Establishing a faculty union faces many hurdles


Ask communication faculty member Paul Johnson why he’s part of the organizing committee trying to form a faculty union and he asks a few questions in return:

“Why is it that we have to have these kinds of precarious employment situations” experienced by adjunct faculty, part-time faculty and even non-tenure stream faculty? “Why are certain decisions being made” when it comes to hiring, retaining and promoting faculty, or allocating resources to specific departments? “What are the real financial circumstances of the University when it makes these kinds of decisions?”

Johnson hopes a faculty union, composed of faculty of all ranks, will “make sure that people can get the kind of treatment they deserve and the kind of support they need in their workplace,” from job stability and appropriate monetary compensation and benefits to help in facing disputes over controversial academic issues.

There have been failed unionizations efforts among Pitt faculty over the past few decades, most recently in 1996. The current effort began in 2015. The union committee then recruited the United Steelworkers (USW), Johnson says, for their organizing knowledge and resources — especially if the administration opposes faculty union formation, as it is already opposing the graduate student union. The faculty union’s card-signing campaign started on Jan. 22.

The University has hired the law firm Ballard Spahr to “to assist us with various employment and labor law matters, including advice concerning current unionization efforts,” said Pitt spokesman Joe Miksch, who said the University routinely uses outside counsel to supplement its legal team. “However, the use of this firm should not be construed as evidence that the University has a position on faculty efforts to unionize.

“We fully acknowledge the right for University faculty to petition for representation by a union. This is a consequential step that deserves careful consideration,” Miksch continued. “We want to ensure that our faculty members have the needed information — and that it is presented in a fair, accurate and complete manner — to appropriately understand this process and the pros and cons involved. Regardless of the outcome, the University will continue to support our faculty members and their interests.”

The University also has set up a website with information about the faculty unionization effort.

USW recruited for local union success

Damon Di Cicco, a USW organizer working with Pitt union hopefuls, notes that the USW has already helped organize part-time faculty at Point Park and Robert Morris universities, who have negotiated new contracts. The USW also aided the organization of part-time faculty at Duquesne University, but the union there is being challenged by Duquesne’s administration based on its status as a religious institution.

Di Cicco assures that the USW is serving faculty interests, not vice versa: “We believe no one knows better what the faculty members need than the faculty members.”

The nationwide trend of “relying more and more on adjuncts and other contingent faculty as a way to cut costs,” he says, represents “a really short-sighted strategy” that leaves such instructors disconnected from resources needed to be the most effective teachers and to participate in the other core missions of a large university: research and service, as well as the governance of their own departments.

Johnson and Di Cicco believe they are on track to get more than 30 percent of faculty members to sign union authorization cards by Jan. 22, 2019, when cards signed on the opening day of the union campaign would expire. Under Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Relations Act, this 30-percent threshold would allow the union to propose a bargaining unit — the categories of faculty whom the union would represent — and hold an election among faculty to accept or reject union representation.

The state’s labor relations board (PLRB) can hold hearings at several stages of the process to arbitrate the union organizers’ and the administration’s presumably differing views on the composition of the bargaining unit and the election outcome. Should the union win the election, the University and the union would be required to bargain over future employment contracts, which, if reached, must be approved by a vote of union membership.

Widespread support needed to proceed

Claudia Davidson, who teaches labor law at Pitt as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Law, has been representing unions as a practicing lawyer for 30 years. She has spoken out in favor of unionization at Pitt.

Even at the card-signing stage, she explained, union organizers prefer to demonstrate that more than half of the potential bargaining unit supports the union, implying a sure win at union election time. The 1996 unionization effort here, for instance, was called off when organizers announced they had gathered signed cards from more than a third of the 2,300 faculty who were potential bargaining unit members but had not reached a decisive 51 percent majority of signers.

The most significant hurdle in the process is management opposition to union formation, she said. The University may object to the scope of the collective bargaining unit, for instance, contending that not all members of the unit (which could include everything from adjunct faculty to full tenured professors) share the same “community of interest” — that is, the desire for the same terms and conditions of employment. In that case, the full board of the PLRB may have to decide on the composition of the collective bargaining unit.

“As a union, you don’t want to have a hearing on the scope of the union,” Davidson says. “Strategically, you want to get an election as soon as possible. If the University is opposing the union, it is in their interest to delay, because people lose interest.”

Negotiating the initial union contract would also be a lengthy process, she noted, with a large number of issues to be decided: “Since this would be a first contract, it would be everything — wages, benefits, insurance, everything.”

