US academics rally to union standard

As lecturers in the UK prepare for the UCU’s marking boycott, US campuses are experiencing a surge of unionisation

April 10, 2014

Source: Alamy

There is an imperative need to stop the corporatisation of higher education, and people realise you get power in one way: by coming together

When workers at a Volkswagen plant in the southern state of Tennessee rejected a bid to organise in February, it was just the latest in a long line of setbacks for the American labour movement.

According to census figures, union membership in the US has fallen from 28 per cent to a record low of 11 per cent in less than 50 years. And if struggling unions can’t even find new members in the automotive industry, on which they once famously had an iron grip, where can they?

In universities, apparently.

As American unions face embarrassing setbacks elsewhere, union activity at US universities is raging among full-time faculty in Illinois, part-time faculty in Washington DC and Boston, graduate research assistants in Michigan and even student athletes.

“This is certainly a fight for fair wages and fair working conditions, but it’s really a fight for the future of higher education,” says David Hecker, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “There is an imperative need to stop the corporatisation of higher education, and people realise you get power in one way: by coming together.”

Since the first higher education union was organised in 1968 at The City University of New York, unions have spread to encompass 40 per cent of academics at public universities nationwide, according to Mark Cassell, professor of political science at Kent State University. And while full-time faculty continue to join unions, most of the recent activity is among part-time faculty and graduate assistants. The AFT alone has signed up 80,000 of these academics, and the Service Employees International Union another 18,000 academics in the past year or so, at institutions including Georgetown, American, Tufts and Seattle universities and Whittier College in Los Angeles.

It is fertile ground. Of the 1.8 million people who teach at universities, more than three-quarters are now part-time, non-tenure track or graduate student assistants, the US Department of Education reports.

Part-time academics, also known as adjuncts, make a median of $2,700 (£1,600) per course and receive no medical or retirement benefits, according to a survey by advocacy group Coalition on the Academic Workforce – even as US universities significantly increase the tuition fees that they charge students.

“There are a lot of adjuncts who are looking at the amount of revenue coming into these schools, which are then turning around and giving the largest portion of their faculty such low rates of pay,” says Matt White, an adjunct who teaches web design at Lesley University in Cambridge, outside Boston, where he and his colleagues voted four to one in February to join the SEIU.

“Where’s all the cash going? It seems they’re playing us as cheap labour,” White argues. “That’s the feeling you’re finding, and why there’s so much momentum.”

Historic apathy, and occasional downright resistance, from full-time faculty towards greater rights for part-time faculty has also changed.

“There have been situations in the past – and this still happens now and again in various workplaces, and it’s wrong and it’s selfish – where people think that if other people organise there will be a nickel less for me,” Hecker says.

Now, however, full-time academics have become alarmed at what they consider to be universities’ attempts to chip away at their own rights, many observers say. And they’ve started teaming up with part-time and non-tenure-track colleagues on the principle that the enemy of their enemy is their friend.

Teachers on strike (10 April 2014)

“Tenured faculty, while they are compensated better than those other groups, are seeing ongoing attacks by administrators on faculty governance,” Hecker explains. “They’re also very concerned, as we all are, about the reduction in the number of tenure-track positions.”

Full-time faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for example, staged a two-day strike in February in support of non-tenure-track colleagues. The union there, which includes full-time and non-tenure-track faculty in separate collective bargaining units, wants non-tenure-track and part-time faculty pay increased substantially. Some full-time, non-tenure-track faculty are paid as little as $30,000 a year in a city with a comparatively high cost of living.

The public university says that it cannot afford to do that.

“There’s no way that the university doesn’t have this money, if they make the faculty a priority,” says Joseph Persky, an economist and president of the University of Illinois at Chicago United Faculty. “There’s a lot of money there and the question is, what do you want to spend it on?”

Since the strike, the two sides have resolved several major non-economic issues, although “there’s still some distance between us” on the compensation question, says Persky.

