Faculty worry about unionization efforts

Faculty members urge their peers to pump the breaks on unionization efforts.

Brian Edwards

While many faculty members at the University of Minnesota vocalized support when a unionization push began again in January, others have questioned the necessity of the organization efforts.
 
 
Now, faculty members are turning to other universities for comparison to determine the benefits and disadvantages of unionization. 
 
 
Multiple studies, including some done by University researchers, have examined the effects that unionization has on pay, representation and workplace experience. Though results are up for interpretation, many involved believe they offer a glimpse into what a unionized University would look like. 
 
 
Aaron Sojourner, an assistant professor in the department of work and organizations in the Carlson School of Management, has compiled and analyzed a number of studies to show the possible effects of unionization at the University.
 
 
“What happens in the Twin Cities depends on [our] particular priorities,” he said.
 
 
He said in his analysis that salary changes — a concern for many faculty members — would most likely not be significant. There may be a slight “wage compression” of the highest and lowest salaries toward the median. 
 
 
Joel Waldfogel, an applied economics professor, said crunching the ends of the salary spectrum can make it difficult to reward and retain top-level faculty members at the University.
 
 
Though he doesn’t know whether a union would help at the school, he said a research university doesn’t necessarily stand to benefit greatly from unionization.
 
 
“People need to think hard and talk to both sides,” Waldfogel said.
 
 
The University of Washington, which has a similar research model as the University of Minnesota, has been the focus of study for many professors at the University of Minnesota. 
 
 
While Washington hasn’t unionized yet, more than 900 faculty members at Washington have signed on to oppose unionization at the school.
 
 
Ed Lazowska, a computer science professor at the University of Washington, helped organize UW Excellence, an effort to question the necessity of a union at Washington.
 
 
Lazowska, a self-described liberal, said there are many problems at Washington, including instability for lecturers and non-tenured faculty. But those issues don’t warrant unionization, he said.
 
 
“Things take time in a democracy. It’s the price you pay for an open and democratic process,” Lazowska said.
 
 
Adjunct faculty, who are often underrepresented and paid less, tend to be those who unions reach out toward.
 
 
Sojourner points out in his analysis that if a union seeks to gather majority support for a pay raise, the lowest-paid members represent the easiest path toward achieving a raise. 
 
 
In a 2013 study highlighted in Sojourner’s analysis, Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations Review, researchers found that the bargaining power of faculty increased for compensation and other issues when represented by a union. 
 
 
Still, Sojourner said many unions have large wage gaps between members. Faculty unions tend to have pay floors but not ceilings. 
 
 
Charles Parrish, a political science professor and president of the faculty union at Wayne State University, which  has been unionized since 1972, said the National Education Association — the largest education labor group in the country — has shown that collective bargaining units help increase wages as a whole.
 
 
“Academics are hard to bargain together,” he said. “The administration has all of the power.”
 
 
By entwining faculty members with a group that has political influence within both government bodies and a university, Parrish said, faculty are able to bargain for better results.
 
 
However, this intermingling of state and academic affairs in a politically motivated way is one of the chief concerns of faculty at Washington.
 
 
Service Employees International Union — which would represent both the University of Minnesota and Washington if the schools voted to unionize — is a left-leaning political group, Lazowska said. 
 
 
“The SEIU is a politically powerful entity in state and national politics,” Sojourner said in his analysis. “Joining that organization entails potential risks and rewards.”
 
 
Aligning the school with more powerful political groups opens the University up to stronger allies and opponents, he said.
 
 
Furthermore, representation within the University could change as well.
 
 
Sojourner said when the University of Minnesota-Duluth unionized, the faculty senate was replaced by the union.
 
 
University Faculty Consultative Committee discussions have addressed the potential change since the announcement of possible unionization.
 
 
Joe Konstan, a professor in the department of computer science, said the governance structure with a union would essentially need to be built from scratch.
 
 
Faculty members could elect to keep the FCC and other groups as is, he said, but there’s no guarantee.
 
 
Lazowska said many faculty members at Washington are worried a change in governance structure will create a combative environment that would limit progress.
 
 
Washington recently chose a new president who was a faculty member for many years, he said, and adding tension to a favorable relationship could sour the process.
 
 
Parrish said convincing members of academia to start thinking about bargaining and acting together is the hardest part of forming and maintaining a union.
 
 
Tenure, for example, is a process that is based in the individual accomplishments of a professor, he said.
 
 
That mindset runs deep in higher education, Parrish said. 
 
 
“There can be a tendency to work against collective action,” he said.