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Living with unions in higher education

Colleges and universities offer tips on managing unionizing efforts on campus
University Business, March 2015

The temperature around higher education unionizing efforts often runs hot. Officials are reluctant to have outside labor groups on campus or to relinquish control over important personnel decisions—including pay, benefits and other sensitive employee issues.

But should higher ed leaders fear unionization efforts?

One primary area of worry for institutions whose employees are beginning to organize is that assistance will come from groups unfamiliar with higher ed.

“To bring in an outsider— there is a lot of concern, rightfully, [over whether] these folks truly understand how a university operates,” says Scott Schneider, head of the Higher Education Practice Group for Fisher & Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm that represents employers.

The cost of unionizing can build quickly for an institution when hiring new administrators to handle new organizational structures, adds Schneider, who is also the associate general counsel for Tulane University in New Orleans.

However, experience proves that not all concerns are as dire as initially perceived, says Christian Sweeney, the AFL-CIO’s deputy organizing director.

“After a period of time, the universities realize that the sky isn’t going to fall when unions happen,” Sweeney says. “There are concerns about maintaining quality of programs, but those concerns are demonstrably misplaced. I don't think unions undermine academic quality—they improve it.”

Unions branching out

The growth of unions in both strength and numbers is inspiring a variety of higher education groups to consider the advantages of organizing.

Full-time, non-tenure track professors—already unionized at American University—are organizing on campuses across the country, such as Michigan State University and Rutgers.

William LeoGrande, American’s associate vice provost for academic affairs, says the majority of these professors are just looking to create a more solid future for themselves and their families.

Postdoctoral researchers are also beginning to organize. These researchers are at all 10 University of California campuses are represented by the UAW Local 5810, which is also known as the “Union for Post-Docs.” Pay is only a part this group’s agenda.

“Postdoctoral researchers are raising questions in universities concerning pay and benefits, as STEM is an area of massive growth in university employment,” says Christian Sweeney, the AFL-CIO’s deputy organizing director.

“Another area of concern is international researchers who have spouses who can’t work in this country.”

Unions have existed on at least some campuses for a century, with the Association of College Unions International recently celebrating its 100th anniversary. But heightened activity means more campus administrators are having to make room for organized labor.

Unions have gained traction recently at a variety of public and private institutions, including:

  • Property workers at Boston University.
  • Adjuncts at New York University, Tufts University in Massachusetts, University of Connecticut and Marist College in New York.
  • Tenure- and non-tenure track faculty at University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

And Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois continues to make news as its football players attempt to form a union, seeking year-round health benefits and other protections. (Salaries for players are not currently part of the negotiations.)

In fact, while numbers aren’t available for all areas of higher ed, data from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions shows that faculty and graduate students are organizing more and more. In 2012, about 390,000 faculty were members of collective bargaining units, a 14 percent spike from 2006.

But unions don’t spring up overnight. Here’s how campus officials have managed various stages of the unionization process on campus.

Inklings of organization

William LeoGrande, associate vice provost for academic affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., says labor relations were “generally positive” there before official unionization efforts began.

A student group organized in defense of adjunct rights during in 2012, and there was at least one demonstration. Off-campus meetings were held by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to brief adjuncts on the benefits of unionization.

American University administrators emailed adjuncts to convey the institution’s views of unionization .

“We didn’t aggressively oppose the campaign before the election [to negotiate a contract]. We strongly encouraged people to learn the issues and vote,” says LeoGrande. “Our thinking was, if every adjunct voted, that the union probably wouldn’t work. Most of our adjuncts are working professionals, and they teach because they enjoy it, not for benefits.”

LeoGrande says not much changed on campus during organization efforts. “The student rallies in support of the union only drew a couple dozen participants. Even most adjuncts did not seem very engaged, since turnout in the election was less than 50 percent,” he says.

Still, the numbers were strong enough to create a union. American’s adjuncts negotiated their first two-year contract on July 1, 2013.

The initial negotiation process

Security workers at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York voted to unionize eight years ago. Jeffrey Knapp, associate vice president for human resources and risk assessment, says the negotiations with the International Union, Security, Police, Fire Professionals of America (SPFPA) were difficult and time-consuming.

“SPFPA had some very legitimate goals, and goals that were simply unrealistic in terms of pay increase, pension benefits and work conditions,” he says. “A number of negotiating sessions were devoted to assisting the union negotiating team in understanding specifically the cost and impact of what they were requesting.” After 11 months of work on a contract, a mediator was brought in.

Despite the risk of bias and other interference, Knapp says the university had a positive experience with the mediator.

“We agreed to mediation because the college was certain that its compensation and benefits proposals were supported by market data and that the work rule proposals were reasonable and grounded in established business practice,” he says. “In the end, the college was able to present evidence that enabled the mediator to bring the parties together.”

LeoGrande says ongoing negotiations can impact a workforce. American University employees “contacted the news media, contacted elected officials, publicized their issues through the student newspaper and established informational packets.” However, he adds, the unions remained discreet during times of negotiation.

There were four main issues at American University concerning adjunct employment: salary, job security, a new grievance process and systematic performance evaluations, LeoGrande says.

The job security issue proved to be particularly challenging in reaching an agreement, as the university wanted to maintain the right to refuse employment if a more qualified applicant emerged.

“We have an obligation to put the best faculty members in the classroom,” LeoGrande says, adding that anyone displaced for that reason would get a one-time payment proportionate to their normal stipend.

The negotiations at American remained civil—even during disagreements—and LeoGrande says he believes “both sides are happy with the resulting structure.”

A carefully negotiated contract can change campuses for the better, and clearly defining the issues can solidify the relationship between administration and staff, says Sweeney of the AFL-CIO.

“A contract can be a useful tool for management to clearly lay out their terms, such as workload expectations,” he says.

“Spelling out a sexual harassment and discriminatory system every three or four years is a good system to keep people invested. It also tends to stop problems before they start.”

Moving forward, together

What is life like on campuses where unions are well entrenched in the culture?

“We don’t see a large difference in terms of day-to-day operations,” says LeoGrande. “Our relationship with the union is very good.”

Regardless of the specific group, unionization is undoubtedly changing the face of higher education, and in some cases at least both sides see it as positive.

“Unions are a success, as we’re developing new ideas and serving an important function,” says Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, the labor union for the State University of New York. “

The faculty and staff we represent is changing: In some ways, the face is growing younger. That’s a victory: Bringing in the next generation of leaders who are committed to the public good of public higher education.”

Stefanie Botelho is newsletter editor.

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