Why Faculty Unions Could Destroy Our Universities

After decades of trying, the Democrat-controlled Wisconsin legislature, with the encouragement of the union-backed governor, passed a statute allowing unionization of faculty in the University of Wisconsin system. Recently the first campus, Superior, voted to unionize their faculty by a 75-5 vote. I believe that ultimately faculty unions will seriously damage public universities in Wisconsin and elsewhere, particularly at “flagship” campuses that produce and require serious faculty research.
I do not say this out of hostility to unions. I have been an advocate for organized labor and taught and directed organizations connected to the movement. I was the last director of the Industrial Relations Research Institute and also worked with the university School for Workers, which has a long history of training union stewards, organizers, leaders of locals. In my book, Democracy, Authority, and Alienation in Work (University of Chicago Press, 1980), I argued that for industrial democracy to work in practice, a union was required as an ultimate protection for workers.
But those connections were to blue-collar workers, in the trades, in manufacturing, or in service positions. They did not include “professional unions,” the largest being kindergarten to twelfth-grade teachers, but also including other professions and of course faculty unions. Blue-collar unions were and are necessary to both counteract very asymmetric power relationships with management and to establish decent and living wages and benefits. The great era of American unions from the 1930s to the 1970s did that and the result was a burgeoning middle class that aided the prosperity of the nation through jobs that fathers and mothers held with pride.

So why do these same principles and results not carry over to professional unions? There are numerous reasons and they are playing out everyday in my specialty — education policy. Professional unions consistently follow the early practices and structures of blue-collar unions. The major characteristics of which are:

– Specified job titles and grades
– Pay levels connected to those titles and grades and not to performance
– Seniority as the key to job placement and higher pay
– Formal and elaborate grievance procedures that protect workers

As they developed, teachers and other professional unions, such as those in the health field, followed these practices. The result for white-collar, professional unions has been the almost complete elimination of merit pay or promotion, in favor of a salary grid based on seniority and extra credentialing that has rarely been associated with productive and quality work. For teachers the record of merit pay, career ladders, or tying rewards to how well students learn, has been abysmal. The Obama administration has placed great importance on creating merit pay tied to student outcomes, but they to date have no record of success and many experts are betting on the teacher unions to outlast the administration.
The case gets much worse at the university level. The reason is that there are three realities about American universities that are not often admitted or discussed, but may well be among the reasons that our universities remain the envy of the world, certainly at the research level. Those realities are: 1) colleges and universities are built on inequalities between campuses, within campuses, and within departments; 2) teaching is considerably less demanding than K-12 teaching, even at non-research universities; and 3) at research universities we currently fire about half of faculty hires because they fail to get tenure.
Public university systems contain a range of campuses that are not at all equal. The major difference is the research component. Four-year, non-Ph.D. granting campuses may well engage in research activities and writing, but the expectations, time available, and access to funds is much reduced over the Ph.D. research campuses like UW-Madison. Two-year campuses would have even lower expectations. Further, schools and departments across campuses vary considerably in prestige and certainly pay. Medical, business and law schools have often three times the average salaries of those in the humanities, with sciences and social sciences (led by economics) in the middle. There is also considerable variance within departments, at least at major research campuses where rewards are based on differences in teaching quality, but more importantly in research productivity. Difference within campuses and departments are primarily affected by external markets for skills and quality research and internal markets based on beliefs in merit.
Teaching loads at research universities are commonly at 2 and 2: two courses of 15 to 16 weeks in each semester. That comes out to about 6.5 certain contact hours per week (150 minutes/course plus 90 minutes of office hours). If the load is 3 and 3 (on non-research campuses) add in another 2.5 hours for 9.0. Obviously there are other time commitments involved, such as preparation, grading or supervising teaching assistants. But without research, and the mentoring of graduate students that research entails, undergraduate teaching rarely comes close to a 40-hour week.
Finally, tenure standards are inherently and rightly different for different types of campuses. At Madison, approximately 50% of those hired as assistant professors ultimately receive tenure. No other work sector in the world fires as many people as American research universities. And the reason remains valid – university tenure means essentially lifetime employment and we simply cannot afford to make a mistake and end up with individuals who do little research. Thus if you believe in the ultimate value of university research, as I do, tenure practices must be protected at all costs.
Faculty unions will dramatically affect all of these characteristics. The variety of campuses in most state systems makes sense based on limited resources and the need to concentrate research talents. Market differences between schools and within departments – even if they do not make sense – are the reality. If you want a business school, you pay the required faculty price or the best, if not all, will leave. Unions, built on common purpose, tolerate inequities poorly and, have never successfully accepted merit or performance pay. There is no indication that faculty unions would be any different.
Teaching requirements will be the subject of negotiation and one of two things will occur: 1) teaching will be reduced to the lowest common denominator, so non-research universities and campuses will have the same loads as research universities, without the commensurate increase in research, but with a staggering cost to the states; or 2) teaching will be made uniform at a level somewhere between research and non-research campuses, making it very hard for departments in research universities to compete for faculty.
Unionization will be even more devastating on tenure. Although Wisconsin statutes currently make tenure a non-negotiable item, that can change, and currently it would be subject to grievance procedures. And how can the union resist not supporting its employees when they are losing their jobs? Anyone who has even modest experience in tenure decisions will admit that there is no exact science or precise list of requirements to granting tenure. And that admission simply opens up the grievance route that depends on formality and ultimately rests on adjudicatory procedures (in court or before) that demand formal rules and definitions. Ultimately tenure will be seriously weakened, perhaps following K-12 teachers who are granted tenure by simply making it through a probationary period.
The very core of public university systems will be adversely affected by faculty unions, with obviously the most destruction coming to research universities with their unique role in the world.
John F. Witte is Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


