Labor Relations in Higher Education

As union organizing campaigns develop across industries, the higher education sector has joined the trend. The unionizing of white-collar workers like tech workers has undoubtedly influenced labor relations in higher education because traditional and non-traditional employees began to see unions as the answer to their needs. Those needs are very similar, too – fair pay, benefits, reasonable work schedules, safe working conditions, and a desire for a strong employee voice. Today, more part-time and adjunct educators at private universities are joining labor unions as they and management struggle to adapt to a changing workplace environment. The following sections discuss why academic employees turn to labor unions for solutions and some of the steps that higher education administrators can take to create an environment where unions are unnecessary. 

What Unions Represent Educators?

Educators belong to a variety of unions. Some of the most well-known are the following: 

  • American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
  • National Education Association (NEA)
  • American Association of University Professors (AAUP) 

These labor unions have members who are mostly from public universities and colleges, and K-12 schools. Academics at private universities are unionizing with labor unions like the Teamsters, AFL-CIO, and Service Employees International Union. 

The states also have teacher unions. The Florida Education Association (FEA) is affiliated with the AFT and NEA, and most members, but not all, come from public educational institutions. The United Faculty of Florida (UFF) is a higher education affiliate of the FEA and represents faculty and graduate assistants across the state. The UFF represents more than 20,000 faculty and 8,000 graduate students at public universities, state and community colleges, and one private university. So public and private employees can and do mix.

Educators join unions because they want an employee voice in decision-making and on issues like compensation and workloads. In November 2022, the UFF at the University of Florida and the UF-GAU, the labor union representing 4,000 graduate employees at the University, made national news for protesting the Board of Trustees' approval of the candidacy of Senator Sasse for the position of President of the University of Florida. This was a loud expression of employee voice, and notice to the administration that employees wanted direct input into major decisions.

Approximately 20 percent of professors at private universities belong to unions. The number jumps to one-third in public universities. As explained in the following sections, there are differences in educator rights concerning union organizing. 

Understanding the Division of Higher Education Educators

Higher education has a unique workforce consisting of educators and their assistants and support staff, including housekeepers, groundskeepers, dining workers, event coordinator employees, and many others. The housekeepers, custodians, dining staff, and other campus staff belong to labor unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the AFL-CIO.  

higher education labor relations

The influence of staff labor unions on the unionization of higher education faculty and academic assistants is undeniable. Once a workforce is partially unionized, there is a greater chance that more employees will take the same path. The white-collar status of educators and the academic culture have not historically created fertile ground for recruiting non-tenured and contingent faculty on campuses. That is rapidly changing. 

Educators at universities, colleges, and community colleges include: 

  • Tenured professors with employment long-term employment contracts
  • Non-tenured professors with limited employment contracts
  • Associate and Assistant professors with limited employment contracts
  • Contingent or adjunct faculty that are instructors, full-time professors not on a tenure track, and graduate assistants or graduate students

Per a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1980 in National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, tenured and tenure-track faculty at private universities were determined to be too "managerial" to belong to unions. However, non-tenured faculty and contingent faculty can join a union.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) establishes the rules for unionization but excludes public employees. Public school unionization laws are established at the state level. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) does have a say over private university employees. In 2000, the NLRB changed the status of graduate students by granting New York University graduate students employee status and the right to collective bargaining. During the Bush Administration, the NLRB reversed this decision, but it was reversed once again in 2016. At that time, the NLRB ruled in favor of Columbia University graduate students in response to a union petition the students filed as Student Workers of Columbia – UAW Local 2710. 

Labor Activism in Higher Education

In 2021 and into 2022, the Student Workers of Columbia – UAW Local 2710 held the longest strike in higher education history. The 10-week strike participants were teaching, research, and graduate assistants. The university's management agreed to large increases in pay (up to 30 percent), higher child-care stipends, dental coverage, and a $300,000 fund for out-of-pocket medical expenses. The university estimated the cost at $100 million over a four-year contract. 

