How well prepared are academic administrators to meet the challenge of unionization?

Understanding the new academic workplace will require new skills and knowledge.

Invoking the National Labor Relations Act, the U.S. president moves to terminate a ten-day shutdown of all major East Coast universities following work slowdowns among unionized undergraduates and student riots in New York and Boston.(n1) Ending the lockout may be good news for local economies, faculty, and parents, but labor leaders from the United Auto Workers (UAW), Teamsters, United Electrical Workers, and a host of public employee unions say the president's move will enable them to rally their members to vote Democratic in upcoming elections. Does this scenario sound like the 2002 dockworker dispute at West Coast ports prompted by lockouts of longshoremen? Could it happen in higher education? The accelerating trend toward unionization in the public and private sectors suggests that this scenario is not at all farfetched.

Consider this: on July 31, 2002, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and UAW Local 2322 agreed to begin negotiations on a first-time contract between the university and the 365 undergraduate residence hall and community/development assistants represented by Local 2322. During contentious unit-determination hearings, occasioned by the filing of unfair-labor-practice charges by the union, the university considered amending the unit to include all undergraduate student workers. University representatives later sought the restricted unit out of fear of the consequences of having all student workers organized if the board accepted their arguments.

On the Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego campuses of the University of California, the UAW represents undergraduates who work as teaching assistants, readers, and tutors in bargaining units many thought included only graduate students. The California Public Employment Relations Board has also indicated a willingness to assert jurisdiction over UC undergraduates working in casual and restricted job categories in residence halls and libraries.(n2)

At Columnbia University, a regional National Labor Relations Board found that undergraduates were properly included in a bargaining unit determined appropriate for graduate students. The ballots are currently impounded as the university and the UAW tangle over the status and appropriateness of the bargaining unit. At Stanford, unions have approached student athletes, arguing that they may be employees eligible for representation based on compensation the university provides (housing, meals, and the like). At the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University, unions have made similar inquiries. Pennsylvania judicial authorities are now considering whether certain forms of institutional aid can be construed as "compensation," thus clearing the way for employee status. The implications of altering the "amateur" status of student athletes could be far reaching.

Union activity among graduate students is well under way with the UAW, United Electrical Workers, Communications Workers of America, and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union making significant inroads, followed by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the AAUP. Collective bargaining relationships, negotiations, or protracted legal challenges involve nearly forty thousand students at about forty institutions and systems, including some of our most prestigious: Brown, Columnbia, and New York Universities; the City and State Universities of New York; the Universities of California, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin; and, of course, Yale University.

As unions seek to represent more graduate students in the public sector, sympathetic labor boards have not been shy about asserting jurisdiction in these disputes. University representatives, much to their chagrin, are learning that state labor statutes that govern collective bargaining often do not define the scope of bargaining or distinguish between undergraduates and graduates, discussing instead "employees."

In the private sector, the momentum to represent students as employees may be shifting toward the unions. NYU now has a first-time contract and graduate students at Cornell recently voted on unionization after the university voluntarily agreed to an election. The UAW is now chasing adjuncts and lecturers.

How has the union movement fared among the full-time professoriate? The National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education at Hunter College publishes directories that indicate that approximately 40 percent of full-time faculty, mostly in the public sector, are now represented by a bargaining agent. In the private sector, the number of institutions at which faculty have unionized has increased, not decreased, since the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, which effectively denied most faculty at private colleges and universities the right to unionize.(n3) Full-time and adjunct faculty remain the only unorganized groups of workers on campus at many larger public and private institutions in the United States, with the exception of those in the South.

In the last thirty-five years, higher education has become one of the most heavily unionized sectors in the United States, exceeded only by shipping, select heavy manufacturing, communication, and professional sports. Unionization in traditional blue-collar industries has declined, which is why industrial unions like the UAW have turned their sights on higher education in their efforts to sign dues-paying members.

How collective bargaining will affect our institutions is still debated, although the facts on the ground are changing the context of the debate. Unionization is an entrenched and growing phenomenon among students. Yet campus labor agreements, driven by economics and unpromising job markets, contain boiler-plate language prohibiting strikes, slowdowns, and work stoppages and including binding arbitration and, of course, the ubiquitous management-rights clause.

But do negotiation tactics and processes in higher education nonetheless resemble those in industry? Is a lockout really possible? Strikes by represented faculty and staff, which may occur during negotiations on successor agreements, are often met with ambivalence by faculty or confusion by administrators and boards. Situations are complex and organizational environments liberal and permissive. Few institutions have invoked disciplinary measures against illegal strikers or those who encourage others to engage in illegal work actions, even when labor agreements covering these employees contain no-strike provisions.

