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Posted at 11:25 AM ET, 03/11/2011

Guest post: How unions help higher ed

By Daniel de Vise

Here is a guest post from Gwendolyn Bradley, senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors.

Gwendolyn Bradley.jpg

As everyone knows by now, conservative legislators in the Midwest are pushing legislation attacking the collective bargaining rights of a wide swath of public employees. Among them are faculty members and other academic employees at public institutions. Professors and librarians may not immediately spring to mind when we think about unions, but in fact academic unions--including many unionized chapters of the American Association of University Professors, where I work--play an important and beneficial role in higher education. Here's how.

Academic unions are the latest in a long line of structures--from medieval collegia to modern faculty senates, with which unions coexist--designed to defend against threats to censor curricula, violate institutional autonomy, and intimidate scholars.

Increasingly, such threats come from corporations. They push for courses tailored to their needs (instead of training employees themselves). They fund research, but only on marketable topics with sales-friendly results. Academia is also threatened by a corporate mindset--evidenced by the sky-high salaries of top administrators; the decreasing proportion of full-time, tenure-track faculty; and an increasing tendency to see higher education as a business instead of a public good to which citizens are entitled. The effect is to transfer the cost of education from society at large to individual students--witness the ever-rising amount of debt under which students labor. At the same time, for-profit colleges and universities are growing, fed by federal funds.

Academic unions are a bulwark against this rising tide and they protect students and the public as well as faculty. Some union contracts protect academic freedom in the classroom, so teaching and learning can occur in an atmosphere free from intimidation. Some protect academic freedom in research, so corporate funders can't easily squelch unfavorable findings--for example, findings that a certain drug does not work. Some protect the rights of faculty to speak out, so they can question, for example, why instructional budgets are cut while athletics are not, or why developmental courses are eliminated as more students with developmental needs are admitted.

In an alarmist op-ed in USA Today last week, Naomi Schaefer Riley noted, "Some observers worry that unions desire more than job protection. . . . unions 'want to get into curricula, class schedules, grading norms, etc.'" Indeed, they do. And this is a good thing. Faculty should have a say in curricular decisions--for example, to insist on offering broad education, and not only narrow job training; to set reasonable faculty/student ratios so that students can receive the attention they deserve; or to ensure that university libraries have librarians available to answer research questions.

Such provisions are by no means universal, nor are unions the only means to achieve them. But they are an important means.

Beyond these benefits specific to higher education, the right to bargain collectively is a fundamental right of all workers. As the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" adopted in 1948 by the United Nations proclaims, "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests." In higher education, this right has never been more crucial. Forget the stereotype of the pipe-smoking scholar reading Shakespeare in an armchair. The majority of faculty jobs today are part-time, low-wage jobs with no benefits and no job security. After often assuming staggering student debt loads, many PhDs graduate only to discover that the only faculty jobs available to them are per-course contract positions for which they earn less, once grading and preparation are factored in, than minimum wage.

The attack on public-employees is misguided. And, unfortunately, it extends far beyond Wisconsin. Legislation limiting union rights for public employees has already passed the Ohio senate and is being debated in the Ohio house. Similar legislation is being considered in Michigan and other states.

Those behind it--Republican legislators fueled by corporations and the billionaires Charles and David Koch--would have you believe that America can't afford union workers, and that public employees earn bloated salaries. This simply is not so. Public employees did not cause budget problems and attacking unions will not fix them.

Comparisons suggesting that public employees earn more than private-sector workers are misleading because they do not control for education and experience--primary factors that predict salary. When similar workers are compared, public employees actually earn less, on average.

This wage disadvantage extends to higher education. Preliminary data from the annual AAUP compensation survey released in April show that since 1980, the public-sector disadvantage for full-time faculty members has widened to 16 percent at baccalaureate colleges and 24 percent at doctoral universities.

Where do union workers fare better than their nonunion counterparts? They have been able to hold onto benefits that have eroded in the private sector. But the problem here is not that unionized public employees have health insurance and retirement plans--it's that other workers don't.

The bigger point is that America does not suffer from a lack of wealth. It suffers from a concentration of wealth at the top--and the rich keep getting richer. In fact, one of Scott Walker's first actions as Wisconsin governor was to slash taxes for businesses and special interest groups-exacerbating the very budget problem that he now wants to solve on the backs of working people. Between 1978 and 2008, average income grew by more than $10,000. But all the growth went to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, and almost 40 percent went to the wealthiest 1 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Income for the bottom 90 percent declined.

Public-employee unions have nothing to do with this. The average budget deficit is actually slightly lower (16.2 percent) in the 15 states that allow collective bargaining for all public employees than it is in the nine states which prohibit it (16.5 percent).

Certain interest groups see this time of economic distress as an opportunity to divide and conquer American workers. They hope that the millions who are now out of work or stuck in nonunion, dead-end, low-wage jobs will focus their anger on the workers who are doing just a bit better--rather than insisting that employers and corporations to raise standards and wages for all workers. There is a name for this: it's a race to the bottom. Let's not run that race.

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By Daniel de Vise  | March 11, 2011; 11:25 AM ET
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