Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day and the Ivory Tower

By Bryan O'Keefe

With today being the Labor Day holiday, it seems appropriate to spend some time considering labor unions and their role in higher education. This is a subject which I wrote about in great length for a recent issue of the Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch publication, but I’ll offer another summary of my findings here.

As just about everybody knows, the number of employees that it takes to run a university today has grown tremendously relative to 30 years ago. At the same time, the number of employees that belong to labor unions has plummeted. At their zenith in the 1950’s, about one-third of the private sector workforce belonged to a union; now that number stands at barely 8 percent.

Out of a need for self-preservation, labor unions have been desperately trying to reverse that trend. Part of that process has been pursuing organizing opportunities in places that are pretty far removed from traditional union havens like coal mines or steel mills – enter the ivory tower.

Colleges and universities are a fertile ground for unions due to several related factors. First, the sheer number of non-union employees found on campuses would attract any organizers eye. Second, many of the players on college campuses – in particular professors and teaching assistants – have politics that largely mirror big labor. They often times have an “anti-corporate” mentality and are eager to jump at the first opportunity to join a cause or take part in a march or rally. The 60s have never really died and joining a labor union is a relatively painless way to express that sentiment. There are other reasons why unionization is popular too including professors using unions as protection against administrative reforms such as increased teaching loads.

In the coming years, I predict that labor’s drive to organize university employees will only increase. Already, this past year at the University of Miami we saw the Service Employees International Union engage in an ugly battle to unionize university janitors. SEIU won that war, which will only embolden them to try their hardball tactics at other schools. Other unions such as the United Autoworkers have aggressively recruited employees like adjunct faculty and teaching assistants to join their rank. The National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education has also seen a rise in unions lately. They report that unionization has risen 24% amongst professors since 1998. They also claim that in the past decade, unionization has skyrocketed for teaching assistants, growing by an astounding 60 percent.

To their credit, most colleges and universities have resisted the push for unionization. (This is especially true at private schools. Public schools are somewhat more prone to unions, but that’s mainly because union-friendly state labor boards rule the roost, not the National Labor Relations Board.) This position is ultimately better for the university, students, taxpayers, and many of the employees themselves. With all of the problems that face higher education today, the last thing that it needs is to become more like heavily unionized industries such as the car companies, airlines, or steel mills. What we know is that those industries underlying labor structure significantly contributed to their unfortunate collapses. Beyond pay and benefits, highly specific work rules curtailed productivity and stifled economic changes that might have spared these industries a trip to the graveyard.

The same exact thing will happen to colleges and universities if they are not careful. Rising salaries and declining productivity are two siren calls of Dr. Vedder and these problems will only get worse if widespread unionization occurs.

CCAP plans on studying this labor issue in greater detail in the future. We specifically will examine the effects of unionization on a campus. Does unionization really make the school better or are union leaders using higher education simply to boost their dwindling membership numbers? My guess is the latter and we will soon find out. Stay posted.

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