New Study Charts Recent Proliferation of Faculty Unions

The number of faculty unions at the nation’s colleges has surged, with most of the growth the result of efforts by the Service Employees International Union to organize private colleges’ non-tenure-track instructors, a new study has found.

In the first nine months of 2016 alone, the National Labor Relations Board certified 20 new collective-bargaining units at private colleges, concludes the study, published online this week in the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy. SEIU’s organizing campaign accounted for 90 percent of that figure, which could rise or fall depending on the results of litigation over union drives.

“The growth in private-sector faculty representation and bargaining constitutes a major new shift in higher education,” says an article summarizing the study’s findings. Although public-sector faculty unions remain much more common, the growth in their numbers has been much slower, it says.

The article credits the activism of groups such as New Faculty Majority and the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor for part of the union growth. Of the 20 new faculty unions certified in the first nine months of last year, 19 represented non-tenure-track faculty members at private colleges, with nearly two-thirds representing both full- and part-time contingent faculty members, just over one-fourth exclusively representing part-timers, and about a tenth exclusively representing full-timers.

At private colleges that held union elections, an average of nearly 73 percent of faculty members who cast ballots voted in favor of forming collective-bargaining units.

The tally of unions successfully organized last year could fluctuate based on the results of litigation over such efforts, the article says. At the center of many of the disputes are clashing interpretations of new guidance on private-college unionization that the NLRB offered in 2014 in a decision involving Pacific Lutheran University.

The article predicts that the number of unions representing graduate assistants and research assistants could soon surge as a result of two other recent NLRB rulings: An August decision, involving Columbia University, that declared such workers eligible to collectively bargain, and a ruling this week that cleared the way for Yale University’s graduate assistants to form separate unions for individual academic departments.

Such recent NLRB decisions could be reversed, however, if President Trump fills vacant seats on the five-member board with people who are unsympathetic to organized labor.

The new study was conducted by William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at Hunter College of the City University of New York. On Friday he said his center planned to conduct additional research to more thoroughly document the growth in faculty unions since 2012, when the center published its most recent national survey of them.

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