28 thoughts on “Why Faculty Unions Could Destroy Our Universities

  1. The wonderful thing about the otherwise middling U.S. labor laws, is that there will be some states which would not permit this. Thus, the unionization of faculty in some places will create a wage differential, with some good faculty forced to migrate to lower wage states. Wisconsin will bear most of the costs!

  2. If what article describes comes to pass, there could be a golden age of for-profit universities coming. For-profit schools typically focus on career-related degrees, creating an opportunity to attract high quality faculty from the public universities by offering the higher pay the public universities may not provide.

  3. This article is right on target. As a Physics professor I would be appalled if there was a union for our faculty as it would be impossible to have the kind of inequities that make a research university run. And by the way – the teaching load in real research university physics departments is one course a semester. However, woe be it to the physics faculty member who does not get external funding in the hundreds of $thousands and does not publish several papers a year. They are shark bait. But there are plenty of physics faculty and physics faculty-wanna-bees who would favor a union because they know that in the current system they can’t cut the mustard.
    Maybe the unions would want to deal with that pesky “peer-review” in grants and publications as well. It really is the source of so much inequity……

  4. Why not. Look how well unions have done in other businesses and institutions. There is not a union anywhere that did not destroy its
    industry. SEIU,NEA,UAW,UMW. Hell, why not universities?

  5. The writer lays out a reasonable argument why unions play a significant and successful role in so many industries – however having a union presence in his own industry would: (1) have a negative impact on pay for performance, (2) have a negative impact on the methodology of future promotions based upon seniority rather than merit, (3) have a negative impact on his and his associates guaranteed lifetime employment agreements with their employers through tenure.
    I am shocked that someone who obviously is well read and articulate cannot look himself in the mirror and realize that the unions he claims to find so much value in, for all other industries – when applied to his industries, would be so destructive.

