Letter: Labor Day reminds us of the need for faculty unionization

Travis Workman

When Labor Day was established as a national holiday in the late nineteenth century, unions representing the industrial working class struggled for higher wages, better working conditions and shorter hours, along with a more humane society with greater equality and less exploitation. 

Since moving to Minnesota to work at “the U,” I also think of Labor Day as a time when teachers at all levels are working very hard to prepare for the new school year. Teaching is not laying railroad tracks or smelting steel, but it is nonetheless difficult and important work performed by individuals who are often vulnerable to unfair and unjust labor conditions. 

In contemporary U.S. higher education, non-tenure-track teachers, or contingent faculty, who are made responsible for an increasing number of students, are often not provided with a living wage and are made to wonder if their positions will exist in subsequent years. Many of those who are actually educating students experience uncertainty and struggle, all while upper-level administrative positions have grown in number and compensation. 

The unionization effort at the University of Minnesota is awaiting the ruling of the Minnesota courts. The University appealed the labor bureau’s decision from a year ago, that full time non-tenured track faculty could vote to join the same union as tenured track and part-time non-tenured track faculty. 

The University’s opposition, which is costing taxpayers thousands in legal fees, is fundamentally meant to stall and demoralize the union drive. It is also meant to guarantee that tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty cannot work together to improve the way that work at the university is divided, valued and remunerated. 

Non-tenure-track lecturers teach because they care about education, but their ability to do so effectively is often hindered by their lack of job security, fewer prospects for professional development and a general devaluing of the work of teaching at research universities. This of course affects the educational experience of university undergraduates, who benefit greatly from having teachers with steady and fairly remunerated jobs. 

In many regards, universities reflect the promise and the dilemmas of the larger society. Racial inequity, gender inequity, discriminatory immigration and visa practices, class immobility, precarious job security and all of the other problems of the contemporary American workplace also exist at the university, and it is unreasonable to assume that the celebration of scientific or academic achievement is in any way at odds with addressing them. 

One way to begin to tackle these problems collectively is to join a union. By joining the Service Employees International Union, faculty would not simply achieve bargaining power for better contracts, but also create a powerful platform for those who are doing the work and the public service at the center of the University’s mission. 

As another Labor Day comes and goes, I hope we can acknowledge gaining such representation should not be perceived as a threat to administration, faculty governance or an ivory tower ideal, but rather as a way to improve the University by improving the conditions of its workers and providing another means to advocate for public higher education.

This letter has been lightly edited slightly for grammar and style.

Travis Workman is associate professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.