The Hechinger Report on education points to some of the issues professors have as tenure is questioned. Tenured professors cannot unionize because the law treats them like managers and supervisors, but the loss of tenure would make them eligible to join a union. Tenure is an employment status in which a professor can only be dismissed for justifiable cause or extreme circumstances, like ending a program. The professors say the workloads are too heavy because they teach, research, apply for grants, advise students, and serve on committees. Like other employees, the COVID-19 pandemic placed new pressures on faculty to increase productivity even as their job security is threatened. This places tenured faculty on the same page as non-tenured faculty concerning perspectives of unions. Administrators say there is a need for more flexibility in workforce scheduling and a need for reducing expenses. 

The two sides of the story are typical of any workforce. The university and college administrators are trying to improve efficiency as enrollment declines and resources are more limited. Educators say they are defending the quality of education and want a voice in decision-making. Labor activism among all the faculty is increasing.

Though professors are not allowed to join unions because they are classified as managers, they can support the faculty and students who can join unions. At Howard University, 500 full-time faculty and students supported part-time adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty, represented by SEIU Local 500, during a dispute over pay and job security. The increased pressure led to two three-year contracts. The non-tenured faculty collective bargaining agreement was the first such agreement. 

Legally speaking, graduate students are employees per the National Labor Relations Board. As employees, they can form a union, and they have busy doing so.

  • Harvard graduate students voted to unionize in April 2018 as the Harvard Graduate Students Union Local 5118 of the United Auto Workers; the HGSU-UAW Local 5118 caused a major disruption of a parents' weekend in October 2021 with a 3-day strike.
  •  Tufts University's graduate students became members of SEIU Local 509 in May 2017; interestingly, the students did not have any serious issues with management but formed a union because of the way academia was changing on a national basis; the students wanted their efforts to earn higher degrees to be seen as work and believed the workload was not reflected in the stipend they were paid.
  • At Boston University, graduate students are trying to unionize as the Boston University Graduate Workers Union (BUGWU) SEIU Local 509 and have a union organizing campaign in progress with card signing beginning in September 2022; the issue is workload.
  • The Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition is affiliated with the United Electrical Workers and has members who are graduate workers, faculty members, undergraduates, and alumni; the union group says it wants better working conditions and fair pay and wants to end mandatory fees and the international student fee; there is currently a threat of a strike in progress because Indiana University's administration hasn't yet recognized the union and has not offered shared governance.

This is just a sample of graduate student union activity. Union organizing campaigns are taking place across the nation. Not all of them are successful, like the Vanderbilt Graduate Workers United (VGWU), an independent organization reaching out to laboratory workers, research assistants, teaching assistants, instructors of record, and professional scholars. The VGWU has been working for years to get enough participants.

The Art of Labor Relations CTA

What's The Purpose/Role Of A Union In Education?

The union's role in higher education is the same as the role of the union in other industries – to create a unified voice for change. Some of the issues are unique, though. Contingent faculty accounts for approximately 75 percent of instructional staff in universities and colleges, and they are the people who are increasingly joining unions. Some union issues concerning non-tenure, contingent and part-time faculty include the following. 

  • Increasing administration's reliance on part-time and adjuncts who say they are underpaid for the work they do
  • Lack of employee voice in management decision-making
  • Lack of job security
  • Exclusion of part-time faculty from full benefits
  • Heavy workloads causing burnout or workloads too light in terms of classes assigned, so are unable to make enough money to live on
  • Difficulty in maintaining teaching quality due to workloads
  • Classes canceled without warning
  • Safety issues on campus
  • A desire for management's intentional action on changing campus and workplace culture to address issues like bias against people of color and violence
  • Employee mental health is threatened
  • Lack of respect for the work of contingent employees
  • Disproportionate share of minorities and women in part-time and adjunct positions 
  • Challenges of balancing remote and in-classroom classes, often at multiple schools  

The pandemic, uncertain labor market, and declining undergraduate student enrollment are contributing to the uncertainty on college campuses. 

Why Are Teachers' Unions So Powerful? 

IRI Consultants consultant Dawn Mirand explains, "There is great power in numbers. This equates to substantial funding collected from annual dues paid by locals to the national teachers union. As a result, teacher unions are a powerful lobbying group due to their substantial political contributions and "get out the vote" power, particularly in many local congressional races. This greatly influences political candidates and the shaping of national education policy. A policy that continually protects teachers and facilitates status quo, mediocrity, and a general lack of education accountability. "Though local school boards featured in the news reports the last two years have shown parents of K-12 school children angry at board members for various reasons, politics also significantly impacts higher education. 