  6. Most Canadian university campuses are unionized and the ill-effects of unionization described in this post have not occurred. Unionization has, however, permitted faculty members to play a stronger role in setting university policies insofar as faculty members could exert pressure as a single voice on administrators. The positive aspect here was to protect tenure and freedom of speech of professors in particular cases when some university administrators seemed to be greatly out-of-line with the thinking of the majority of professors in academia.
    Also, with regard to pay levels (at least at the university I taught at for 25 years), these were still tightly tied to the semi-annual performance analyses for all tenure-track professors) and market differentials were maintained. So, for instance, a person hired in business administration or computing science or biotechnology still commanded many thousands of dollars more per year than did professors in less marketable areas, such as the humanities or education.
    Unions may also increase the degree of collegiality between professors because they provide a common space for discussion between colleagues of contentious issues, such as the market-oriented pay differentials. It makes a big difference in one’s acceptance of pay differentials when you actually hear from a colleague, face-to-face, how much he could make if he had stayed in a firm, as opposed to his moving to the university.
    I suggest the author take a look at the CAUT website and publications to see how Canadian unions of professors operates. CAUT stands for Canadian Association of University Teachers. It is actually quite different from the rather Marxist orientation of public schools teachers’ unions.

  7. The value of “research universities” to the society at large is greatly exaggerated. Outside the hard sciences, research in areas like literature, history, and anthropology have increasingly become so specialized, so focused on obscure minutiae, that it yields little use to society at large. Whatever valuye such research has must be measured against the enormous financial resources spent on it and the cost to what used to be the primary goal of universities: teaching.
    As to the latter, the value of “research” to undergraduates is small. Often, it is even of negative value, because professors are far less inclined to teach survey and general courses because they take time away from their research and publishing goals in specialized, often obsure areas of interest. A bio or psych major taking her one or two history classes for distribution, often finds she must take “The History of Shoemaking in Ireland, 1840-1889,” because survey or more generalized course are not offered. No “self-respecting” professor at a research university wants to be caught dead teaching survey courses, and they are not rewarded for doing so. Quite the contrary. And the students suffer for it by having to choose narrow little spoecialty classes that will yield little benefit to them in the long run.
    Universities, at least for undergraduates, have become bait-and-switch scams to a large degree. So many classes taught by grad students or in very large formats, and classes tailored to suit the careers of the professors, not the educational priorites of the students, even as the cost of university education continues its unjustified and unsustainable upward spiral. The costs grow while the utility of the “education” dwindles.
    Unionization will make it worse. Unions only ever want three things for their members: more money, less work and job security, regardless of performance. This is bad for everyone outside the union. Our universities are still one of the areas of our society that are existing in a bubble economy. Unionization will hasten the day that bubble pops.

  8. The Tea Parties are mostly based on fiscal responsibility, and are what I hope will eventually become a genuine “Taxpayers’ Union”. If they do, they’ll be a damn sight more powerful than the SEIU, the AFL-CIO and all the other unions rolled up into one.
    Imagine that – a “union” with the capability to tell all the other “unions” to kiss off when they come with their non-negotiable demands.
    That’s been the big problem preventing any controls on spending in the past. The people who actually work hard for a living (no lifetime sinecures at 5 times the median wage PLUS to-die-for benefits for a short work week like these poor professors) were disorganized and powerless, while those whose hefty incomes are paid with the sweat of those taxpayers hired lobbyists or “unionized” or both. And the politicians used even more of the taxpayers money to curry favor with and buy votes from their benefactors. What a cozy relationship.
    If we don’t get control of this out-of-control spending and fast, there will be a world-wide financial collapse to make the depression of 1929 look like boom times. Continuing the status quo, and in fact, quadrupling down on it like Obama has, abetted by private sector actors like this “union” of already pampered professors can end with nothing good coming of it. They need a “union” like those impoverished professional athletes making 20 mil a year do.
    Then there needs to be a fundamental change in the understanding of what government is and what it realistically can achieve, with a re-emphasis on individuals, not the Collective, or 1984 here we come.
    I fear that the only thing Orwell got wrong was the year.

