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.