Organizing Against Precarity in Higher Education

As faculty positions become more like gig work, the future of higher education will depend on unionized workers.

A college professorship might sound like the last great job in America. Tenure track positions in higher education have traditionally meant academic freedom, job security, and a middle-class lifestyle. But today in the U.S., the majority of university faculty are shut out of positions that lead to tenure. Many such non-tenure-track faculty (NTTs) earn poverty wages, live out of their cars, and depend on government assistance programs. Most college students don’t know that, behind the scenes, many of their professors are referred to as temps, gig workers, freeway flyers, and adjuncts.

The casualization of academic labor is part of a larger trend of neoliberal corporatization at U.S. colleges and universities, which includes state defunding, administrative bloat, cost-cutting, and union-busting aided and abetted by weak or non-existent labor laws. Within this bleak picture, thousands of graduate students spend their peak earning years training to become faculty. Each hopes to win the tenure-track lottery or, at least, to get an NTT contract that’s secure enough to live on. As they fight for a living wage and better working conditions by organizing unions, their universities regularly refuse to even recognize them as workers, despite the fact that many graduate students teach the same courses as university professors.

Still, faculty and graduate students are increasingly turning to unions to improve their working conditions, and they have reason for optimism. Two huge recent unionization victories have shown that faculty and graduate students can effectively campaign—and win—the right to union representation. After a six-year campaign, the Union of Pitt Faculty won their election by a landslide, forming not only the largest new faculty union in a decade, but also one of the largest new bargaining units of 2021. Then, kicking off 2022, student workers at Columbia University reached a tentative agreement with the administration after a ten-week strike, the longest in over a decade in academia. And that was in the context of the decades-long fight to unionize graduate students at private institutions. Now that the contract has been ratified, the graduate workers are finally reaping the benefits of unionization since seeing their union certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) back in 2017.

These days, it’s hard not to see each academic labor struggle as representing something larger—the fight for a higher education system that lives up to its institutions’ often-stated commitments to social justice. I’m a contingent faculty member and union organizer in my fifth year of a campaign. Learning about the developments at Pitt and Columbia reminds me how long and hard-won such victories are in higher education.

Challenges to Unionizing in Higher Education

Though unions are becoming more popular in academia, only about a quarter of faculty members and 22 percent of graduate student workers are unionized today.1 The question of why more academic workers aren’t unionized has many answers. Some of them have to do with the general assault on unions in the U.S., some with the particular structure and culture of academic work.  

Organizer and author Jane McAlevey argues in A Collective Bargain that the ever-growing union-busting industry is the biggest threat to unionization in all sectors. University administrators are only too happy to employ the services of this industry, spending big money on “union avoidance” law firms and PR consultants. In fact, as soon as the NLRB ruled that graduate student workers could form unions in 2016, universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Chicago, put up cookie-cutter “informational” websites discouraging unionization. In the case of Pitt’s faculty union campaign, the administration spent nearly $3 million on Ballard Spahr, a “union-avoidance” firm that was also employed by Temple and Penn State. Columbia University brought Bernie Plum, a lawyer at Proskauer Rose, another firm with a reputation for union-busting, to their latest negotiations. My own employer, Santa Clara University, which claims to uphold a commitment to Catholic social teaching and social justice, retains the services of Littler Mendelson, the same firm used by McDonald’s against the “Fight for 15” campaign and by Starbucks in its ongoing attempt to quash unionization. In the Bay Area, Littler is notorious, known by labor lawyers as “Hitler, Mussolini and Fascist” and more generally as a union-busting “behemoth” unafraid to get “aggressive” with workers while raking in over $600 million annually.

The relationship between union-busting firms and not-for-profit universities blatantly contradicts these institutions’ public images and stated values. The parallels between higher education and the nonprofit sector are striking in this respect. One wouldn’t expect the ACLU or Planned Parenthood to union bust either, yet this is what we’ve seen at different branches of these and other nonprofits. Besides, universities have long made all kinds of financial decisions that undermine their expressed concern for labor, racial, and environmental justice, such as investing in fossil fuels and accepting donations from the Koch foundation, each of which is now challenged by fossil fuel divestment and “UnKoch My Campus” movements.

Contrary to the stereotype that they are hotbeds of progressive ideology, universities are notorious for fighting to keep unions out. As Asheesh Kapur Siddique, a professor at UMass Amherst, argues, looking at “the political preferences of employees” at the university is less useful than looking at “who runs it.” Citing historian Larry Gerber, Siddique notes that since about the ‘70s, academic boards have been intentionally “stacked with members from corporate backgrounds who made opposition to academic labor organizing part of the contemporary university’s governance model.” The commitment to fighting unions means adopting the anti-union playbook, which includes everything from giving hokey “We’re a family” speeches to firing union organizers. The union-busting doesn’t end with union elections, either. Even after a successful unionization drive, universities regularly challenge results, fail to recognize bargaining units, drag their feet during negotiations, or flat-out refuse to come to the table.  

