Trustees | Trusteeship

Professors Raise Hands for Unions

Union vote by faculty at University of Minnesota would be latest in national push
WALL STREET JOURNAL   |  January 19, 2016 by Doug Belkin

Labor organizers at the University of Minnesota say they have collected enough signatures to force a unionization vote for both tenured and adjunct faculty—a potential coup for unions at a time of heightened concerns about rising costs and growing student debt at the nation’s institutions of higher learning.

If faculty vote to join the Service Employees International Union, they would potentially establish the largest bargaining unit of any school in the nation since at least January 2013 when new organizing activity in higher education began to rise, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York.

In the past three years, faculty and graduate students at about 65 schools have voted to join a union—a clip of nearly one school every two weeks.

Michael Poliakoff, a vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization focused on accountability in higher education, said unionization could come at a cost elsewhere. “Academic excellence thrives on being able to differentiate performance and when you move to things like a single salary pay scale according to things like years and rank you jeopardize that unremitting pursuit of excellence,” Mr. Poliakoff said.

Unions, often associated with blue-collar jobs, have long represented faculty in states like California and New York. The recent unionization push on campus has been fueled by cuts to higher education funding and by low pay and little job security for part-time adjunct faculty.

Unions are advocating to represent faculty at some of the wealthiest and most prestigious schools in the nation. Last month, full- and part-time adjuncts at the University of Chicago voted to unionize. Faculty at Duke University and the University of Washington are campaigning as well.

University of Minnesota Professor Mark Borrello, who teaches the history of biology and evolutionary theory, said he was motivated to organize faculty to join a union because he believes the working conditions of part-time contingent faculty are bad and getting worse. The result: a transient workforce that was leading to a decrease in the quality of education.

“These are national trends, but they’re particularly upsetting [in Minnesota] because we’ve historically been a progressive state that prides itself on being hyper-educated and hyper-literate and when you feel like that’s not happening there’s this immense sense of frustration,” he said.

A spokesman for the university declined to comment.

The union drive in Minnesota is unusual because organizers are incorporating both tenure track and adjunct faculty. Most recent college-union drives have been limited to adjuncts who don’t enjoy the job security, pay or benefits of tenured or tenure-track professors.

That may make the path to a union rockier, said Joseph Konstan, a tenured professor in the department of computer science and engineering. Mr. Konstan said he wouldn’t vote to join a union at present.

“I believe the people who are advocating for a union believe it’s going to be a magic solution and suddenly all these grievances will be solved through the magic of collective bargaining, “ Mr. Konstan said. “Instead, I think we’ll end up with a leadership group that will have to prioritize one or two issues and other faculty voices won’t be heard.”


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