Chronicle of Higher Ed says Faculty Unions don’t help

Folks:

An article in Monday’s Chronicle reports “new” “research” (note the scare quotes) finding that faculty unions, especially at public colleges/universities, don’t produce discernible advantages for their members.

I’ve read much of the research the author of this piece cites as I’ve been working on an article of my own.  Let’s just say he makes two troubling mistakes.  First, he doesn’t examine the background of his sources; much of that research comes from management and management-friendly folks.  Second, a lot of it analyzes survey data that’s old.  Unless I missed something, none of it’s newer than the early 2000s. 

So we need to be prepared to answer these kinds of arguments, both critically and proactively.  That is, what does our union do for us that we couldn’t do as well without it?

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May 1, 2011

What Good Do Faculty Unions Do?

Research sheds little light on quantifiable benefits of collective bargaining

Leonardo Carrizo for The Chronicle

Unions representing public-college faculty members are on the brink of being stripped of power in Ohio, where supporters of collective-bargaining rights gathered last month to protest.

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Leonardo Carrizo for The Chronicle

Unions representing public-college faculty members are on the brink of being stripped of power in Ohio, where supporters of collective-bargaining rights gathered last month to protest.

By Peter Schmidt

As unions that represent public-college professors have come under attack in state legislatures, the unions’ leaders have fought back without being able to define what, exactly, they stand to lose if their right to collectively bargain goes away.

Many union leaders have declared that right essential if faculty members are to be paid adequately, treated fairly, and given a voice in their institutions’ affairs. But the research that tests such assertions offers mixed findings. At most private colleges, as well as at public colleges where faculty members have chosen not to form unions or have been precluded from doing so by state law, many faculty members work without union contracts without feeling particularly exploited.

If anything, the research shows that the gains derived through collective bargaining are difficult to measure. Factors such as regional differences in the cost of living and market-related variations in what colleges are willing to pay their employees have confounded most attempts to determine whether faculty members with union contracts are better off than others. At four-year colleges, the financial payoffs from collective bargaining appear modest at best. At two-year colleges, such financial gains might be bigger, but they remain little studied and poorly defined.

The chief benefits of unionization appear to have less to do with getting faculty members more bread than in giving them some say over how it is sliced. Those who belong to collective-bargaining units have been found by researchers to have more say in the management of their institutions and how the faculty payroll is divvied up.

“At institutions where a substantial number of the faculty are represented in collective bargaining, you are much more likely to have a substantial faculty voice in governance,” says Marc Bousquet, an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, regular blogger for The Chronicle, and co-chairman of an American Association of University Professors committee on the working conditions of adjunct faculty members. “It is not necessarily the case that collective bargaining addresses governance procedures directly,” he says, so much as it gives faculty members more power within their institutions than they might otherwise have.

“Across the broad spectrum of institutions of higher education, faculty unions do make a difference,” says Philo Hutcheson, who has monitored research on faculty unionization as an associate professor of educational-policy studies at Georgia State University. While unions can bring about improvements in faculty members’ pay and working conditions, he says, “they are far stronger, in general, in terms of protecting faculty members” from arbitrary management decisions.

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Public-employee unions in Ohio are urging voters to repeal a new law limiting the rights of many state workers. The gains made through collective bargaining by public-college faculty members, however, have proved hard to measure.

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Leonardo Carrizo for The Chronicle

Lingering Threats

It is common for state lawmakers to respond to economic downturns by calling on public employees to sacrifice pay or benefits to help close state budget gaps. This year, however, lawmakers in some states have gone beyond trying to extract financial concessions from unions and mounted all-out assaults on the unions themselves. Although the battles are hardly over, unions representing public-college faculty members are on the brink of being stripped of much of their power in Ohio and Wisconsin, and continue to face threats to their existence in Florida.

In Ohio, public employees’ unions are urging voters to repeal a measure, signed into law by Gov. John R. Kasich in March, that would sharply limit the collective-bargaining rights of many state workers and specifically renders most public-college faculty members ineligible for union representation by reclassifying them as managerial employees. The campaign against the law has until late June to gather enough signatures to put a referendum to repeal it on the November ballot. If either the petition-gathering effort or the referendum fails, the new law will take effect.

Although the debate in Ohio has been highly partisan, pitting the state’s Republican governor and lawmakers against Democrats and their union allies, the  proposed reclassification came not from some conservative think tank, but from the Inter-University Council of Ohio, an association of the state’s public universities. A similar provision was recently put forward by top Democratic lawmakers in Connecticut at the behest of the Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy, only to be killed by a legislative committee at the urging of groups representing public colleges’ faculty members.