The NLRB, which is supposed to enforce private sector labor law, has also proven to be an external challenge for forming or maintaining a union. For one, the NLRB has been “withering away,” due to government defunding, which has weakened the effectiveness of the agency. And, like other government agencies that are supposed to ​​remain politically neutral, NLRB board membership is highly politicized, with its members appointed by sitting presidents to carry out a partisan agenda. For example, in 2020 the NLRB, stacked with Trump appointees, decided to close its doors to religious institutions after having opened them with a landmark 2014 ruling. But, for years before the 2020 ruling, workers at religiously-affiliated universities like mine knew not to file for elections with the NLRB to avoid the risk of triggering a reversal of the Obama-era ruling which would empower administrators at already unionized institutions to retroactively withdraw union recognition.  

The public sector has its own obstacles when it comes to unions, though how serious those are depends on the state. For example, public teachers in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia are banned from collective bargaining (the process by which union members negotiate a legally binding agreement with the employer) and striking. But there are also many states, including New York, where collective bargaining is legal but striking is not, which takes away the union’s hammer. Strikes are still possible, as demonstrated by wildcat teacher strikes in West Virginia and several other states, but they can be dangerous, especially when they’re not massive enough to force negotiations. In Virginia, for example, public workers are not only terminated for striking but also banned from public employment for a period of 12 months.

The external and internal challenges to unionization are dynamically linked in organizing. Legal limitations are discouraging for both organizers and existing or potential members. I’ve dealt with this as an organizer at a religious institution. It’s hard to get workers to sign cards when they know that the NLRB route is unavailable and the employer will neither agree to an “in-house” election nor voluntarily recognize a union.

An NTT faculty member at a public university in Virginia told me that state laws are a constant obstacle to organizing even those academics who are tired of being exploited. The prevailing sentiment about union-organizing is: “It would be nice but we can’t.” The idea that “we could still build power and organize without legal avenues,” he said, can be a tough sell as many faculty are afraid of visibility and retaliation, the kind enabled by contingent employment. An employer can simply not renew the contract of a limited-term instructor, making accusations of retaliation moot. This “culture of fear” is a major obstacle for collective action everywhere, but in states that legally restrict unionization, there’s a particularly pronounced issue of motivation. While some faculty and graduate students are willing to be public about their organizing, it’s hard to mobilize them to do more than sign a petition when collective bargaining is off the table due to state laws or NLRB politics.

Dispelling the myth that unions are illegal in Virginia was also an imperative for graduate student Jasper Conner and his co-organizers at The College of William & Mary. Joining United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), the workers went public as a union after three and a half years of organizing. Though the university refuses to recognize the union, the administration and board have met with members and the union has seen gains in the form of COVID PPE and health coverage for graduate students who previously lacked it. But getting to this point meant having a lot of conversations to shift the workers’ mentality from “The union is the thing that collectively bargains for you” to “We are the union and we fight for ourselves. And if we don’t fight, we lose.” Conner and his comrades had to convince their fellow workers on the power of rank and file unionism, even without collective bargaining. Initially composed of graduate students, the unit has expanded to include staff and faculty of all ranks, which is highly unusual in academia. Still, significant wall-to-wall growth has been a challenge, in large part due to the pandemic, which made forming connections and staging actions more difficult.

Overcoming Challenges of Class and Overinvestment in Shared Governance

Not all academics welcome unions. Some are virulently anti-union for the usual reasons: they don’t want to pay dues (even though the cost of dues is almost always more than offset by subsequent gains) or they know someone who had a negative experience with a union (even though they should know that anecdotes are not data). And then there are those, at least among faculty, who are simply convinced that they can get a better deal out of the university individually rather than through collective bargaining. These people express only vague concern about the deals their colleagues are getting.

Some of the mental blocks surrounding unionization have to do with the peculiar culture of the profession. To be an academic is to live a set of contradictions. It’s to talk of community but know that hyper-individualism wins the day. It’s to work more than 40 hours per week (“60 hours” according to faculty and graduate students I interviewed) but be told that you’re not a “real” worker. If you’re a graduate student worker, your administration tells you you’re a student. If you’re faculty, it tells you you’re family or that you’re management, even if your power is limited to advising higher-ups. In fact, as they increase their reliance on NTT faculty, universities are creating more positions that seem like they could be characterized as what has been called the professional managerial class. Many NTTs run programs, serve as department chairs, and vote on job searches. What some don’t realize is that these positions are less about empowering faculty and more about squeezing surplus value out of NTTs.

