Higher-Ed Unions and the Shortcomings of Public Employee Organizations

The activities of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker have brought unusually high public attention to the status of public employee unions. Few, if any, public employee unions could withstand intense media focus less han those representing higher education: too often these unions provide a caricature of the critics’ vision—organizations that seek to use the public dime to fund mediocrity. A good example comes in a recent dispute, profiled in Inside Higher Ed, in Washington state. The basics: the state’s academic union had championed a bill to regularize the funding stream for raises–guaranteed annual raises– for full-time faculty members. Such a move seemed like a normal activity for an academic union, though I suspect that most taxpayers could respond with a reasonable question: why should a tenured professor who hasn’t published anything recently, and whose teaching is mediocre, receive the same raise as a tenured professor hired the same year who had just published a major monograph and whose teaching is first-rate? For union official Jack Longmate, however, this one-size-fits-all approach didn’t go far enough, and he testified against the bill. Longmate, an adjunct at Olympic College, demanded that the state also guarantee seniority-based raises for adjuncts; otherwise, he argued, the bill should be rejected altogether, since adjuncts do the same teaching as full-time faculty. This line of reasoning makes perfect sense from a hard-line union perspective: qualifications of instructors are irrelevant, and everyone should make the same salary. But given that by any definable measurement—they’re not hired through national searches, they have no expectation of scholarship—adjuncts are less qualified than full-time faculty, it’s hard to see how such a viewpoint is politically or financially defensible. Longmate has offered some rather flourishing rhetoric to bolster his position. In a 2007 address, he compared adjuncts receiving the same salaries as professors selected through national searches for whom scholarship is expected to a fruition of the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the 5th amendment. (“In a country ours, where we profess ‘all men are created equal,’ that all citizens have the right ‘to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ and all have equal protection under the law, there should be no reason for an Equity campaign.”) Incredibly, the tone-deaf Longmate has described himself as a politically savvy unionist who has innovative tactics to influence legislators. The blog AdjunctNation hailed Longmate as “one of the most hard-working faculty activists in the Pacific Northwest”—not a hard-working scholar or a hard-working teacher, but a hard-working activist. Yet neither he nor his supporters seem to see any problem in demanding that taxpayers commit to regular, incremental raises to fund his activism. The dispute between Longmate and the Washington higher-ed union is a logical outgrowth of the ideas behind academic unions—that rather than treating professors individually and compensating them based on their individual accomplishments, all faculty members should receive the same, seniority-based compensation. Whatever the merits of Governor Walker’s efforts (which would, it seems to me, be more defensible if they applied to all public employee unions rather than only the ones that didn’t endorse his campaign), it’s very difficult to make a compelling argument for unions of college and university faculty members.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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