Faculty members and academic staff at the University of Wisconsin are denied the right to collectively bargain, under a law signed by Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. The measure remains tied up in court, however, as a result of lawsuits alleging that a legislative committee violated the state’s open-meeting laws in passing it. The Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Teachers is going ahead with union elections on the system’s campuses, out of a belief—untested by any research—that such unions can be a major voice in their campuses’ affairs even without collective-bargaining rights.

A bill pending before Florida’s Legislature would revoke the certification of any public-college employee union that represents less than half of the workers eligible for membership unless those workers vote to recertify it by July 1. Union representatives have argued that the measure would stack the deck against them by affording little time for recertification votes and requiring the elections to be held during months when fewer faculty members are around.

Seeking More Say

Much of the research on the effects of such faculty unions was published in the 1970s and early 80s, and focused on the initial wave of unionization efforts made possible by states’ adoption of laws letting public employees bargain collectively. In an exhaustive research review published in the journal Higher Education in 2008, Christine M. Wickens, then a graduate student at York University, in Toronto, cautioned that the research on fledgling unions from two or three decades ago might have little application to the current era, when faculty unions are more entrenched on college campuses and, at the same time, face comparatively more opposition from political conservatives.

In summing up the research to that point, Ms. Wickens said there was little consensus on the influence of unionization on college governance, and little evidence that unionization promoted academic freedom. She found a fair amount of agreement among researchers that faculty members believe they benefit from unionization when it comes to job security, tenure, promotion procedures, and due process. The research she cited included a 1999 article, in the Journal of Labor Research, which concluded, based on an analysis of data from seven of Ohio’s public universities, that belonging to a union appeared to increase a faculty members’ chances of earning tenure and rising to full professor.

More recently, however, a study of more than 340 four-year colleges, presented last fall at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, concluded that unionization did not appear to give faculty members significantly more power over tenure-and-promotion decisions, despite the attention given such issues by collective-bargaining agreements.

The paper nonetheless painted a fairly positive picture of unionization’s effect on the working conditions of faculty members, finding that unionization “greatly increases faculty influence” over pay scales, the salaries of individual faculty, and the appointments of department heads and of members of institutionwide committees, and shows some signs of giving college faculty members more say over curriculum and faculty teaching loads.

Stephen R. Porter, an associate professor of research and evaluation at Iowa State University, and Clinton M. Stephens, a graduate student there, conducted the study by analyzing the results of a 2001 national survey of faculty-senate leaders and college presidents.

Salary Crunching

Efforts to measure the financial benefits that public colleges’ faculty members derive from unionization are complicated by factors that invalidate dollar-for-dollar comparisons of pay packages.

Among the chief obstacles to salary comparisons is the geographic distribution of unionized campuses, which are concentrated in states with relatively high costs of living. About half of unionized faculty members work in California or New York, and most work at colleges in the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and West, according to data compiled by the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

Where public colleges in such states are found to pay faculty members more, it is hard to tease out whether their doing so stems from collective bargaining or the need to offer more so that faculty members can afford to live there. Further complicating the picture, colleges do not operate in isolation but in labor markets where they compete for talent, so the gains made by unionized faculty members at one college through collective bargaining might then be offered by colleges without unions to keep their faculty members from being lured away.

Also confounding such studies is the chicken-and-egg problem of differentiating unionization’s causes and effects. A finding that unionized faculties are paid less than nonunionized faculties, for example, might reflect that collective bargaining does little to improve wages, or it might reflect that frustration over low wages often leads to unionization.

In a paper published in April in Industrial and Labor Relations Review, four economists—David W. Hedrick and Charles S. Wassell Jr., of Central Washington University, and Steven E. Henson and John M. Krieg, of Western Washington University—describe how they fashioned a study of full-time faculty at four-year colleges that sought to account for the effects of unionization alone. They mathematically accounted for cost-of-living differences as well as other factors, such as professional background and institutional classification, that influence how much faculty members are paid, in analyzing data based on about 24,000 faculty members and 1,060 colleges collected from 1988 through 2004 as part of the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty. They concluded that the increase in wages associated with unionization was so small it was statistically insignificant.

The article, “Is There Really a Faculty Union Salary Premium?” cautions that “the weak effect that unions have on salaries does not necessarily indicate that they are ineffective advocates for their members,” because it is entirely possible that unions win other gains, such as better benefits and improved working conditions.

Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University, says he is not surprised that the faculty members covered by the study did not reap significant financial gains from collective bargaining. Most states that let faculty members at public colleges engage in collective bargaining do not give them the right to go on strike or have salaries set through arbitration, and without either tool, he says, faculty members “have limited bargaining power.”

Typically, Mr. Ehrenberg says, labor unions have won major wage gains for their members in industries that can tap into big profits—and state higher-education systems hardly fit such a bill.

Knowledge Gaps

Mr. Hedrick says he and the other authors of the paper on full-time faculty at four-year colleges are conducting similar studies looking at both two-year and four-year colleges and covering other types of faculty members, including adjuncts. They hope to publish results within a year.

Research on unionization’s effects on two-year colleges is sparse, and the research on its effect on adjunct faculty is virtually nonexistent.

Full-time faculty members at community colleges in states that allow them to collectively bargain were found to earn substantially more than community-college faculty members elsewhere in a 2006 analysis of data from more than 1,000 institutions. The study was conducted by Jose F. Maldonado, then a doctoral student at the University of North Texas, with the assistance of David E. Hardy, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and Stephen G. Katsinas, a professor of higher education there.

The three researchers broke out their results, which they have presented at higher-education conferences but never published, by institution size and by whether colleges were rural, suburban, or urban. They found that the pay advantage for faculty members in collective-bargaining states ranged from 11 percent, or about $4,300, for full-time faculty members at small, rural community colleges to 48 percent, or about $20,200, for those at suburban community colleges that were not part of a system. On average, community-college faculty in states that allowed collective bargaining earned nearly $13,900, or about 32 percent, more than those who were in states that did not. Moreover, the community colleges in states that allowed collective bargaining spent an average of about $4,300, or nearly 50 percent, more per head on benefits for full-time faculty members.

The study only gathered raw numbers dealing with compensation and made no effort to account for cost-of-living differences or other factors that could have skewed its results. In a recent interview, Mr. Katsinas expressed doubt that any such factors could fully account for the pay differences that the study associates with laws allowing collective bargaining, but he acknowledged that such gaps cannot be attributed to collective-bargaining laws alone.

On the question of whether unionization has helped adjunct faculty members, Keith Hoeller, a longtime advocate for adjunct-faculty rights and a co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association, is skeptical. Although unions that represent solely adjuncts have cropped up at many colleges, the chief national unions that they are affiliated with represent a mixture of adjuncts and tenured and tenure-track faculty members. Mr. Hoeller, who teaches in Washington State, complains that adjuncts have relatively little say in negotiations involving tenured and tenure-track faculty members, whose interests often are at odds with theirs. “When the dust settles,” he says, “there are almost no gains for adjuncts from these bargaining teams.”

Speaking From Experience

Public-college faculty members are themselves hardly in agreement on unionization’s benefits, as evidenced by the failure of some votes on unionization and the inability of faculty unions to gain much of a foothold among the nation’s most prestigious universities.

“The best and the brightest of the faculty don’t feel they need a labor union. They feel they are professionals. They feel they are competing in a national market. They don’t want to get bogged down by collective bargaining,” argues Richard K. Vedder, a Chronicle blogger who is director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and a professor of economics at Ohio University, one of three public universities in that state where faculty members never went the unionization route.

But Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, a professor of economics at Wright State University and a member of the board of the Ohio conference of the AAUP, says he is convinced that the state’s faculty unions are worth fighting for.

“We can definitely point to a lot of tangible benefits from collective bargaining,” he says. At Wright State, he argues, it has led to a fairer distribution of raises, clearer tenure requirements, faculty input on annual evaluation criteria, and better benefits for faculty members. “There is no question that this is a better place to work.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Advocacy, APSCUF, Chronicle of Higher Ed, Collective Bargaining, Public education, research, Shock Doctrine

2 responses to “Chronicle of Higher Ed says Faculty Unions don’t help

  1. Lenora Hanson

    Thanks for providing some clarity and context for a story that was ill-timed to say the least, particularly for those of us living and breathing the union fight in Wisconsin right now. One question: is there any similar work done on graduate students and the benefits of unionizing?

  2. sethkahn

    I’ve pretty much lost faith in the Chronicle. It’s awfully management-friendly…

    I have a dim memory of seeing a second- or third-hand reference recently to a study of unionized grad students, but I can’t remember where I saw it or what it said. I’ll ask around, though, if you want. Seems like high time for that study.

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