The contract may cover such issues as whether part-time faculty are guaranteed a certain number of courses; science faculty members’ access to laboratory space and equipment; or criteria for moving from adjunct faculty member to associate faculty member, and then into the tenure stream. Individual tenure decisions likely would remain with each faculty member’s academic unit, based on scholastic criteria, she added.

Union’s past and future

Unionization has had mixed success at universities, says James A. Craft, emeritus faculty member in business administration and economics in the Katz Graduate School of Business.

Craft, who once worked in the collective bargaining operations of the machinists’ union and now studies labor-management relations, says faculty unionization has had the most effect not on salaries but in giving faculty members more of a voice with their administration.

For one, he says, “collective bargaining provides for an objective appeals procedure” on hiring and firing decisions. Today, University officials are the judges of their own decisions, whereas the union grievance process can lead to arbitration — a more rigorous, data-driven process, he says.

Craft explained that unions also have helped set criteria for merit increases in salaries; helped employees secure new or better benefits; and negotiated more rights for intellectual property.

On the other hand, he adds, “there’s some concern among faculty who are doing prestigious research that unionization is for blue-collar workers, (and) we’re professionals …” Contract negotiations are also, by their nature, adversarial, which might get in the way of faculty/administration relations, or increase bureaucratic layers between the sides.

Also, he added, administrators may argue that “it’s going to be very hard to hire top-drawer researchers, for instance,” if contracts set salary limits.

What the research on unionization shows

Faculty unionization efforts at public four-year universities across the country have created unions covering nearly a third of higher education faculty, according to a 2014 article in the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy, a publication of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York.

The article concludes that, “unionization improves efficiency and effectiveness” at universities, but it was unable to draw conclusions about “whether unions help create an environment that promotes higher graduation and completion rates” for students.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest data, for 2017, shows “workers … in education, training, and library occupations had the highest unionization rates” among all workers in the country, at 33.5 percent, although that includes teachers in K-12 schools.

Craft points to a Sept. 2017 piece in the ASHE Higher Education Report as the most comprehensive assessment of unions in higher education. Author Timothy Reese Cain of the University of Georgia, in his monograph (a study of studies), found that “more than a quarter of those teaching college classes (are) covered by collectively bargained contracts.”

Among unions of only non‐tenure‐line and part‐time faculty, Cain’s research found “benefits for non‐tenure‐line faculty in terms of pay, job security, contract length, benefits, and institutional support. The recent research demonstrates few negatives for organized non‐tenure‐line faculty, with the exceptions of contracts potentially limiting administrators’ abilities to further include them in governance and the prioritization of full‐time members in some units.”

Among unions that include tenure-line faculty, Cain concluded:

  • Unions have so far resulted in only “short‐term gains” in compensation, and this is “more likely at comprehensive and baccalaureate institutions than at research universities.”
  • There is “some union effectiveness in fostering tenure, promotion and grievance procedures, especially formalized ones. This has been widely thought to reduce the arbitrariness of decisions, potentially explaining findings that unionization was associated with reduced gender rank and tenure gaps. There is less definitive evidence about whether unionization was related to tenure being easier to acquire overall.”
  • There can be “some encroachment of faculty unions into areas that might have traditionally been covered by faculty senates or other forms of shared governance, … most often … at institutions at which faculty had historically low levels of influence in governance, such as community colleges, or that had recently lost it. Some senates have gone away explicitly because of unionization— either having been abolished or atrophied — but the weight of the evidence is that senates and unions can coexist.”
  • “Unionized faculty do not appear to be more satisfied overall than nonunionized faculty, and multiple studies have found them to be less so. Union members appear to be more satisfied with compensation although less satisfied with some other aspects of their work lives, potentially indicating a trading that washes out any overall effect.”
  • “Unionization is associated with changes in faculty working conditions but those changes have been less drastic than might have been expected. … Although individual situations vary, fears over the destruction of academic governance have been largely mitigated. The places that had strong governance have largely been protected and those with weak governance mechanisms have new routes to faculty influence.”

Cain added: “Despite benefits for faculty in governance, procedural protections, and related areas, collective bargaining has not been a panacea and has not caused radical change. Broader trends away from a largely tenure‐line faculty have continued and wage gains have not been as great as advocates had hoped. As such, barring substantial changes in approach or outcomes, the expectations of both those who favor and oppose them should be adjusted accordingly.”

Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.