By Bryan O'Keefe
One area of continued interest for CCAP is the spread of unionization on college campuses. This is especially alarming since other industries where unions developed strongholds have experienced tremendous financial problems and productivity declines. The last thing that many colleges and universities need is to become more like GM or Ford.
That’s why the defeat of organized labor at the Community College of Vermont
is good news. For background, the Community College of Vermont is a unique institution – it’s comprised entirely of part-time instructors, spread out over 12 centers, and conducts many of its classes online. In many ways, it represents an innovative approach to higher education that other schools would be wise to copy.
The part-time nature of its faculty is what attracted the eye of organized labor. Unions have devoted tremendous resources for organizing adjunct or part-time faculty members. They have been somewhat successful in this venture, often times breeding jealousy amongst the part-time faculty for the perks that the full-timers enjoy. (this strategy is similiar to the class warfare rhetoric that Democratic politicians often use too).
However, this time, the trick didn’t work and the part-time faculty voted down the union by a rather lopsided margin. The response from labor was of course to blame the college’s leaders for running an alleged “anti-union” campaign, though they offer few details of what exactly this means. The Community College of Vermont has a right – and indeed a moral obligation --- to explain to its employees the effects of unionization. While I don’t know exactly what those effects would be, my general guess is that a vote for unionization would have been a complete disaster for the Community College of Vermont. In all likelihood the university would have lost control of their workforce both as far as scheduling and compensation and many of the unique features of the institution would have disappeared. The college committed no crime in explaining that to employees.
The role of labor unions in higher education will continue to be controversial in the years to come. The Community College of Vermont is but one small story in a much larger saga. The main point is that unions are experiencing historic declines in their membership and are now looking anywhere and everywhere for new members. Unions are like any other institution – they want to find ways of continuing their existence. Union leaders are paid relatively well and have an incentive to stop the membership bleeding. College campuses are fertile grounds for union organizers, even if it doesn’t make financial and practical sense for the students, faculty, staff, administration, and taxpayers. The tension between what’s good for unions and their leaders and what’s good for higher education as a whole will not die.