College unions were on the rise before the pandemic, a trend unlikely to slow

Table of Contents

Dive Brief:

  • The presence of academic unions on college campuses exploded in recent years, though the gains weren’t nationwide, according to a new analysis.
  • Research by Hunter College’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions shows that 118 faculty bargaining units emerged at public and private institutions between 2013 and 2019. Sixteen graduate student unions and a dozen for postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers also formed in that time.
  • President-elect Joe Biden taking office, along with continued pushback over coronavirus safety and budget cuts, is expected to provide fertile ground for union growth.

Dive Insight:

The most significant development during those seven years was the rise of faculty unions at private nonprofit institutions, the report’s authors note. The number of unions across those schools spiked by about 81%, or 65 new units, since 2012, the data shows. The researchers attribute this phenomenon in part to new demand for adjunct faculty representation, as well as “a refocusing of labor union priorities toward the needs of precarious faculty.”

Private nonprofit institutions also saw the emergence of graduate student unions, which didn’t exist prior to 2013, but grew to 11 units during the period tracked

Their arrival can be traced to the National Labor Relations Board’s 2016 ruling that graduate students at private colleges are entitled to collective bargaining rights. Under the Trump administration, the labor board has sought to reverse this decision and institute a new rule barring those students from unionizing, a move it argued would “bring stability” to federal labor law. 

Public institutions saw much less union expansion during the period studied, with 50 new units. But they had a larger footprint to start. Prior to 2013, there were 565 public college faculty unions, compared to only 77 among private nonprofit colleges.

California and New York had the biggest increases in the number of faculty units, followed by Florida and Massachusetts. 

William Herbert, executive director of the center and one of the report’s authors, expects the trend to accelerate. He believes the Biden administration will introduce labor-friendly initiatives. Former President Barack Obama, who Biden served as vice president, was similarly labor-oriented.

Academic unions gained more visibility this fall, amid safety concerns from a push to reopen campuses and criticism over pandemic-induced budget cuts.

Unions have formed even in states with less of a history of organizing, with new units at the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado, Herbert said. Workers at the University of Virginia also created a union this summer after being unhappy with the institution’s coronavirus plan.

Graduate students at the University of Michigan went on a roughly weeklong strike in September, railing against what they felt was a lack of health protections on campus, as well as law enforcement’s role at the institution. The union representing workers in the University System of Maryland also protested before fall classes began, demanding the state flagship and system work with them on a better COVID-19 response.

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