Faculty unions: organizing when your day-job is a labor of love.

In spring of 2007, after nearly two years without a contract, the faculty of the 23 campuses of the California State University system (of which my university is a part) voted to ratify a contract. Among other things, that contract included raises to help our salaries catch up to the cost of living in California. (Notice the word "help" in that sentence; the promised raises, while making things better, don't quite get the whole job done.)

The negotiations for this contract were frustratingly unproductive until my faculty union organized a rolling strike that was planned as a set of two-day walkouts at each of the 23 campuses in the system. For most classes, this would have meant losing one instructional day, which would minimize the impact on individual students. As well, a two-day rolling strike would make it pretty pointless for the administration to try to bring in replacement workers. Even with syllabi in hand, our courses are not easily staffed with subs on short notice. (Reasonably, someone would need my notes -- some of which are pretty darned cryptic -- and if I'm walking a picket line, I'm not going into my office to dig out my notes and hand them over to a scab.)

When strike dates were announced (and, we are told, with some serious political pressure behind the scenes to avert a strike that would have garnered national and international media coverage), the administration came back to the bargaining table with a contract the negotiating team deemed reasonably good (a judgment with which the faculty showed its agreement by voting to ratify the contract).

The staggering thing to me is that we went almost two years without a contract before we could bring ourselves to the point where we were ready to strike.

Now, because California is in the throes of yet another budget crisis, the Chancellor's office is making noises about revisiting the contract currently in force and renegotiating those promised raises. (Apparently, the state might not be able to afford them, even though we seem to be able to afford raises for administrators.) So the faculty may find themselves in the position of having to fight to get what was promised in the last round of fighting.

There are certain features of a good many faculty members that seem to make it hard for us to embark easily on a job action. Because we're back in negotiation mode a lot sooner than expected, I think it's worth examining them.

University teaching is a caring profession.

We care about our students. Many of us see our life's work as giving these students the best education we can, because we understand, in a way that our students (and administrators and legislators and taxpayers) often do not, the ways that education can play a role in human flourishing. We are not just training docile workers with specific skill sets that plug into the current or anticipated needs of the capitalist system (as I discuss here). We are trying to provide the tools of critical thought and the space in which our students can evaluate everything -- including the status quo. Professorial types, especially at teaching-oriented public universities like those in the CSU, regard a life of the mind as something from which every human being might benefit, rather than as a luxury item that only the rich kids in private schools have use for.

We empathize with our students. We take their interests seriously, and we see their interests as deeply tied to our own in terms of the society we will share.

In the event of a job action, we know the students will be affected. The administration may have to deal with bad publicity, but our students miss a day of instruction. We don't want to hurt our students. So, until our situation gets dire, we find it hard to work up enthusiasm to strike.

Faculty have gotten used to trying to do more with less.

When you've spent years in school (as most faculty have), your sense of how much there is to know is expansive. Trying to fit any sensible subset of knowledge into the bounds of four years of study, or fifteen weeks of a semester, is already a challenge. Further, we have to face the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day -- and that the majority of our students have jobs or family responsibilities or both -- which means that there are only so many pages that can be read, only so many problem sets assigned, only so many papers written. (The 24-hour day similarly limits how much grading and preparation for class we can accomplish.) Even in the best of circumstances, an academic can feel pretty MacGuyverish, cobbling together clever pedagogical plans that are amazing when they succeed.

We have not, at least in the time I have been on the faculty, been working in the best of circumstances. Our resources have been driven by enrollments, which means our class sizes have grown. Larger classes make it harder to engage students in the classroom, and harder to respond as usefully to student work. The limited resources also mean that fewer classes are offered, so students have a harder time getting the classes they want or need to graduate, and thus are stuck paying fees for more semesters than they would otherwise. Meanwhile, tuition has skyrocketed.

We see the students getting squeezed along with the academic departments. We want to help them get what they deserve. So we accommodate the larger classes and either cut back on the useful feedback to the students (via multiple-choice tests marked by computers), or cut back on our sleep that we may provide something like useful feedback.