The unionisation push is not without detractors. Even as the academics at the University of Illinois at Chicago were on strike, their counterparts at the system’s downstate flagship campus at Urbana-Champaign were fighting over whether to allow a union. More than 150 of the 1,900 faculty there have signed a petition against it.

There is “no evidence that academic excellence on our campus would be advanced”, the petition said, “by ceding control of many of our most important decision-making processes to local representatives of a national labor union”.

Union advocates affiliated with both the AFT and the American Association of University Professors are pressing ahead at Urbana-Champaign regardless. Among their arguments for organising, they cite salaries that are lower for academics than at comparable institutions, a forced furlough and questions about whether retirement pensions may be cut.

Divisions over unionising have now erupted into a battle for control of the AAUP. On some campuses, AAUP chapters are labour unions; on others, they’re professional associations. Two of its former presidents complain that the AAUP has become too consumed with organising, to the detriment of members who are not in unions.

The former presidents have assembled a list of candidates to take over leadership of the organisation in an election that will be decided this month, on the grounds that in its drive to organise more collective bargaining units, the AAUP was overlooking the concerns of non-union members about such things as academic freedom, tenure and shared governance.

The current officers say that the criticism is groundless. “There are plenty of people in academia who think unions aren’t their thing, that they’re professionals and unions aren’t for them,” says Persky, in Chicago. “But morale is low, especially among faculty who have been on campus for a number of years.”

There are other hurdles for labour, including political opposition from Republicans who control legislatures in 26 states.

'Defend the Right to Form Unions' t-shirt

Michigan’s state legislature, for example, voted in 2012 to ban graduate research assistants from organising at the University of Michigan, although in February a federal judge struck down the measure as unconstitutional and organising efforts have resumed.

“Nothing is easy,” Hecker says. “Beside the Republicans, the board of regents had to tell the president of the university that this university supports people’s right to organise, and that research assistants are employees.”

As all sorts of employees accelerate their organising efforts, other universities have also taken steps to oppose them.

When adjuncts at Northeastern University in Boston began discussing joining a union, Northeastern hired the New York law firm Jackson Lewis, which the American Federation of Labor has called a “union-buster”. The university also sent a memo to faculty that said: “We are concerned about the impact that ceding your rights…to an outside organization, which is unfamiliar with our culture, will have on our community.”

That campaign is still under way.

Duquesne University in Pittsburgh has appealed a five-to-one vote by its part-time faculty to join the United Steelworkers union, the largest labour union in North America. A Roman Catholic university, Duquesne said that its religious affiliation means it is not subject to the authority of the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency that oversees union organising.

But higher education appears to remain a productive target for unions that are desperate for new members – beginning with the adjuncts.

“These folks have been suffering, but it’s finally reached a tipping point where they’re the majority of the instructors on campus. Yet they make poverty wages, they have no health insurance, they have no retirement benefits,” says Malini Cadambi Daniel, who heads the SEIU higher education campaign nationally.

“They’re incensed,” Daniel says. “They see growing administrations with large salaries, all kinds of building on campuses. They see spending that happens on things that are ancillary to instruction. That’s all well and good if the people who are actually doing the business of the college were being treated well. But you have this giant disparity between the people who are actually teaching and everybody else – the coaches, the administrators.”

Another group on campus sees that, too: college athletes. Conscious of the huge sums made by universities in merchandise and television rights, some of them have also made a bid to unionise.

American football players at Northwestern University have succeeded in the first step of their bid to form a union by persuading the NLRB to rule that they are not students, but rather employees, for the sake of organising. In a hearing, they argued that the sport was more than a full-time job, demanding up to 60 hours a week. The university disagreed, saying that practice sessions were arranged to accommodate class times and study schedules, but the government agency has sided with the students.

The decision affects private (but not public) universities, at which the College Athletes Players Association plans to press ahead with unionising efforts nationwide.

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Reader's comments (1)

Glad to hear this - exploitation of non-tenure academics and graduate students is short-sighted and disgusting in places of learning. Grassroots organising (as during the inception of unions) has also been happening on a significant scale in the US in relation to fast food chain wages via campaigns for a living wage.

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