Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Union Work as CV Stain?

A slightly nervous correspondent writes:

I'm a grad student in a humanities discipline at a public university, and I'm set to graduate with my MA in Spring 09. I had planned to graduate Fall 08, but it didn't work out that way. My ambition is a tenure-track position at one of the many fine community colleges in this area. I came up from community college myself, and I am a true believer in the CC mission. But because my degree won't be posted until May, I am stuck for a job until Summer 09 at the earliest, and I need some money coming in. I worked the last three semesters as a TA, and as a TA, I was represented by the UAW. I've been moderately active with the union, and now they've offered me a job as an organizer. The money is better than I'd get working at private ESL or test-prep schools, which seem to be pretty much my only other options right now, and I'd like to help get exploited grad students into the union. Here's the thing: my dad was a union organizer (non-academic), and he suffered some pretty serious retribution in his workplace, including being denied promotions and advancement opportunities. I wouldn't be handling grievances or anything like that, just getting people signed up, running elections, etc., but I'm concerned that if I get labeled as an activist or an organizer, I won't be able to get a tenure-track position. So I guess my questions are these: Are my fears founded? If so, would I have to reveal my union work during the interview process? If I don't reveal this work and I am hired, would that come back to bite me? I feel like I don't have enough information to make this decision. All advice is appreciated, and I'd like to remain anonymous.

My first thought is that both regional and local variables will come into play.

Where I am now, I can't imagine union work being held against you. If anything, in some departments, it might help you get past the department's search committee. But I also know that there are parts of the country in which labor activism would raise eyebrows, if not hackles. (I'm not entirely sure what a 'hackle' is, but I know it's not supposed to be raised.)

That said, there are also dramatic variations among institutions in the same region, and even among administrators within a single institution. The blue state/red state divide may give you a pretty good sense of the aggregate, but in any given case, it's not much help. I'd venture a guess that it would be most toxic at colleges that were battling unionization drives at the time. (Many years ago, when trying to escape Proprietary U, I had an interview for a deanship at a small private university. When I asked another dean there whether the faculty were unionized, he responded "not yet." That spoke volumes.) Oddly enough, I've noticed that colleges without unions get all worked up about them, but colleges with unions tend to accept them as facts of life. Having managed in a collective-bargaining environment for some time now, I can attest that contracts bind both sides, and that once you figure that out, a lot of the fear goes away.

In terms of what you reveal, you're free to leave things off the initial cv, but at most public institutions, there's also a standard 'job application' form that every applicant has to submit that includes questions about your last several jobs, in chronological order. Failure to disclose something on that, if it were found out, would be grounds for revocation of an offer, or for termination if it were discovered later. ('Failure to disclose' comes in handy when you find out that someone neglected to mention a criminal conviction. At that point, you don't have to establish direct relevance, or even evasive intent; all you have to do is show failure to disclose.) If you take the job, I think you'd have to be willing to disclose it and take the risks that come with that.

On a different note, your predicament calls to mind a persistent and terrible structural flaw in many graduate programs: the funding runs out before you're a viable candidate anyplace else. I've never fully understood why that happens with such frequency, but it does. Perhaps my colleagues at graduate programs could enlighten us.

In any event, best of luck on your search.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen any effect from disclosing union activism in your job searches? Alternately, from the hiring side, have you seen the issue arise? How did it play out?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

At my CC the union thing wouldn't be a problem.... the problem would be that you'll be competing in a candidate pool full of Ph.D.s. If you have a hard time getting interviews, please don't blame your union work. Most of the recent hires I know of have Ph.D.s either in hand or on the way.

Of course, our college president was the state-level grivence rep and pretty much wrote our contract from scratch at previous jobs, so we're probably a bit unusual.
I think that the "organizer" part of "union organizer" will give you incomparable experience that will help when you apply to CCs - in terms of the knowledge you'll gain and as a line on the CV. The "union" part is, as everyone knows, exuberantly politicized.

You may also want to keep in mind that the current academic job market is a special kind of dismal.

On the other hand, as for union organizing, from what I've seen through a friend of mine who spent several years doing it for a major union, you are unlikely to be able to set up a schedule that will allow you to work as an adjunct to get some more teaching experience.

Then, well, if uniting labor is very important to you, do you think you'll be happy working at a school with an anti-union atmosphere?
meteechart is right: If a CC won't hire you because of your background as a union organizer, then you're not going to be happy working there.

I'd also take Inside the Philosophy Factory's warning about not having a Ph.D. with a grain of salt. Some CCs care about them, many others don't. What all of us are looking for is good teachers. So what you need to do is to get some good, solid teaching experience, preferably at a CC. This will mean several years of adjuncting. And even then, as ItPF points out, you'll be in a candidate pool with dozens--maybe even hundreds--of others.

As an aside: IIRC "hackles" are the hair on the nape of an animal's neck. Visualize a snarling dog. So, yeah, don't want to raise those.
If you're in California, oh organizer, I can tell you that lots of the UAW leadership have gotten tenure track jobs at all levels of colleges while publicly listing their union work on their CVs.

I have about 5 friends/former fellow grad students at different CC English departments out here and they all had a perfectly fine experience w. disclosing their union participation --- including one who tells me they look up candidates and those who *didn't* join the grad union get looked at askance.

Now, that's only 5 places and there's like a hundred CCs out here, so you may run into individuals on specific search committees, but as far as I have seen they are pretty receptive to it.

BTW you know that if you do get a job at a unionized CC it will be about a week before your local shop steward shows up expecting you to take on another leadership role, right?
I'm from a blue state and chair a department in a red state. We have a bargaining unit but no union. I would look favorably on a candidate with organizing experience of whatever type because it suggests a get-involved attitude and willingness to take responsibility. I'd suggest that you explain in your letter of application how the organizing experience has advanced your professional development in ways that are relevant to a faculty position. Good luck!
Hope my post isn't too late to be useful.

I did some union work while a grad student, as a "release-time" staffer for my own union. In one of the three successful job interviews I had (this one at a liberal arts college in the Midwest), the first thing the department chair said when I met him was, "I was involved in a graduate employee union too!" The hiring committee for the job I actually took (at a public teaching-oriented college in the Northeast), I've found out since, happened to have been full of active members of the faculty union here. My union work seems to have been a good thing for both interviews. (Oh, and at the third job, the faculty member with the most pull regarding the decision happened to be a former community organizer; I'm sure the union work didn't bother him any, although we never discussed it.)

Obviously, I can't say anything about the many schools that chose not to interview me...but since I'm happy about where I ended up, I'd like to think that having union work on your CV is a good thing, if ending up in a pro-union department is something you'd like. Academia isn't as full of lefties as some think, but there are enough around that you shouldn't worry about a job-market downside to this.

Besides, you'll have fun organizing!
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