Education unions are also lobbying groups that push for laws concerning wages, the classification of worker groups as employees and not managers, how money is spent, and layoffs. In 2021, The American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers launched a campaign to "hold colleges and universities more accountable for how they treat workers." It addressed issues like job security for faculty and staff and treating workers with dignity and respect.

In Maryland in 2021, the legislature succumbed to lobbyists and voted to allow community college faculty and staff to unionize. By forming a union, the employee groups can negotiate for pay, benefits, and workplace conditions, but they unionize for more reasons. Adjunct professor Courtney Buiniskis at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) represents adjunct faculty on The Faculty Organization and is collecting signatures to form a union. She said she wants to increase benefits and improve communication within the college. "Absolutely love teaching, but at the same time, it deserves more dignity, more respect, more pay [and] more benefits. I want our voices to be heard." 

Labor unions are always looking for ways to become more powerful. Recently, two major labor unions agreed to a formal affiliation – the Association of American University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers. This unites almost 316,000 academic employees.

Are Unions Good For Education?

Consultant Dawn Mirand explains two ways to answer the question of whether unions are good for education. 

All unions at the higher education level have great potential to hurt colleges/universities by increasing budgets, reducing flexibility, and protecting mediocrity. Faculty unions in particular have the largest sphere of influence over the priorities of universities and colleges, impacting efficiency and effectiveness indirectly, including academic performance as well as administration selection as required through faculty-centered governance required in most negotiated union contractual agreements. 

On the contrary, some may argue that faculty unions improve universities by empowering faculty through faculty governance, ultimately holding administrators to higher standards of fairness and transparency. 

labor in higher education

What Can You Do to Prevent Unionization?

Though each educational institution must decide to address issues like hiring and financial management, it's important to realize the importance of labor relations in higher education. Academic employees want many of the same things that employees want in other industries. You can take some of the following steps to avoid highly-charged situations from careening out of control. 

  • Design a strategy for developing positive employee relations 
  • Communicate with all academic employees and not just tenured faculty 
  • Add representatives from non-tenured faculty, contingent faculty, and part-time faculty to faculty groups and various committees where appropriate 
  • Openly discuss the facts of joining a union, including the administration's requirement to negotiate only with the union on matters of wages, hours, and working conditions which could mean not working with some existing employee councils; the fact it takes an average of 409 days to sign the first collective bargaining agreement; union dues; the potential limitations that unionization can bring to management's ability to accommodate individual schedule needs 
  • Explain that the university or college will retain many employer rights; i.e., the Harvard contract with the UAW retains Harvard's right to control "all matters of academic judgment and decision-making, including 'who is taught, what is taught, how it is taught and who does the teaching.'" Harvard also retains the right to control priorities, operations, research methodology and materials, and grants.
  • Give all faculty an employee voice on matters impacting them, like tenure rules, class scheduling, etc.
  • Review all Human Resources policies concerning contingent employment, i.e., wages including stipends, cost-of-living increases, participation in full benefits, shared governance, office space, email addresses, job security, disciplinary procedures, virtual office hours with students, etc.; Human Resources professionals are the champions of labor relations in higher education
  • Specifically address job security, compensation, and inclusion in the academic processes for contingent appointments and when non-tenure track appointments are needed for flexibility
  • Conduct regular employee engagement surveys and share results
  • Control the narrative through feedback and dispel talking points with facts
  • Recognize your employees and their contributions to the university or college
  • Prove your respect for employees by including them in critical decision-making processes, like the search for senior administrators and changes to Human Resources policies and procedures. 
  • Train your leaders in labor relations in higher education because understanding what should not be said to avoid unionization is as important as knowing what can be said

These are just a few ideas. Each organization is unique, of course. IRI Consultants can work with your leaders to identify employee concerns, strengthen communication, and begin the process of building positive employee relations. Remember that many of your educators want to avoid joining a union! What they really want is management's attention and honest effort placed towards addressing their needs.

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.