What are we supposed to do as the enrollment targets creep upward and the resources dwindle? What options for pushing back are available that won't hurt our students or our departments? We grow so used to stretching what we have that it takes us a while to notice when we have crossed into territory where we are being asked to do the impossible.

And that attitude carries over to our paychecks.

Years of graduate school warp our relationship to self-interest.

Many of us professorial types still remember the days when our dinners alternated between rice and lentils and instant ramen noodles. I have friends who economized by living in their vehicles during the summer. Spending years after college graduation working like mad but getting paid just enough not to qualify for food stamps warped us. Finding out what our college classmates were making in the real world would make our jaws go slack.

The first academic job offer, just by virtue of paying some significant amount more than a graduate stipend, seemed a wondrous thing.

And it was not just the almost-a-grown-up-salary (at least as far as we could tell, emerging from our caves) that seemed so wondrous. The very fact of getting an academic job offer in a market that, in many fields, seemed flooded by an excess of Ph.D.s seemed like a stroke of good luck. Many worthy scholars and teachers did not get job offers. This fact planted a seed of fear: I am easily replaced.

Between the lean years that we brought upon ourselves by pursuing graduate studies and the abundance of talented but unemployed people who might fill our positions just as well as we do, it can feel almost like we're tempting the universe to smack us down if we complain too strenuously about our compensation. Shouldn't I regard it as lucky even to be able to find work as a philosopher? (My parents, on some level, are still surprised I'm not living on their couch.)

Pessimism about changing our conditions.

Faculty are adaptable. And we know our students can change and grow because we see it before our eyes. But how to get administrators to change is a great mystery.

They control our resources on campus. At the highest levels of the system, they decide how much money to ask the legislature for, often without asking us what we need in the trenches. They seem bent on understanding our larger purpose as akin to producing widgets, while we see educated people and their production as fundamentally unwidget-like. Yet our attempts to explain seem never to change things. Decisions seem always to be made from above, and to rain down on us below. It almost seems like we believe the situation is as unchangeable as gravity.

Who in their right mind fights gravity?

Fear of short-term pain for long-term improvement.

Resisting larger class sizes, or "mission creep" when it comes to assessment, or dwindling pools of instructional resources, scares us. To draw the line and say, "With what you give us, we can do this much and no more!" could mean leaving some students without classes they need, or losing faculty billets. We don't want to lose colleagues or hurt students. We resent being asked to do the impossible, but we often can't stomach the short-term costs of fighting for what we need to do the job well.

It took us nearly two years to get to the point where we were willing to sacrifice ONE day of instruction in each of our classes to push back against unrealistic work conditions. Many of our students skip more class than that for far more trivial reasons.

I do not think it is a bad thing that faculty take their students' interests so seriously. But I worry that we are in a situation where, having lost cabin pressure, we need to remember to put on our own oxygen masks first so we can better assist those who depend on us for help.

An earlier version of these musings was posted on the dear departed WAAGNFNP blog.


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Who in their right mind fights gravity?

Every one of us, every day. Of course, time and gravity always win, but that's no excuse.

R. Tarfon:
It is not [incumbent] upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 07 Dec 2008 #permalink

congratulations - I hope you hang on to your gains, no matter how small they may be.
I teach at a very small, private, business school. six years ago, when a new president came in, our union was quickly squished, and we still don't have any protection from the whims of the admin. while our 'cost of living' raises have been 1.0 - 1.5% over the past six years, upper levels of our admin has been in the habit of receiving 10-15% increases, and when the base salary is (for him) about $500 thousand, that adds up.

We care about our students. Many of us see our life's work as giving these students the best education we can, because we understand, in a way that our students (and administrators and legislators and taxpayers) often do not, the ways that education can play a role in human flourishing.

It's too bad that, by and large, administrators and "the system" don't see it that way (even when they give lip service to it). At least at the private University where I was, the true currency was prestige. (And, honestly, a good fraction of the faculty felt that way too-- it's probably different at a CSU which is more teaching focused than a research University.)

Who in their right mind fights gravity?