  9. Why would I allow my peers to vote on something that binds me when I am free to negotiate my own professorial labor contract.
    The union’s interest is not necessarily the same as my interest–no union cares about merit as they care only about the median union member and increasing the union’s power.
    Unions will never be in the interest of a merit based, dynamic, knowledge creating profession.

  10. Sounds awfully elitist to me. Hey, don’t worry, unions at your university won’t do any more harm than they have done at GM, where you say they are needed. Let me get this straight: institutionalized inefficiencies through work rules, no merit pay, and near impossibility to fire incompenents should be tolerated among blue collar workers, no matter what the cost, because these poor souls purportedly lack bargaining position, while enlightened self sufficient professionals shall live in a Darwinist universe. And precisely where do you draw this line, among occupations, among those who need unions and those for which unions are anathema?

  11. John K Wilson, in one short comment, manages to pack in as many fallacies as he can, first setting up a straw man and then engaging in both a false dichotomy and an ad hominem.
    I’ve had a class with Professor Witte, and Wilson’s insidious insinuations to the contrary notwithstanding, I can vouch for the fact that he’s a supporter of unions and the labor movement generally. It shouldn’t be necessary for me to do so, as Professor Witte pointed this out in his article and illustrated the differences, as he saw them, between non-professional and professional unions.
    As he also pointed out, most professors are hardly underpaid and overworked (I know the neighborhoods full professors tend to live in in Madison, and I also know the neighborhoods where blue-collar workers live. There is no overlap). It might be better, indeed, if assistants were allowed to unionize. But I wonder how John K Wilson would view assistants organizing to demand less abusive relationships with the faculty that tends to shift as much of the burden and as little of the benefit of academic life onto them, so that they can have more time for agitation such as this.

  12. I am quite conservative and have no love for unions, but have been considering joining one here at the University of Iowa. Our generously paid leaders are into what is politically correct, neglecting more relevant issues. The lack of accountability for poor decisions has led to more of them.
    All of the issues you list that result from unions already exist here. For example, the dissociation of performance and salary. In my college, getting the teaching award is not a good thing. 80% of the 15 lowest paid professors have won the teaching award. No one who has won the award makes even an average salary, and only one person even comes within $35,000 of an average salary. While teaching isn’t the only thing we do, negative correlation between salary and teaching is remarkable. One of my colleagues has looked at the correlation between the various performance indexes (number of publications, h and m indexes and so on) and finds that there is a negative correlation as well there.
    Bottom line is that I think some accountability would do management some good.

  13. Let them form as many unions as they want – just never agree to be bound to negotiate with any of them.

  14. Dave King beat me to the comment I intended to make. “Unionization has already destroyed K thru 12 education. Might as well destroy the university system too.”
    IMO faculty unionization would abet the institutional deterioration which is already underway.

  15. Destroy the universities? This would only be a problem if they were of value. They gave up teaching Western Civilization and took up left wing political agitation years ago. Destroying them is like slum clearance. Let’s get on with it.

  16. Having closely observed unionized faculty at several state universities, I believe I can safely say that rather ttan offering leadership and management, the AAUP [or equivalent] more closely resembles a horde of [rather puny] Vikings or Visigoths or Huns being led by a few very angry, confrontational midgets in bumper cars, all pursuing what all unions pursue — more compensation for less work, easier work rules and more job security.
    What’s funny, though is to watch one of the midgets grab the brass ring [or get bought off with it] by gaining an administrative job and seeing all her/his former union colleagues teun on the like rabbit rats.

  17. There should be no unionization in any public sector job, full stop.
    The rationale behind unions is that due to the inherent difference in power between capital and labor, labor must organize in order to recieve a reasonable share of the economic proceeds of the firm–they extract profits from capital.
    There are no profits to extract in the public sector. All public sector unions do is extract additional taxes from society while decreasing the quantity and qualility of public sector services provided by a given level of taxation.

