A Setback for the Faculty Unionization Movement

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The “progressive” notion that unions always help workers get better pay and conditions has been fading away in the competitive business world but it remains as strong as ever in academia. A recent administrative ruling, however, has faculty unionization advocates in despair because it keeps in place legal obstacles to unionization at private schools with a religious affiliation.

Back in 2014, unionization zealots were cheered by a decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in a case involving adjunct professors at Pacific Lutheran University that seemed to clear the path for faculty at such institutions to form a union. However, the ruling by an NLRB regional director in a case involving Carroll College in Helena, Montana denied the faculty union advocates there the NLRB’s blessing for a representation election.

A number of the faculty members at the college wanted to be represented by the American Federation of Teachers. But ever since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Yeshiva University case in 1980, the law has been that professors at private universities are outside the scope of NLRB authority because they have considerable management authority and therefore aren’t “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act.

In Carroll, the NLRB officer held that the professors have enough managerial authority that they are not eligible for unionization. One important factor is that they are responsible for hiring and promoting their peers. The administration has little to do with that important function. Furthermore, the faculty makes many decisions about the school’s curriculum, its majors and minors, and their requirements.

(This Inside Higher Ed story has the links to the ruling and the relevant cases.)

In a rare display of backbone at a time when college administrations have been notable for groveling before demands, the Carroll administration opposed the unionization effort. It did not want union intervention in campus dialogues and decision-making.

The professor who led the drive, Kay Satre, was unhappy and said that she and the union might pursue an appeal. If they do, we should hope that the decision will stand. Faculty unionization has bad effects, as Professor Charles Baird explained in this Pope Center article. It gets in the way of academic excellence and teamwork while doing little or nothing to make the faculty better off.  Small colleges like Carroll do not have monetary reserves that are ready for unions to tap like sugar maple trees in the spring.

Despite the ruling, nothing actually prevents the Carroll professors who want to have a union from forming one, or joining the AFT. What they cannot do, however, is get federal sanction for an election that would be binding on all faculty members if a majority should favor the union and then force the school’s administration to engage in collective bargaining with the union.

Those are crucial points. Federal labor law, you see, is based on coercion. If a union wins, then all of the workers – in this case, all members of the college faculty – would be compelled to submit to the union’s representation and collective bargaining whether they want it or not. And the school would be compelled to engage in contract negotiations with the union, even though it has a preference for keeping third parties out of things.

In short, what Professor Satre sees as her “loss” is other people’s freedom to say “no.” Her colleagues will be free to avoid any entanglement with a union they may not want and the school administrators will remain free to decide with whom to negotiate.

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George Leef is director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

 

 

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