Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Unions and the Professoriate

By Richard Vedder

My sidekick Bryan O'Keefe and I attended most of the 34th annual meeting of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, held the last couple of days in New York City. I was speaking about the Spellings Commission and its impact, but also attended a few sessions and Bryan picked up the slack by attending some that I missed.

The National Center is a group of union leaders and management people mostly specializing in human resource/collective bargaining issues, along with a few lawyers, private consulting firms, and the like. Richard Boris, the Director, told me before the meeting even began that there are now about 420,000 faculty and instructional support staff in American universities that are members of collective bargaining units (and many more are members of nonacademic support staff).

The theme of the meeting was the "struggle for resources: a joint management/labor challenge." I felt that I was in a different world -- on a different planet, really, from the one I usually inhabit. Boris opened the conference saying "We have been on a diet too long." Barbara Bowen, President of the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York (CCNY) added "There is no reason why higher education needs to be chronically under-funded." As the level of indignation kept rising, Bill Scheurman, President of the United University Professions of the State University of New York (SUNY) chimed in, calling for a need to engage in the "battle of ideas with extremist think tanks." (No doubt CCAP, among others).

Two things struck me the most. First, American academic unionism is terribly concentrated geographically -- half the union members are in either New York or California, states that together have well under 20 percent of the U.S. population. My guess is you can put all the academic unionists in North Carolina in a telephone booth. Second, the participants are living in another world – even their perceptions of what is reality are well off-base. The reality is that spending at American universities is not rising as rapidly as in the salad days of the 1950s or 1960s, but it is still growing. It is true that a smaller proportion of that spending is going to the professoriate. To the attendees of the National Center meeting, on average, the solution is to get the taxpayers to fund higher education more generously, rather than to reallocate university funds back to historic proportions with respect to spending on instruction.

To be sure, there were pockets of realism and analytical thinking. Dan Julius, the Provost at Benedictine University, called for more serious academic research on labor issues, suggesting good ideas for studies. For example, has the spread in the use of part-time non-tenured ("contingent") faculty led to reductions in academic or instructional quality? What is the relationship between academic quality and unionization? Good questions, deserving serious scrutiny. And Ernst Benjamin, who runs the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), saw a potential dilemma. In pushing hard for higher salaries and fringe benefits for mostly tenure track full time faculty, unions increase the incentives for institutions to hire more adjunct faculty with low pay and fringe benefits. He came close to suggesting that unions are promoting the demise of their own membership by driving universities to lower cost substitutes for their services. Just as the United Auto Workers helped mortally wound the American auto industry by being too successful in pursuing its objectives, so faculty unions face the same prospects, particularly as spending on higher education is squeezed at the state level by rising Medicaid costs.

I could see a scenario where colleges squeeze faculty costs down in order to become a bit more affordable, and that, in turn, pushes faculty at institutions previously immune from unionization to reconsider and demand collective bargaining. But I can also see a quite different scenario unfolding, with enrollments, etc., at union dominated schools falling, because of concerns over quality and price, relative to private institutions and even non-collegiate forms of skill certification. Time will tell.

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