  18. Unions have ruined k-12 education in California and they will do the same in Wisconsin at the university level.
    Teachers were not unionized a few decades ago, when instruction was arguably better than now at all levels.
    Since approximately 1970, unions sprung into existence as fair responses to efforts to sue the schols for a variety of purposes unrelated to education: (a) bussing and its fallout in big city schools, (b)administrative centralization and resulting administrative indifference to teachers, (c) court decisions holding that local funds had to be aggregated at a state level and then redistributed (eliminating local control and providing a single chokehold for unions to influence), and after all that, (d), the realization–predictably greedy but perfectly understandable given the power the union had developed–that it could do more than protect from arbitrary action: it could shakedown the state for “just” compensation and insist upon “fair” procedures. The compensation and procedures have been racheted up to a point where they are a joke, but the union has too much power now for those to be dislodged.
    Like state employee unions, allowing teacher’s unions in the first place was an error by foolish judges and legislators with no historical appreciation of the implications.
    But they were probably inevitable as judges and legislators began to use schools to integrate, to require graduation for those that traditionally dropped out and joined the army or went to a blue colalr job (now they stay and annoy good students), and educate swarms of illegals that tried the abiliy and patience of the best teachers.
    But the unions are unrestrained: State employee unions in california have done the same: free of market influences that restrained their private sector counterparts, they have become so greedy it shocks the conscience.
    Wisconsin has made a grave error. Every state board of regents should stop this process. it is not for the stuednts: its for the teachers and at the expense of the taxpayers.
    Public employees should be forbidden to unionize-period. And the state should stop using schools and universities for side agendas that incite unions in the first place.

  19. My wife was a tenured prof at a Canadian university until we emigrated to the US a couple years ago. Take a close look at the reality of faculty unionization in Canadian universities and you will see exactly the mediocrity that it will introduce to US universities. It’s an absolutely horrible idea.

  20. “Witte makes a number of questionable assumptions, such as believing that unions will remove merit-based tenure rather than strengthening it.”
    It is laughable that anyone could think this assumption to be questionable. Just look what unionization of the public school teachers has done. Wiil there be “rubber rooms” for college professors once the unions take over?

  21. In the Canadian province of Ontario, a Conservative government some years back tried to address some of these concerns, by setting up a Professional College of Teachers to make K-12 teachers more professional, and less unionized. The union fought it tooth and nail, but it went through. It’s had some effect, but the union is still present.
    Maybe you could make a law that designated professionals (lawyers, doctors, university professors, accountants, engineers, K-12 teachers, etc) must belong to a professional College INSTEAD of a union.

  22. For three years I was chairman of a blue collar union in a large school district ( 105 schools, 3000 teachers, 60,000 students…you get the picture). The districts budget was $300 million.
    AFSCME was the union organizer. The teachers had their own association ( they denied it was a union, no status in the word union, but it acted in all respects as a union).
    I am now 100% against public employee unions in all jurisdictions…city, county, state, federal, hospitals, school districts etc.
    I could go on a long rant here but I won’t.
    In a nutshell, inner city school unions are liberal-left. You have to agree with thier whole socialist agenda.

  23. Unionization has already destroyed K thru 12 education. Might as well destroy the university system too.

  24. Faculty votes should not determine unionization, especially at research heavy universities. Why? Weak but numerically large departments with lower pay and little research will have strong incentives to unionize and guarantee benefits to seniority regardless of productivity. Untenured assistants will have incentives to make promotion easier. Poorly paid departments will want more equalization across fields. These measures will especially damage up and coming research schools where a few strong departments are surrounded by large numbers of teaching intensive departments with no incentives to reward on the basis of productivity and national prominence.

  25. Witte makes a number of questionable assumptions, such as believing that unions will remove merit-based tenure rather than strengthening it.
    But I’m interested to know whether Witte believes that unions should be banned, as they were before this new law, and as they are effectively at most private colleges. It seems to me that faculty should be free to form unions, and then a healthy debate can take place about them. Does Witte agree, or does he hate unions so much that he would take away the rights of faculty to join them?

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