension between faculty and administration. Having a union necessarily pits the faculty against the university administration. Historically, university administrators came up through the ranks of the faculty, so the notion of shared governance and collective decisionmaking was a natural product of this. A faculty union could harm that symbiotic relationship. That said, recently, more and more university presidents and chancellors are coming from the private sector, many with no university experience whatsoever. For an extreme example, see the case of Mt. St. Mary’s. Needless to say, universities are not structured like the typical corporation; the institutions of tenure and academic freedom ensure that. So maybe the fears of increased tension are overblown.

    Having no experience of working at a place with a union, it is hard for me to take a position as to whether the benefits exceed the costs or not. I’d be interested in hearing from those of you with experience—good and bad. While each case is context-dependent (in terms of the institution, the union, and the faculty), there may be some commonalities worth considering.

    Chris BonneauBonneau Says is a monthly (more or less) Profology column from Chris W. Bonneau with his thoughts on important issues facing academics, and his life as a professor. 

    Chris is associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has been since 2002. His research is primarily in the areas of judicial selection (specifically, judicial elections) and judicial decisionmaking. Bonneau's work has been supported by the National Science Foundation and he has published numerous articles, including in the American Journal of Political Science and Journal of Politics. He is also the coauthor of three books: Strategic Behavior and Policy Choice on the U.S. Supreme Court (2005), In Defense of Judicial Elections (2009), and Voters' Verdicts: Citizens, Campaigns, and Institutions in State Supreme Court Elections (2015). Currently, Bonneau is co-editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterly, the official journal of the State Politics and Policy Section of the American Political Science Association.

    Professor Bonneau teaches undergraduate classes in constitutional law, judicial politics, and research methods, as well as graduate classes in judicial politics and research design. He has served on the Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee at Pitt since since 2011.


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