Every one of us, every day. Of course, time and gravity always win, but that's no excuse.

R. Tarfon:

It is not [incumbent] upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 07 Dec 2008 #permalink

I sympathize - I'm support staff at a state university currently undergoing another round of budget cuts. How are we to meet students' needs when our resources are being reduced? It's really getting tough.

Maybe I'm weird, but as a student I always found it really heartening when teaching assistants went out on strike (I've never been through a professor-strike). As the daughter of a Teamster, I grew up with a more pro-union concept than many though.

I think that if professors aren't willing to stand up to administration for even their own self-interest, it's harder to imagine them doing it for lowly students (not that I don't know plenty of inspiring profs who did just that- but it tended to be more "behind the scenes" than it might have been).
If teachers are so afraid of loosing their jobs that they won't ask for what they deserve, does that mean they are training us for professions that aren't really valued?

Your post was very helpful in helping me see the other side I tended to think of only the "grad school warps self-interest" angle... The other factors are surely important too.

The problem is teachers' (and some other people's) investment in their jobs - since it's been clear that people don't become teachers for the pay and that their jobs and the people they effect are important to them, it seems inevitable that people concerned with the bottom line would use that as leverage against you. If you didn't care, it would be easier.

Perhaps it should be a job for your students (and for those not on their own, their parents) to fight. The tactic of going after you works if your students (as taxpayers) are passive - but once the people who pay the bills complain, the ability of administration to easily sacrifice them decreases. Knowing where the money goes would help too - administrators are likely to use students as human shields to protect expenses which benefit them and which they would prefer not be cut. Knowing where those expenses are gives people alternative items to cut rather than your contract, and asks of the administration the question of why you (and your students) are the designated victims.

By Robert Bird (not verified) on 08 Dec 2008 #permalink

Great posting. I wonder: is there data to back up the claim that faculty really ARE generally reluctant to strike, compared to other professions or trades? Do we strike less? I'm not trying to cast doubt, just wondering if there are data.
As it happens, Canada's 3rd biggest university, York University, is currently suffering a strike (not full faculty, but contract faculty and TAs). See my own blog posting here:

I was in a soft-money position at the Univ of HI when the faculty union went on strike. It was a strange position for me to be in -- I was faculty but their contract didn't apply to me since I was bringing in 100% of my own salary via grants. At that time the public school teachers were also on strike, so there was no public school from Grades K through Univ for two weeks.

I don't really have a point, except to say that I've seen the resources at my kids elementary school decrease every single year for the past four years (art, language, PE are no more due to budget). And there is a point, and I think it is now, where you have to stand up and say that you just cannot do your job anymore with the resources you have been given. Including your salary.

University faculty member here.

I am wondering if your union is negotiating salary only or are there other items on the table such as class size and workload.

Where I work (Canada is heavily unionized) we have a negotiated formula for determining full time work hours based on different modes of instruction and class sizes are also negotiated. Some classes sizes are smaller than others due to the amount of marking (English, history, and maybe even philosophy. I do not work in those departments)

We also negotiate the number of weeks of instruction per year (now set at 30 at my university) so there are many other things besides salary that make the job worthwhile.

BTW at top of the scale I am making $80,000 (approx) per year and I consider myself underpaid by about 20%. The students I am teaching (nurses) can make more than me (with overtime) within about 3 years of graduation. A principal in the K-12 system makes more than me. And in some provinces in Canada a registered nurse at the top of the scale makes the same amount of money per year.

Of course there are pension, medical, life insurance, and other negotiated benefits as well)

We do not get overtime but we do get financial compensation for going over the negotiated FTE hours and this is usually paid out a 1.25 times the regular salary. However, admin is very reluctant to assign "overload" work and will often hire under qualified faculty in order to avoid it.

I would be interested in your full time teaching hours per week and the number of instructional weeks per year at your university.

Perhaps another reason for public university faculty to be thankful for their unions and support them is that they're among the very few "thought-worker" professions who are even *allowed* to organize.

