Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Unions and the Erosion of Tenure

By Richard Vedder

Scott Jaschik reports in today's INSIDE HIGHER ED that a new study now has concluded that faculty unionization does not lead to increases in the incidence of tenure track faculty (relative to non-tenure track positions, such as adjunct instructorships, part-time employment, etc). The authors are both disappointed (they are union supporters) and surprised. I am not.

Unions, if achieving their objectives, by definition add to costs. Collective bargaining is designed to increase the total compensation package of workers. Studies with K-12 education usually show that unionization has a fairly modest but real positive impact on costs --5 to 10 percent higher. Not only do salaries rise a bit with unionization, but union work rules (e.g., limits on class size, seniority rules for hiring) tend to raise costs even more. I have no reason to doubt that the same is true with bargaining in higher education.

Assuming this is true, unionization raises the costs of hiring tenure-track faculty. If the adjunct faculty is non-unionized, this enormously increases incentives to substitute the lower cost adjunct instruction for the high cost tenure track teaching. As a consequence, the use of adjuncts is not lower, but probably actually higher, in such union-intensive states as New Jersey, New York, and California. To be sure, the non-profit nature of most higher ed means that academic leaders are far less aggressive in cutting costs than their private sector counterparts, but deans and department chairs wanting more money for travel, equipment, and salary increases for staff are using more part-time and adjunct faculty.

The unions’ answer to all of this, of course, is --unionize the adjuncts, which is in fact happening on some campuses (even graduate assistants are sometimes unionizing). Won't that force administrations to increase faculty payrolls, which have eroded significantly as a share of university budgets in recent years?

I am doubtful. As the cost of faculty (of whatever status) rise, administrations will find ways to grant credit without them --promoting study abroad programs (charging local tuition, of course), more use of on-line instruction offered by others (including for-profit providers), etc. More students will switch to non unionized schools, proprietary institutions, foreign universities or, horror of horrors, forego college altogether.

Aggressive unionization is never successful in the long run. There are a lot of auto workers born in, say, 1930 who retired in the early 1990s who did very well because of the unions. But there were many others who were denied opportunity for employment in that industry because of the high labor costs, and those high costs are still around, almost killing the industry in the United States. The state of Michigan today is paying a price for the success of union leaders in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, like Walter Reuther. Government subsidies insulate higher education in part from the negative financial consequences of unionization, but as those subsidies start to level off, colleges may be forced to use technology and ingenuity to reduce the exceedingly expensive proposition of having teachers costing $100,000 a year or more (with fringe benefits) teaching perhaps 200 hours a year to a few dozen students.

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