Inside Higher Ed: Do faculty strikes work?

By Kaustuv Basu, for Inside Higher Ed

October 25, 2011

Last month, faculty members at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College went on strike for a week. When they returned to work, they did so without a new contract and without any movement in the negotiating position of the administration – the traditional goals of a strike. Also last month, faculty members at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University went on strike for four days before a five-year contract was signed with university officials.

Strikes have also been authorised by unions at Southern Illinois University; there is talk of one at California State University. Last week, faculty members at Rider University voted to authorise a strike. So did those at Lewis and Clark Community College.

The strikes and possible strikes (many authorisation votes aren’t followed by action) raise the question about whether work stoppages are still a viable option in these changing times.

Administrators and faculty members are guarded in their opinions.

Pam Ecker, American Association of University Professors spokeswoman at Cincinnati State, said the strike was planned for a week from the beginning, and was a way of demonstrating concerns. “The reason we chose to do so [go back to work] is because we did not want to disrupt the academic term,” said Ecker, a professor of technical and professional writing. The dispute centres around teaching workloads.

“I do not yet know if we will see a different demeanour from the administration,” Ecker said. “But strikes and collective bargaining remain a profound way of demonstrating serious concerns.”

About 200 full-time faculty members are represented by the AAUP, Ecker said. The college has about 575 adjunct professors. Talks between the union and administration were going on last week, and Ecker said some “new approaches” were being discussed but did not specify what they were.

At the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University, a strike by full-time faculty members resulted in a contract with a 1 per cent increase in base pay in the second year and a 1.5 per cent increase in the third year, according to Newsday. Before the strike, the union – C. W. Post Collegial Federation – rejected a five-year contract with a “one-time payment equal to 3 per cent of pay in the second year”, the newspaper reported. Jeffrey Kane, vice-president for academic affairs at Long Island University, stated in an e-mail that negotiations with the union were focused on salaries and benefits, and that the strike “did not materially change the compensation available for the faculty”.

Symbolic value?

Strikes are symbolic most of the time, and faculty strikes tend to be short-lived, said Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

“‘Let’s get down and discuss it, but let us end it early.’ That generally is the process,” he said. “The last thing they want to do is damage the students.”

But the academic workforce has changed in character, he said. The financial constraints at the national, state and local level, whether they are real or not, have led to the reduction in full-time employment in the academic workforce, Boris said, and full-time faculty members have been replaced by a large contingent of part-time employees.

“We don’t know how unions are going to adapt to this change,” he said, but added that unions in the academic workforce are growing.

Public universities are transforming, they are becoming less recognisable, he said. “Strikes are different now because the level of frustration is different,” he said. “Ten years ago, strikes were limited in their focus – mainly on the condition of employment. There are new tensions now as colleges are pushed to find new sources of income.”

But they remain an important tool. “They are always a viable tool but not the only tool,” he said.

Boris said a two-week strike at Eastern Michigan University in 2006 demonstrated how a strike could change the conversation, One benefit of that strike, said Howard Bunsis, professor of accounting and a former president of AAUP at the university, is that an independent third party, a state-mandated fact-finder, became part of the conversation.

The strike also united the faculty members, Bunsis said. “In each instance, we believe that exercising our right to association did help the faculty and ultimately helped the university.”

Sometimes, he said, strikes are the only way to get administrators to take notice. Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, who is a strong supporter of unions, said strikes in higher education have become more like public campaigns. In his opinion, to be successful, a strike has to reach out to stakeholders in the community.

One way in which strikes at universities are different from other kind of workplaces, said Ross, is that the money has already been collected from the students. In a traditional strike, a picket outside a store would discourage any purchases there, but at a college, a picket would only discourage students from getting the education for which they have paid.

“You cannot threaten the revenue flow,” Ross said

Ross said some university administrators have increasingly tended to hire union-busting law firms. “They have a playbook, and administrators tend to follow it page by page,” he said.

Jeff Cross, co-editor of The Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy, who is also the associate vice-president for academic affairs at Eastern Illinois University, but spoke only in his capacity as co-editor, said nothing much has changed in institutions that have collective bargaining.

“Any time we are in an academic setting, I think the perception is different because it is affecting our sons and daughters,” he said “But these are extraordinary times for public higher education. There are limits being put on bargaining, and those moves are certainly resonating with some in public.”

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