Most organizations (including even most private universities) prevent thought-worker organization by making sure those workers meet the legal definition of "management," whether or not they have any actual managerial power.

My university faculty came within seven votes of unionizing in a election where the choices (vote for one) were joining one of three competing unions or no union. Did not strike me as completely fair.

In my opinion, one does research because one wants to. So if one gets some pay, that is gravy. I have seen a couple of examples of what I called "union think" which I thought inappropriate. One was a comment by a faculty member's wife. The faculty member received two weeks summer salary to do research. The wife was apalled that he intended to spend more than two weeks on the research. The other was a MS student who refused to work on his thesis while not on an assistantship. No tickie, no washie. (I used that principle as chair, talking with the adminsitration, but that is different, I hope.)

My colleague, a faculty member in a Venezuelan University, was the last non-Venezuelan hired by a Venezuelan government university. His visa specified that he could not participate in politics. So he crossed picket lines during both faculty or student strikes to go work at the museum. No problem, because his status as nonpolitical was understood. Venezuelan Universities at the time were on strike a lot of the time.

When I was chair, my professional staff was unionized. so, when I agreed to become chair, I got a copy of their union contract and carefully perused same. At our first staff meeting, they asked me for compensatory time, which is specifically denied by their union contract. I pointed this out to them, which set them back a little, as they did not really understand who they were dealing with. However, I told them, "My only concern is that the office operate effectively in supporting the department's activities. If you need to leave early, or come in late for some reason, just make sure that the office is covered. If I see you at your desk working, when I come in on Saturday and Sunday, I will assume you are dealing with personal matters, even if you have something for me to sign off on."

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 10 Dec 2008 #permalink

"In my opinion, one does research because one wants to. So if one gets some pay, that is gravy."

Just to check--you *are* talking about at institutions where research is not *expected* of faculty members, and is not used in retention/tenure/promotion decisions, right?

I ask because I've seen (outside the academy) the other sort of attitude before--"You're expected to love this job enough to devote your own time to it, so we'll certainly make decisions based on your willingness to do things we don't give you paid time to do," and it's kind of appalling.

Avrom, I got early tenure and promotion on the basis of my research. Never-the-less your quote had some application at my institution. I read, in a fisheries magazine, a definition of professional which I liked, even if it is not real. A professional is a person who is not paid for the work they do, but is rather paid so they can do their work.

We did have a situation like this; A is assigned 10% time for research and publishes three papers, B is assigned 20% time for research, and publishes one paper. B gets the higher merit raise for research because research is a larger part of their assignment. I filed a protest and got that straightened out.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 11 Dec 2008 #permalink

Jeff, I see your point, but I'm not quite sure I do like that definition of professional. And here's the reason:

Management and ownership benefits when (for example) faculty members do good research. Rankings go up, which makes more students want to matriculate (allowing easier tuition hikes) and, in the long term, makes for richer alumni who can give more money. This is more obvious in the case of private institutions, but at a certain level, it applies to the bean-counters under pressure to make public institutions come close to breaking even, too.

I'm not sure I'm big on the idea that these people should be able to reap benefit from their employees--for no pay--by taking advantage of the "you're paid so you can work, not *for* your work" principle, especially when said work is not truly voluntary (that is, when lack of said work can get you fired).

Even someone who loves their field doesn't *always* feel like writing (or spending time in the lab, or preparing presentations, or whatever). If they're going to be expected to do it anyway, they need to be paid for it. Would you try telling, say, a professional cook, that if they love their work, they should be happy to put in involuntary unpaid overtime? I wouldn't.

As said, my definition of professionalism does not really reflect reality. The virtue of being a professsor is that one gets to do much of the decision making as to how one's time is spent. We have at least some input into what we teach, when we teach it, and the circumstances under which we teach. We also have some control over what we do in the way of service to the university. We have the most control over what research we do and how much time we devote to it. The ideal, I suppose, is that your academic year salary is enough that, should the university offer you two additional months salary for teaching two summer courses, you could turn them down and spend the whole summer doing unsalaried research if that is what you want to do.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 11 Dec 2008 #permalink