Monday, December 05, 2005


Ask the Administrator: Is There Power in a Union?

A professional-staff correspondent writes:

I'm a member of the staff association at my school. We meet regularly, both among ourselves and with various members of the administration to discuss problems that the staff is facing. We have also met regularly with the Board of Trustees. We have generally asked for very practical things--mandated evaluations, more transparent procedures, easy access to policies, harassment training for employees. Our requests have seemed to fall on deaf ears. These discussions have been going on for years about these same issues. Needless to say we're getting a little frustrated. Recently, someone on the committee raised the possibility of unionizing. It does seem to be the only option. What do you think of this option? Alternatively, what suggestions do you have for getting a response, or preferably some action, on our requests and future requests?

There are times when I have to be very conscious of which hat I’m wearing. As a dean at my particular college, which has multiple unions representing just about everybody other than managers and adjuncts, I don’t have a problem with unions. As a dean generally, I’ll roll my eyes in solidarity with deans everywhere who have to deal with the inevitable procedure costs unions bring.

As a manager, it doesn’t faze me at all to negotiate pay and benefits. It’s the work rules that rankle. I’m beginning to think it’s because the folks who have the drive to start unions, and the folks who usually rise to the leadership, tend to be capable, competent, and generally trustworthy (at least in my experience – I’m not talking about the huge, established industrial unions here). The problem is that they think everybody in the union is like them (and every manager gleefully quaffs the blood of the innocent), so they push for rules that would be reasonable and fair if everybody were as conscientious as they. Of course, not everybody is, and you can wind up with rules that prevent taking out the trash, so to speak. Managers then spend inordinate amounts of time developing work-arounds to compensate for the rigidities of the contract. A contract built on the assumption that every manager is arbitrary and every worker virtuous is a lousy contract.

Depending on the culture of your school, unionization could be met with anything from indifference (best case) to a purge (worst case). If other parts of your college (i.e. the faculty) have unions, that should help. It’s technically against federal law to fire people for union organizing, but it happens, especially during Republican administrations.

You might be able to free-ride on the threat of unionizing by letting the threat leak. Leave a few documents lying around, start a whispering campaign – if the administration thinks that unionization is a live threat, it might make a few strategic concessions to make unionizing seem less necessary. (Then again, it might just clamp down, depending on local culture.) Then you jump in as the ‘reasonable’ alternative – address our clearly-valid concerns, and we’ll work with you to keep those evil (fictitious) organizers outside the gates. Entire industries have done this, and it can work. I’ll leave the discussion of its morality to subtler minds than mine.

Another way to get attention, without resorting to the ‘u’ word, would be to construct a few worst-case scenarios around the procedures or rules you find objectionable, and start dropping a different word: litigation. In my experience, managers are far more scared of lawsuits than of unions, since lawsuits are much more likely to happen. Best case, again, find some viable threat and offer to buy it off with procedural changes.

Faithful readers: what do you think? How could this play out on your campus?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Both of the Universities I teach at are unionized, and I have to say I'm damn glad. Academic unions are more common up here in Canada, as are unions in general these days, and I think they offer a lot of support to students, faculty and staff alike. Even though I have a love/hate relationship with one of my unions it has also been a great source of energy and strength for me, not to mention that I have the best contract for work of my kind in Canada. Not that it couldn't be better, of course, but the beauty of being in a union is that we do work to make it better, and we do see improvements.

A word on the 'threated to unionize' strategy: be prepared to follow through. Unionizing is not a joke, it is a tough battle and your administration will know this and have some sense of whether or not you have the strength to back your threats up. Unionizing takes support from outside organizations that are already unionized and they won't take kindly to being used for a game of chicken either. Personally I think it sounds like unionizing could be a good option, but only pursue it if you are really serious about following through.
I grew up in a house with parents who were union members. It allowed for some decent working conditions and decent pay in otherwise difficult jobs. So I support unions, and I think they are important in some ways.

However, I agree with your assessment that they do not allow for taking out the trash, as you say. Employees get frustrated at fellow employees, so it is not just management who sees this as a problem. It is my secret shame that I, at times, which there were no unions related to my work. I think we could be so much more flexible.

And then I remember the last contract negotiations here where the university proposed faculty get a 1% increase in health care costs and the clerical workers upwards of 30%. I am releived those clerical workers had a union and could collectively bargain.
Consider the costs vs. the benefits of unionizing carefully.

My union (the state affiliate of the NEA) sucks more than $100/month out of my paycheck, and I am unable to point out a single, concrete benefit derived from my membership. I'm completely serious about this... not one. Every month we have a faculty association meeting which features completely vile food, paid for by the union. If they served good food at the meeting, I suppose I could count that as a concrete benefit: my $100 lunch for the month.

At my campus, we have 200+ full-time faculty, and we renegotiate our contract every three years. During that span of time, our union receives more than $600,000 in dues. Agency fee payers are told by the union that about 66% of that money goes to pay for the "costs of collective bargaining." So in other words, the price tag for the minimal support we get once every three years is about $400,000, according to the union bean counters.

In reality, most of that money goes toward supporting the fat salaries of the union employees. Field reps, whom we might see on campus once or twice in a negotiation year, if that, pull down six-figure salaries. The state-level union president takes in a cool $250,000 per year, at least, plus thousands more through an expense account, housing allowance, car allowance, and so forth.

According to the union itself, about 1/3 of the members are registered as Republicans, but the union gives 95%+ of its political contributions to Democrats.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point: affiliation with the NEA or the AFT is a waste of money. All you need is a strong faculty association.
anonymous - I know that my union is very unusual, I think it is probably the most democratic union I've ever heard of. We have our problems but whenever we (the membership) aren't satisfied, we change things. If you aren't satisfied I suggest you start voicing your displeasure. I'll bet you'll find a lot of like minded people willing to put in the work to change things.

Yeah, I'm an idealist! A grumpy idealist, but still an idealist.
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