Lots of baggage comes with a union

In recent weeks, we have been deluged by e-mail and newspaper messages calling for the establishment of a faculty union. The pro-union claims raise important questions and issues that discerning faculty members must consider.
A highly emphasized claim, perhaps based upon selected factual comparisons, is that unionization will result in higher faculty salaries. This claim prompts us to make some observations.
If the University’s salaries are lower than those in the 30 leading research universities, how did the adverse comparison get that way? The positioning can hardly be explained by unionization because faculty unions do not exist in this set. Although some evidence may suggest that unionization has contributed to the provision of higher salaries at some third-rate institutions, unionization is obviously not the key to entering the first rank of research universities.
Although the Duluth campus has had a faculty union for more than a decade, we are not aware that the Duluth faculty has ever had larger percentage salary increases than those assigned to the non-unionized Twin Cities campus.
To our knowledge, the state universities — all unionized — have seldom, if ever, received a higher percentage pay increase than the University. Indeed, they have often latched onto the salary increases that the legislature has given the University. Thus the experience at Duluth and the state universities indicates that their union efforts did not bring them the “superior bargaining power” that union advocates promise. Unionization will give the legislature little choice but to treat the university faculty as just another group of teachers in higher education. Whatever has been true in the past, the prospect of faculty salaries growing more rapidly than those of other parts of higher education in Minnesota sharply diminishes.
Do we really think the Legislature will be willing to treat the groups differently when it is unable to treat them all generously?
As you think about how you will cast your vote on Tuesday and Wednesday, we urge you to consider several additional points.
1. Collective bargaining on faculty salaries is not simply a matter of hammering out an agreement between the faculty and the administration. Ultimately, a dominant third party enters the game: the legislature. It is the Legislature that determines the amount of money to be doled out. If the University administration was to negotiate a contract with the faculty union that went beyond what the legislature would finance, then the administration would have to make up the difference from other resources — most likely from other salaries since this item makes up about 75 percent of the total budget. It is not helpful to assume that the basic process will be the same as it is in industry, where labor bargains with management which, once an agreement is reached, also finance the contract.
2. The proponents of a faculty union insist that merit pay increases will be written into the contract. We doubt that this has been very successful in practice. The faculty must be alert to the possibility that the union decision-makers, amid clashing claims and pressures, will be inclined to distribute limited resources to the greatest number. The temptation will be great to reduce conflict by using length of service, easily and objectively determined, as the defining criterion. It is difficult to build peer review and quality control into a union framework.
3. The negotiation of the first contract will be a prolonged and difficult process. We can expect that for at least two years, the University will be in a kind of limbo, complicating all our activities.
4. The pro-unionists argue that faculty influence over University policy will increase once the union is established. We must realize, however, that under state law, when the two bargaining parties fail to reach an agreement upon a given issue, that issue remains in the hands of management. This means that if there is no agreement on policy and planning matters — concerns on which the faculty without a union now has a strong voice — professorial influence in these important domains would be greatly reduced or disappear entirely.
5. As the union matures, its influence over faculty affairs expands, making more matters negotiable. The management and operation of the organization grow and devour more faculty time. How many faculty members already complain that the University is too bureaucratic or that committees take too much time? As time goes on, many faculty members may conclude that they can no longer occupy responsible roles in union affairs at the expense of their research and teaching. Hence, by default, the strings of union control tend to fall into the hands of the people who are willing to take time away from their regular professional responsibilities. When such a situation develops, the academic values we have long supported may become weakened or transformed.
Union advocates like to claim that fear of unionization generated the increased sympathetic attention the University has received recently from the legislature, much of the media, and the thoughtful public. They ignore that much of that support stems from a widespread fear, not that unionization would increase faculty salaries, but that a union’s inevitable rigidities will hasten the decline of the University. And this prospect suggests another important concern: While unionization’s consistency with a first quality research university is hotly debated here, elsewhere there is little debate.
Particularly at the institutions from which we recruit our best new faculty, unionization would be viewed as a very retrograde step. When the University’s tenure problems were the subject of international attention, we were rightly concerned about both appearance and reality. We must bring a similar dual concern to the consideration of unionization.
People complain about the corporatization of the academic world. They must realize that unionization is the other side of the corporatization coin. The lines are drawn between management and labor, and often the result is bureaucratization generated by the unionized structures. The struggle of the last year has shown that we have serious problems. But in both the short and the long run, unionization is not the solution; it just creates its own set of different problems.
Edwin Fogelman, John Howe,Robert Kudrle, Marcia Pankake, Tom Scott