The strategy of class stratification works because NTTs continue to repeat the union-busting talking point that unions aren’t really meant for them; unions are for miners, longshore workers, and bus drivers. In other words, many academics simply don’t think of themselves as workers deserving or needing solidarity, even as their compensation and working conditions increasingly resemble the precarity of the working class. This mentality is a serious problem for organizing because it gets in the way of solidarity, making it that much harder to build any kind of union, not to mention a wall-to-wall union that would include academic support staff, service employees and even undergraduate student workers.

There’s another related mental block that prevents academic workers from seeing the necessity of unions: the romantic notion that universities can solve all their problems “within the system,” through the mechanism of what supposedly makes academia unique—shared governance. Shared governance signifies a system within which the board and the administration share decision-making power with faculty, staff, and students, as represented by separate or collective bodies often called senates. These decisions may theoretically involve anything from curriculum planning to working conditions to disciplinary hearings. Participation and collaboration are the heart of shared governance, but one sees the power asymmetries embedded in the system as soon as one realizes that the administration and the board have the last word on all university decisions, while students, faculty, and staff do not. Senates can form task forces and pass resolutions which the administration, and the board, can decide to implement, reject, or ignore. In a way, the system is one where the workers spend massive amounts of unpaid labor hours to craft recommendations that administrators can reject for almost any reason. This is basically what any worker in any profession can do, albeit with less ceremony.

For shared governance to work, the administration and the board would need to give up more decision-making power. But even if that happened, shared governance would still need to contend with the question of whether it accurately represents the workers. For example, tenure-track and tenured faculty far outnumber NTT faculty when it comes to senate representation at my university. This isn’t surprising as many contingent faculty don’t have service requirements or the same kind of long-term investment in the university precisely due to their contingency. And the NTT faculty who do participate can find themselves intimidated by faculty members higher up on the status or power hierarchy.  

Unions and shared governance are constantly pitted against each other in union-busting campaigns. “We don’t need a union because we have shared governance” and “Unions will infringe on the power of shared governance” are a couple of the talking points used by administrators and repeated by workers who have invested years in working within the structure. Paul Johnson, a professor in Communication and organizer at Pitt said the issue came up in their campaign, but it didn’t stop faculty from winning their union by a landslide. “What are the teeth that shared governance has in the status quo?” Johnson asked rhetorically when I brought up the concept. In fact, multiple interviewees used the metaphor of teeth when speaking about shared governance to evoke its inadequacy to meaningfully disrupt the status quo. No matter how much work faculty put into their senatorial resolutions, unless these resolutions are in line with the plans put in place by university administrators (or board members), this work goes ignored.

And yet academic workers continue to invest time and energy in shared governance instead of organizing. Both are possible simultaneously, yet too often I see colleagues choose the former over the latter. Maybe that’s because there is a familiarity to this mechanism. Maybe it’s that working through shared governance means getting institutional brownie points and adding lines to faculty activity reports. Maybe it’s because governance bodies allow workers to feel validated when taking the stage, authoring resolutions, and engaging in good old fashioned politicking. Maybe rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship still feels like doing something, even as it diverts one from getting on the life raft.

The Trend Toward Organizing

Despite these challenges, unions are growing in higher education. According to a report from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, the period of 2013 to 2019 saw the certification or recognition of 118 new bargaining units for faculty. Private non-profit institutions saw an increase of 81.3% in faculty bargaining units. Public sector unions grew only by 8.8% since 2012 but this, according to the report, is because of their preexisting “density.” Graduate student unions also grew significantly, seeing a 31% increase in worker representation, a bump aided by the NLRB’s 2016 decision to recognize Columbia graduate students’ status as workers who are entitled to collective bargaining rights, which set a new precedent.

The good news is that academics—particularly NTT faculty and graduate students—are gradually undergoing a shift in how they view themselves. This is a response to many things, including academia’s deteriorating working conditions and the ever-rising cost of living. Unions have taken note of this and directed more efforts toward organizing adjuncts and other academic workers. For example, SEIU’s Faculty Forward campaign, which includes my institution, has focused specifically on organizing faculty, student workers, and support staff. In fact, in the past six years, SEIU has become “the predominant national union representing new private sector faculty bargaining units.” The fact that academic workers are organizing and winning campaigns means they’re seeing the need for structural change and accepting the shortcomings of shared governance. Johnson told me that, in organizing, he found his colleagues were “not stuck in the past, in an old idea of what a union is,” meaning a mechanism exclusively reserved for blue-collar workers, an obviously classist idea. The faculty and librarians at Pitt didn’t think it strange to organize with United Steelworkers, though likely the university’s location in a union town helped normalize the prospect of a union.

