Monday, February 26, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Thoughts on Unions

Another California correspondent writes:

The faculty of the California State University system are threatening to
strike. What does it mean about us as professional faculty that we are
willing to do this? I once heard the president of our University speak very
bitterly about our union to a group of CEOs. He had worked at a college
without a faculty union before coming to my University and much preferred
working without a union - he said it kept things more "professional". I
suspect it made his job easier to not have a union to deal with. That
said, it's tempting to see the union folk as a bunch of obstructionist
parasites as they do little most of the time except add another layer of
complexity to our already dankly labyrinthine bureaucracy. Whether or not
we get a new contract, the union still gets their dues.

I'm not sure if I would give up instructional time if my union were to
strike but I would like to get a pay increase. Is there a better way to
work through these issues? If so, what is it?

My original response to this was an extended meditation on the role of unions in academic life. It quickly got away from the actual question and become something of a rant, so I'll put that response in the 'revise and repost' files and try to actually answer the question that was asked.

I've managed both unionized and non-unionized faculty. In fact, I've really done the extremes: the unionized group gets standard raises across the board – no merit component whatsoever – and the non-unionized group had annual reviews that determined their raises. (I also worked as faculty in the non-unionized setting.) I've also participated in actual contract negotiations at my current college, hammering out the terms of the next several years.

And I'll concede upfront that I don't live in California, and don't know the issues specific to this dispute.

All of that said, I've found that the basic concerns of unions and the basic concerns of (sane) management (I'll leave aside the question of insane management, since, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, every crazy manager is crazy in his own way) are fundamentally different. Broadly speaking, unions think in terms of minimums, worst-case scenarios, protection, security, and equality among members. (Non-members are routinely shafted; I was a little surprised at the faculty union's unconcealed indifference to the rate of adjunct pay, though in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been.) They assume that every professor is hardworking and virtuous, and every manager a self-dealing fink of the first water. Management thinks in terms of initiatives, flexibility, responsiveness, and always – always – the low-performing 'clubhouse lawyer' who will exploit every possible loophole and procedure to feather his own nest.

Put differently, the union will assume that the faculty are doing their job just fine, and simply need to be protected from management (and paid better). Management will assume that a non-trivial number of faculty are loafing, and are exploiting bureaucratic loopholes and lags to escape actually doing their jobs at a reasonable level.

From my office, I have no issue with unions negotiating pay (broadly defined) and benefits. Honestly, setting 'merit increase' levels for every professor every year is incredibly stressful, since the 'winners' don't stay grateful, but the 'losers' milk their resentment eternally. No matter how obviously-right the reasoning, nobody likes to be told that he's getting a smaller raise than his officemate, because his officemate was more productive that year. (I never phrased it in directly comparative terms, but the faculty grapevine is fast and indiscreet.) To stave off the inevitable grade inflation, we sometimes had to set quotas for each performance level, which led to some really awful decisions.

In practice, too, someone who got a less-than-glowing review and a less-than-maximum raise was far likelier to take it as a personal affront than as constructive criticism. Allegations of favoritism, often mutually contradictory, flew fast and furious. When raises are contractual and across-the-board, the issue is out of my hands, and I (and the faculty) can focus on other things.

Where I and every manager I know takes issue with unions is in the protection they offer the bottom, say, five or ten percent. These are the parasites who exploit every opportunity to coast at the taxpayer's expense. (They're often 'victim bullies,' in C.K. Gunsalus' wonderful formulation.) In a rational organization, they'd be terminated and that would be that. But tenure protects them, and the combination of tenure with unions makes them all-but-bulletproof. These are the folks most faculty try their best not to notice, but managers spend most of our time dealing with. The difference in degree to which the two camps notice this group, I think, explains a great deal of the difference in attitudes towards unions (and tenure).

From my (admittedly idiosyncratic) perspective, I'd gladly trade relative generosity on pay and benefits for a greater ability to zero in on the few worst cases. Take out the tapeworms, and the entire system will work better. I've never heard a union even propose such a deal, but I'm guessing it would succeed.

Between the still-extant protections of tenure and the body of employment law that has developed since, say, 1970, the usual bugaboo of 'arbitrary and centralized power' has become largely theoretical. (This doesn't apply in certain cases, such as the ability of religious colleges to discriminate against, say, homosexuals or persons of different faiths. But that's another issue altogether.)

In terms of tactics, I'm not an organizer, but my suspicion is that the broader the base of membership, the more effective the union will be. At universities, for example, a faculty union that included T.A.'s might have more clout than one that didn't. I'm not a big fan of strikes, obviously, since they leave students out in the lurch, but a union that can't bring itself to strike is probably a union that won't win much. It's simply the nature of the beast.

Good luck with the current dispute. I hope you can settle without striking, at least.

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