Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Secret Ballots in Higher Education

Secret Ballots in Higher Education

By Bryan O'Keefe

In another hat that I wear, I sometimes write about labor issues, specifically on matters related to labor unions. Unions have been in the news a lot lately, mainly because of the Employee Free Choice Act. For those of you who have better things to do with your time than follow labor law legislation, the bill would radically change the way that unions are able to organize workers.

Under current law, when workers express an interest in unionization, the National Labor Relations Board comes in and conducts a secret ballot election. Majority rules and the process is very similar to what Americans do on election day across the country. But labor unions want to change those rules and do away with secret ballots. In its place, they would institute “card check” organizing, which would allow unions to organize after employees sign a card – out in the open – stating their intention to join a union. Needless to say, this type of system leaves people open to intimidation and coercion – it’s the same reason why we don’t vote on Election Day out in the open too.

Okay, okay, so what does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China, or, in our case, higher education? There has been a real movement in the last 30 years to make labor unions a more powerful force on the university campus. The pressure comes from many different areas including full-time faculty unions, unions for adjunct professors, unions for the janitors and other support staff, unions even for the beleaguered teaching assistants. In short, organized labor looks at college campuses and they see a lot of non-union employees, most of whom are at least sympathetic to the broader social and political aims of unions.

Universities have fought unionization for the most part, realizing that borrowing the business plan of Detroit car manufacturers is probably not wise. But that’s where the Employee Free Choice Act comes into play. If the bill ever does pass – a not altogether improbable occurrence, especially if the Democrats pick up a few seats in the House and win the Presidency in 2008 – then, we could begin to see mass unionization again. College campuses would probably become ground zero for some of these efforts. We already saw last year that the Service Employees International Union put significant resources into organizing janitors at the University of Miami.

As for EFCA itself, the bill went down in defeat in the Senate today and is dead for the time being. But we have not heard the last of it. Democrats and unions will try to make this a campaign issue in 2008 and tie in the decline of unions with their broader arguments about income inequality. For more on how this could play out, check out my op-ed in the NY Sun today.

On its face, EFCA seems like a labor specific issue, but the impact for higher education could be tremendous. Stay tuned to 2008.


Veblen said...

Universities are already well down the road to corporatization and it has not been union organizers who have driven them down that road. Consider this for example

It was towards the end of last November when University President Bryce Jordan, in an attempt to respond to student demand for an open budget, made a rather unusual comparison between our beloved educational benefactor, Penn State, and the American automotive giant, General Motors Corporation.[...]

Jordan made the analogy between Penn State students and car buyers, pointing out that just because a person pays car payments to General Motors, that does not make them entitled to see General Motors' budget.

Don't think that this was simply a poor analogy on the part of Jordan. Nearly twenty years, and two presidents down the road, Penn State abolished its student government in favor of-are you ready-an advocacy group. That's right an advocacy group as in consumer advocacy.

If university presidents want to treat their institutions as businesses, then don't complain when faculty take them seriously and unionize.

Ken D. said...

Here are some memorable thoughts from former Miami U. President James C. Garland from an excellent opinion piece he wrote for the 12/30/05 WaPo:

"The historical business model for public higher education is broken and cannot be fixed."

"The days are long gone when generous government subsidies allowed public colleges to keep tuition low. Now that a public four-year degree costs more than $50,000, middle-income citizens must either saddle themselves with debt or scale back their college aspirations. Not a shred of evidence suggests this trend will do anything but worsen." ...
"The result is that public colleges are increasingly staring into the abyss. The marching bands, pastoral campuses and dedicated professors shown on TV commercials mask the reality of budget cutbacks, crowded classrooms, dilapidated buildings, angry faculty unions and armies of underpaid temporary instructors.