COVID has only underscored the power of administrators to make top-down decisions about working conditions. It’s harder to see oneself as a member of the professional managerial class when one is ordered to teach in person during a COVID surge, or expected to pivot from in-person to online instruction and put in countless unpaid hours of labor to transform a class into an online format. In the midst of the pandemic, public and private universities laid off workers, froze raises, and reduced retirement contributions, often unilaterally or even against the will of their faculty, staff, or student senates. Yet by the summer of 2021, some of the same universities that took austerity measures announced that they had grown their endowments during the pandemic.   

In response to the pandemic, unions used negotiations and strikes to gain sick leave and more health care coverage and safer working conditions and to avoid layoffs. Being unrecognized by their employers has not stopped unions from supporting workers by establishing mutual aid networks, and securing short-term employment opportunities and additional funding for graduate students. And academic workers across the country who have been unable to collectively bargain have found ways to act as unions, organize around issues, start new AAUP chapters, and form cross-institutional coalitions.

Fighting Disengagement to Win

Taking a methodical approach to organizing is particularly crucial for organizing outside the structure of a union with collective bargaining power. To start organizing, you just need people and issues, but to see wins on specific issues and to build membership and power, you need an education in time-tested principles and tactics. Academics, who tend to work alone or within labs, lack the training necessary for not only coordinating collective action but also building organizations that do more than survive but actually grow. Plus, in academia, structural institutional opacity, job insecurity, and a culture of civility make it difficult, though still possible, to have frank one-on-one organizing conversations about working conditions and pay.

I’ve seen firsthand successes in mobilizing—in reaction to a sudden cut in funding or worsening work conditions—fall apart after a setback or devolve into chatter over a listserv. Loss aversion can be a powerful motivator that gets people to flood the employer with emails and petitions or even to stage a protest. And, in the words of the instructor at Virginia, many faculty members who feel relatively secure in their employment are “much more comfortable in an advocacy position,” where they campaign for the interests of the more marginalized workers without appreciating the threats to their own positions or the system of higher education more globally. But as Jane McAlevey argues in No Shortcuts, mobilization and advocacy should not replace organizing, which involves mass, long-term involvement, democratic decision-making, and structural change to relations of power. What organized but unrecognized unions are showing is that even without collective bargaining, unions can upset power imbalances and see wins that immediately improve people’s lives.

Only one thing is certain about the future of academic labor—administrators will continue to cut costs by pushing for more NTT jobs. Many academics believe that the solution to increasingly deteriorating working conditions is to give up on trying to land a secure and fairly compensated faculty position and pursue other kinds of work in or completely outside academia. Yet, so long as university courses require human instruction, someone will have to perform that labor for higher education to continue to exist. For those who have fairly secure positions but see a lack of mobility in a tight market, the future may be one of emotional and practical “disengagement,” rather than actual “resignation,” Alisa Hicklin Fryar and Kevin R. McClure argue in their recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay. According to the authors, this means continuing to do the job but without the same “spark” and sense of “strong ties” to the institution—a mental checking out coupled with a practical “cutting back.”

On the one hand, it’s high time that academic workers realized that the neoliberal university “won’t love them back,” to echo Sarah Jaffe. No institution deserves loyalty and enthusiasm from its exploited faculty. But it’s also true that only the most secure will be able to get away with doing less. The insecurely employed will have to pick up whatever slack the disengagement creates, and academic labor is already shaped by inequities along race, gender, ability, and class dimensions. But just as concerning is the implied conclusion of McClure and Fryar’s article that it is up to leadership to address the post-COVID labor situation. “Our big fear is that college leaders won’t do anything,” write the authors.

As an organizer in academia, my fear is that the workers, especially faculty, will continue to look for top-down rescue efforts to the ever-growing problems in academia. A culture of general disengagement risks including disengagement from the labor struggles, where we need more engagement than ever. On the other hand, strategic disengagement from the aspects of the job that require carrying water for the boss is necessary for shaking up the university. Energy is a limited supply and we urgently need more of it for building worker power. The future of universities will not be secured by trustees, money managers, presidents, provosts, or deans. We need organic leaders and a strong organized body of workers who are ready to fight and win.

  1. based on data from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, CUNY and the National Center for Education Statistics 

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