Strikes and work actions are not uncommon, whether they be at the University of California, Wayne State, or Yale. More tellingly, at least two institutions, the University of Bridgeport and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, have considered lockouts of demonstrating faculty, the latter on three separate occasions. Universities have not yet actually engaged in such hard-nosed tactics, but the conditions that lead to such actions may be crystallizing.

Consider also that few individuals who lead our major colleges and universities have labor relations expertise or decision-making styles conducive to effective institutional responses to union organizing drives. Institutions have greeted graduate student unionization by seeking legal counsel often familiar with hard-nosed "no representation" campaigns and lockouts. Not only are decision-making structures inadequate to manage unionization, the arguments used to dampen employee enthusiasm--that unions destroy professionalism, harm teacher-mentor relationships, lead to increased litigation costs, damage learning environments, and result in greater conflict--are also largely unsubstantiated (and not persuasive to state and federal labor boards). Nor, by the way, are there defensible data that prove that unions actually deliver the higher compensation that may have been promised during organizing drives. (The highest-paid faculty and graduate students work in union-free environments.)

A lack of good research on the impact of unionization is a serious handicap, because it inevitably leads to institutional or individual actions taken for emotional or political reasons or as a result of advice that may not be appropriate in higher education.

How can institutions address the drive for unionization and its potential impact, including lockouts? The following ideas should be considered:

  1. Institutions may have to stop leveraging faculty time with the employment of part-time, casual, or adjunct employees or be prepared to face union organizing. Ultimately, discontinuing this practice may mean an end to the "status quo" enjoyed by full-time faculty. Perhaps we might request that faculty or academic staff, rather than full-time students, supervise study sections, dormitories, and the like?
  2. Great care should be taken to separate terms and conditions of employment from academic matters. Where individuals are engaged primarily in employment responsibilities rather than scholarship or academic activities, they may be targeted for collective bargaining.
  3. If labor boards and courts continue to reject the argument that the employment status of students is inextricably tied to their academic status, serious consideration should be given to how students are "compensated." The effects on financial aid may be far reaching. However, we must develop cogent policies before our choices are narrowed. At a minimum, the rules, procedures, and regulations surrounding institutional assistance should be examined, applied uniformly, and monitored.
  4. Are institutional decision-making structures in place to accommodate the views of labor relations professionals? Such expertise differs from legal expertise and should be sought before or during policy debates, not after. Do deans and senior faculty understand how their actions will be perceived in the labor relations arena? Many of our colleagues continue to believe that they know best how to manage "their" students and staff. Union organizers harbor no such illusions.
  5. Administrative styles appropriate for consensus building in nonunionized environments may need to be retooled. That does not mean that labor-management relationships have to be adversarial; mature relationships are not. But it may mean that folks must worry less about being "popular," and it certainly means that we must stop turning a blind eye to the endless deals and exceptions routinely provided to favored employees (or students).

In settings in which those working and studying in higher education have voted in favor of unionization, organizers were able to exploit the following sentiments: (a) paternalistic environments rule out the possibility of fair and impartial grievance and appeal procedures; (b) outdated job descriptions, inadequate supervision, poor working conditions, and low pay will forever remain a fact of life; (c) adequate and fair compensation, particularly health and child care, are never given to the unorganized; (d) there is inadequate representation in campus decision-making forums that govern work policies; and (e) the institution lacks respect for work and fosters questionable relationships between work and educational programs.

The solution to avoiding contentious labor-management relationships is self-evident. Student, casual, part-time, adjunct, and full-time employees deserve an ethical and transparent working environment, and we must realize that organized labor in America will continue to vie with institutions for the allegiance of "employees." The only alternative to the possibility of lockouts rests in our ability to respond respectfully, intelligently, and effectively to all employees, be they non-represented or unionized.


(n1.) Enacted in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the primary law governing relations between unions and employers in the private sector; the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency, administers the NLRA.

(n2.) The California Public Employment Relations Board is a quasi-judicial agency that oversees public-sector collective bargaining in California.

(n3.) Private institution faculty seeking representation for purposes of collective bargaining have a more formidable task because of a less favorable legal and regulatory environment. Nonetheless, the number of bargaining agents and agreements has increased--albeit not dramatically--since the Yeshiva decision. In addition, although the overwhelming numbers of unionized faculty are in the public sector, most private institutions whose faculties were unionized at the time of the Yeshiva decision, with a few notable exceptions, have chosen to continue to work with their faculty unions rather than engage in costly litigation and adversarial relations, which typically result when institutions challenge faculty unions using Yeshiva-like arguments.


By Daniel J. Julius

Daniel Julius is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Benedictine University and former senior lecturer at the Schools of Business and Education at Stanford University.