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An update on unions in higher education

September 2, 2018

Nick Gierv

The advance of higher education unions has generally stalled at about 375,000 faculty—21 percent of private schools and 35 percent of public colleges and universities. This significant movement has leveled off primarily because 23 states still do not allow collective bargaining in the public sector. If they did, faculty unions would be as strong as they are in K-12, where those teachers are 75 percent unionized.

In 1976, when Democrat Cecil Andrus was governor, I co-authored a public employee bargaining bill, but it lost on a 4-4 vote in the Senate HEW Committee. The Reagan Revolution stopped most activity in the expanding anti-union Red States, but I tried again in 2004, primarily because of pressure from my own members.

This time I attempted to add Idaho’s college and university faculty to the law that K-12 teachers have been negotiating under for decades. Even with Republican Rep. Tom Trail’s help, the bill was not printed for consideration, and the chair of the Senate Education Committee assured me that it was safe locked in his desk.

Faculty at most major public universities have not chosen the advantages of collective bargaining, presumably because they believe that unions are beneath them and that they belong only at second tier colleges and universities.

For example, Western, Central, Eastern Washington State Universities, Evergreen College, and the community colleges have enjoyed the benefits of union contracts for years while UW and WSU professors have demurred.

The one exception is Oregon State University, where 2,400 faculty this spring chose the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to represent them in negotiations. I am a proud member of both.

After the OSU election, AFT national president Randi Weingarten, announced: “We will have the OSU faculty’s back as they negotiate a first contract to preserve shared governance, improve working conditions, and create the best possible environment for teaching, learning, research and outreach.”

While the faculty at the University of Michigan have declined their option to vote for a union, the lecturers there have finalized a contract that would increase their abysmal salaries by 30 percent, boosting their retirement income, improving health care, and strengthening job security. Their subpar starting salaries will go from $12,700 to $16,500 per year, still not a living wage.

Using public sector bargaining laws, more than 64,000 graduate assistants have unionized at 28 public institutions in California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington. The AFT, AAUP, the National Education Association, and the United Autoworkers have been chosen to represent teachers who have taken over an ever-larger share of instruction on our campuses.

Administrators initially opposed this movement claiming that graduate assistants were primarily students not employees, and that unions would somehow undermine their graduate education. State labor boards have overwhelmingly rejected this argument.

In August 2016, primarily because of Obama’s appointments, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate employees at private colleges and universities are bona fide employees and can unionize under the National Labor Relations Act, the law that has allowed collective bargaining in the private sector since 1935.

A 1980 Supreme Court decision upholding a view that faculty at private institutions are managers has limited unionization there. The NRLB, however, has determined that adjunct faculty at these schools are employees, and since 2012 there has been a 26 percent increase in bargaining units (20 more) on these campuses.

As a result of the NLRB’s decision on graduate assistants, there has been a dramatic increase in union drives by them at private, elite universities. They have chosen the AFT to represent them at Yale, Brown, Northwestern, Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Cornell University (coalition with NEA), and the University of Chicago (coalition with AAUP).

The United Autoworkers are also doing very well in their recruitment efforts, represent graduate student workers at Harvard, Columbia, Tufts, the New School for Social Research, New York University, Boston College, the University of Washington.

Graduate students finishing their degrees and entering the job market will find fewer tenure-track positions, as the percentage of professors in those position has declined dramatically from 70 to 30 percent. Those who were union members in graduate school and fortunate enough to be hired on tenure track will be future union leaders on their campuses.

Most undergraduate teaching is now done by part or full-time faculty on renewable contracts or by graduate assistants. It is absolutely imperative that they join academic unions to improve their salaries, benefits, and working conditions. Without collective bargaining they are very vulnerable and easily exploited.

Nick Gier of Moscow is President of the Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFT/AFL-CIO. He also taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. He can be contacted at ngier006@gmail.com.

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