When higher education managers and labour leaders gather for an annual conference in New York next week, the usual topics will be on the agenda: long-term contracts, retirement issues, how to analyse a budget and the ins and outs of negotiations.
But organisers from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, which sponsors the conference, expect one topic to dominate discussion: the recent attacks on US public sector unions, whose employment conditions and pensions have become a target of cash-strapped, cost-cutting governors and legislators and their political allies.
The conference comes just weeks after a contentious vote by Wisconsin's Republican-dominated Senate to strip public employees, including state university staff, of collective bargaining rights, despite prolonged and angry demonstrations by tens of thousands of union members.
Only slightly less onerous restrictions have been introduced in Ohio, where legislators voted to classify staff as managers to make them ineligible for collective bargaining. Similar moves are also under consideration in Indiana.
"The battle has been joined," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history who specialises in unions, and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The votes in Wisconsin and Ohio, he said, "make it easier for the University of California system, or any other state university, to do whatever they want to staff - if the momentum continues".
The union march
In fact, the attacks on unions, including those representing university employees, seem to have had an unintended effect: staff are fighting back.
Unionisation drives on US campuses have been re-energised, and labour representatives from universities in 21 of the 50 states have met to launch a national campaign telling their side of the story.
Employees at the University of Wisconsin campuses in La Crosse and Stout defiantly voted 249 to 37 to unionise, right in the midst of the state's legislative battle.
"There's a tremendous countermobilisation going on," Professor Lichtenstein said.
Staff at all the public universities in Montana have been organised by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA).
Within the past year, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) organised the staff at the University of Connecticut Health Center, and full-time and tenure-track staff at Bowling Green State University in Ohio formed a union and joined the AAUP.
The AAUP is also running organising campaigns at New Mexico State University and, jointly with the AFT, at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Oregon.
"There are increasing numbers of members of the academic workforce looking to collectively bargain," said Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the AAUP.
"The backlash is now against the Republicans who have pushed through this legislation."
Professor Rhoades claimed that polls show that members of the broader public - presumably worried about their own salaries and benefits - support the unions by as much as two to one, although the margin of support depends on who conducted the poll.
Bargaining en bloc
The degree to which US public employees can bargain collectively varies from state to state. This means that, while less than 28 per cent of public university teaching staff (or 302,000 of an estimated 1.1 million nationwide) are unionised, the percentage is considerably higher in some states than in others, and more than double the rate for all US workers.
Just under 12 per cent of Americans belong to unions, a figure that has been declining since the 1950s.
"The professoriate is, for the US, a highly unionised workforce where collective bargaining is available to faculty," Professor Rhoades said.
The changes in Wisconsin, which have been temporarily blocked by a judge, do not preclude public university staff from becoming unionised.
However, staff can no longer bargain collectively for benefits including pensions, a right they won in Wisconsin only two years ago. The spiralling costs of those pensions are seen as major contributing factors to state budget deficits.
Unions in Wisconsin are now also required to hold recertification votes every year, and cannot propose pay rises beyond the rate of inflation without a majority vote in favour.
Still, plans are continuing for staff to vote on joining a union at Wisconsin's public universities in River Falls, Stevens Point, Green Bay and Superior.
University employees have so far escaped much of the vitriol aimed at public school teachers and others by anti-union forces, who claim they are overpaid, underworked and rewarded with pensions that taxpayers can no longer afford.
"Public school teachers have become much more widely unionised, so they've become (seen as) part of the Democratic Party and are considered part of a larger welfare state in all its aspects," Professor Lichtenstein said.
There has been less demonisation of university employees than of other public workers, he argued, largely because university staff are not as widely unionised in as many places - or as immediately visible.
The public defence
But staff are nonetheless vulnerable to the continuing criticism, said Richard Boris, a former union official, a professor of political science and director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, which is based at Hunter College in New York.
"We will have the same result (as school teachers) unless higher education unions and management first understand themselves, and bring the public along with them, as to what public universities are about," Professor Boris said.
"We have to make people understand that our public universities are first for our students, who otherwise would not be able to have a university education. But we don't articulate it well. All the data indicate that staff are not overpaid, and most of the data indicate that faculty work hard.
"What they don't do is work smartly in regard to the public or their students in terms of public perception, and that has become fatal.
"It's also a part of the anti-intellectual, nativist subtext in our culture. I would hate to look for a public groundswell (of support) if a faculty goes on strike," Professor Boris said.
There is work under way to change that.
"It's something we've been encouraging our members and the chapters to do, to make the case that they are doing more than just teaching a couple of classes, that they're involved in their communities," said John Curtis, the AAUP's director of research and public policy.
Nor are staff reassured by the news that in Ohio it was an association of the public universities that gave legislators the idea of reclassifying all university employees as managers, and thereby disqualifying them from collective bargaining.
But the pro-union reaction on campuses has gone beyond full-time, tenured academics. Increasing numbers of part-time and contingent or so-called adjunct staff are also joining unions. Postdoctoral students too are following the trend, with those at the University of California and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey having recently organised.