Last Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board announced landmark results for USC’s faculty union vote, allowing USC, the largest private university in the state, to organize faculty. Though unions aren’t good or bad per se, it’s paramount to keep in mind that they also aren’t a panacea to the growing concerns of adjunct faculty, rooted in issues that are decades in the making and larger than this campus alone.
In terms of the vote’s breakdown, two of three schools voted to join Service Employees International Union 721. Non-tenure-track faculty members of the Roski School of Art and Design and USC International Academy, by votes of 31 to 6 and 32 to 3, respectively, approved union representation. USC’s oldest school, the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, however, rejected union representation in a close vote, with 113 in favor and 127 against. According to the Los Angeles Times, faculty who voted in favor of unionization were “frustrated with large workloads, low pay, shrinking benefits and poor career prospects.”
By no means an isolated incident, this latest development is a phenomenon that stretches far beyond this campus. Over the past years, a wave of contingent unionization has swept the nation. The University of Chicago, Boston University, Georgetown and Loyola University Chicago all have organized faculty. Just last February, faculty at Tufts also voted to approve union representation.
At face value, unions are powerfully beneficial entities. Without them, there would be no organizations to reign in unfettered capitalism. Yet, it is also unions, along with a volatile political and economic environment, that drove industrial giants such as General Motors and U.S. Steel to disintegration. Hopefully, academic unions will tell a different tale. In a perfect world, all professors should be in a position that provides support in balancing responsibilities and research efforts.
The reality, however, is that higher education is always evolving, for better or worse. The growing reliance of universities nationwide on adjunct faculty has made for an increasingly competitive and unstable job market in academia. For the 2012-2013 academic year, the American Association of University Professors reported that 76 percent of all higher education instruction positions were filled on a contingent basis. In addition, this number has increased 300 percent from 1975 to 2011.
Risa Lieberwitz, professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Fortune that universities have become “more corporate in the way the structure themselves.”
With this disproportionate hike in the number of less expensive, more flexible adjunct professors, fewer tenure-track positions open. For those who don’t see tenure in the near future, the security of a union becomes more appealing. Meanwhile, as factory jobs disappear, unions are focusing more on recruiting professors who are now more open to their message.
It comes as no surprise then that the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions reported a 17 percent increase in faculty and graduate students who are part of collective bargaining unions when looking at data collected from 2008 to 2010.
Those statistics may see continual increase with a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling made December 2014, which expanded the option of unionization to a greater number of faculty members at private universities. This is an opportunity that had previously been limited by the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision in NLRB v. Yeshiva University. The decision stated that full-time faculty are “managerial” and therefore, not eligible for collective bargaining. The new ruling sets detailed criteria for determining which full-time faculty are eligible based on their involvement in areas such as finances, curriculum and enrollment management. It cited growing “corporatization” in university decision-making and that “colleges and universities are increasingly run by administrators, which has the effect of concentrating and centering authority away from the faculty.”
Yet, even as a strategy to combat this “corporatization,” unionization will not solve all employee concerns. After all, like most systems, things are more complicated than they seem. With SEIU 721 now in the picture, the relationship between administration and faculty could become strained, or even adversarial. There are options out there that don’t require unionization — from asking for a review of salary to expressing views in the Academic Senate, as Provost Michael Quick stressed in an email to staff members on Jan. 6.
Many possible routes exist. At the end of the day, however, no matter what the future holds or what disagreements arise, there’s one thing both administrators and faculty need to keep in mind. Working conditions matter, wages matter and resource allocation matters. But it is educating students that matters most.