Academia works best when we say union yes.

27 10 2010

Yesterday, while pressed for time, I dropped the title of this post toward the top of the comment thread of an excellent Historiann post on faculty salaries. That post was based on a post concerning the same subject by Tenured Radical. Perhaps I played some part in the fact that Tenured Radical’s follow-up to her first post is on the questions of unions.

I’ll start with the second Tenured Radical Post:

For those of you who say we need a union — I am on record as saying “union, yes” as well: I would *happily* trade tenure for a union, any day, any time. But you know why we have no unions? Faculty do not believe in the collective, and they are so easily divided by self-interest, envy and shame. Our individualism, and our fear that if we organize we will lose the social respect that came with that PH.D., bites us in the ass every time. Hence, those of us who can cut our private little deals and leave most of our colleagues in the dust.

Of course she’s right, which is precisely why I think I need to say some more on this topic. In graduate school, I was on the board of the first graduate teaching assistants’ union in the country. My first favorite subdiscipline and the subject on the job ad that got me my current job was labor history, but really I’m interested in the history of industrial relations, the relationship between employers and employees. Oddly enough, I think my work on the history of the first important company union in the country makes me well qualified to talk about academics and unions, as does a few years as president of our campus’ AAUP chapter.

My favorite industrial relations book of all time is What Do Unions Do? by Freeman and Medoff. In it, they explain that there are two faces of trade unions: the monopoly face and the voice face. The monopoly face is based on their control of labor in the shop and is the main source of union power. Raise or wages or we walk! This is an obvious reason for academics to organize, as they are much more likely to get salary increases if you have this kind of control. Unfortunately, is the only face of unionism that most people know, and that’s why current labor law is so unfriendly to organization.

However, the other face of trade unionism is pretty useful too. The voice face refers to the ability of union members to communicate how they really feel about their jobs to management without being fired. I know what you’re thinking. I’m tenured! I don’t need no stinking union to tell my dean what I think. Those of us who’ve seen what’s happened to a few outspoken faculty members around the country (if you need an example, friends, remember the state where I teach) know that tenure isn’t quite the protection it used to be. More importantly, your administration doesn’t have to fire you in order to make your life miserable. Unions, in short, can make your whole campus better in both monetary and non-monetary ways.

The wonderful thing about this voice face though is that you don’t even need a union in the legal sense to take advantage of its value. All you have to be is unified. My AAUP chapter is an advocacy chapter. That means that we don’t bargain collectively, we ask lots of questions and try to convince our administrators to follow AAUP principles. What those principles are is a subject of another post, but here’s the key thing: following AAUP principles actually benefits management as well as labor. They not only get the benefits of best practices, they get to deal with much happier faculty members than they would have otherwise since the AAUP is all about empowering faculty to help make decisions, including decisions about salary. I’m not all afraid to advertise my trade unionist sympathies [Heck that Union Yes! bumper sticker is on my office door!] because I’m really more of a tenured moderate than a tenured radical. I try to work with the administration to make campus better rather than work against them. Working with administrations is particularly important to affect change in these parts because they have no obligation to listen to us whatsoever if we just stomp our feet.

Does this make me a sell out? I don’t think so. If there were a critical mass of faculty ready to organize on campus, I’d be the first one on the front lines handing out cards. That critical mass is particularly important in Colorado because we have such horrible labor laws. Workers who want to start a union not only have to win a representation election, they have to win another election after that in order to get dues checkoff to fund their organization. Seriously, we’re worse than a right-to-work state, and don’t get me started on the Democratic governor who vetoed the bill that would have put us back to normal.

And to those of you who are sitting alone, griping anonymously on the Internet about how tough things are, why don’t you look around this site and maybe join up. See what the collective wisdom of your colleagues can teach you. There is power in the union, but the non-unionized are not necessarily powerless.




One response

28 10 2010

“That critical mass is particularly important in Colorado because we have such horrible labor laws.”

My HVAC union buddy doesn’t quite agree that it’s as bad as a “right to work state here,” but I take your point. I’m glad you brought up Governor No-Nuts and his role in this, but I’m disappointed that you didn’tnote that we are currently represented by an appointed “Senator” who refuses to back EFCA (card-check.) But, that’s completely in line with a former employee of Phil Anschutz, right?

Great post, Jonathan. I still think an union would be awesome, but I think TR is right that people like us oddly see ourselves as individuals and/or somehow aligned with the interests of management rather than the interests of labor.

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