Guest post: Why Belonging to a Strong Faculty Union Matters

By Dr. Sally E. Hadden, Associate Professor of History
Western Michigan University

I’ve worked at three universities: One had no faculty union, one had a weak faculty union, and one has a strong faculty union. This is not the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but your common sense may already be telling you that there’s only one university that fits “just right.” If you haven’t already guessed, having a strong faculty union makes a BIG difference. Let me give you a few examples to show you why.

At the university with no faculty union, I watched as my department chair gave raises to his friends and ignored everybody else. Teaching assignments and office space? More of the same. You can imagine how much sucking up occurred in his vicinity. Faculty protests barely registered on the administration’s radar. For example, when the administration implemented staffing cuts that completely closed the student writing center, no amount of faculty emails or phone calls made a difference. Junior faculty gatherings were unending discussions of job openings at other universities. It was clear the administration wanted servitors, not scholars, on payroll. How could I tell? The university made contributions to my retirement plan—but their contributions only vested after 7 years. Their not-so-generous contributions went into a fund that was not TIAA-CREF (meaning, no portability to other institutions), by the way. When I left this university after two years, I lost that money since it reverted to the university.

But I am glad I left, for the worst was yet to come. When the institution-with-no-union fell on economic hard times a few years later, the administration’s brainy solution to the problem was to fire about half of their untenured faculty. In the department I had worked in, of four untenured professors (two white men, one African American woman, and one Latina), guess who got fired? Hint: It was not the men.

At the university with a weak union, my working conditions improved somewhat. Contributions to my TIAA-CREF retirement fund by the university were guaranteed from Day One of employment. Grievance procedures existed, if a faculty member’s rights were infringed upon. Administrators routinely asked for faculty input before important new measures were implemented, like changing general education requirements or altering the library’s operating hours. Comparing University #2 to my first job was easy: This was a place with better working conditions!

However, in just a few years, I began to see that different problems existed at University #2. There were no cost-of-living raises for professorial salaries and the only method of ever hoping to get a raise was to publish research. I did well in this system for a few years, receiving three percent raises the years that my book or several articles came out. My friends who were excellent teachers but published little got nothing. It really was feast or famine, and if the administration allocated nothing for faculty raises in a year when your book came out, then too bad. Not surprisingly, the institution had terrible salary compression and inversion, not to mention a gender equity problem so bad that its female faculty sued the university and won.

I began to see the ways in which University #2 nickeled-and-dimed its faculty in ways that were insidious. We paid for parking “privileges.” What business gets away with charging its employees for coming to work each day? We had two health care options, Blue Cross and an excellent local HMO—but neither plan included vision or dental benefits. Clean teeth and glasses cost money every year. The university did not offer year-round payment of salaries earned during the academic year (what’s called “9 over 12” at other places), claiming that the bookkeeping and administration of this simple function would be too difficult. Why not? Because it provided administrators with a ready pool of faculty eager to teach in summer school, as their funds ran low. Summer school classes were paid at low rates, regardless of who did the teaching or how much expertise they had: They paid $2500 or $3000 a course, and I knew faculty standing in line to get those assignments because they needed the money.

The real villain in this piece was not the university, but state law, which made it difficult to organize a strong union. State law prevented the university from requiring faculty members to pay union dues automatically. Each individual had to choose to belong, and with salaries inverted, compressed, or on a shoestring, many of my colleagues chose not to pay those dues. This had terrible consequences. With union membership under 50 percent of all faculty, administrators claimed that anything the union asked for was not “representative” of all the faculty’s wishes. That allowed the administration to dismiss legitimate faculty issues and ignore our input, including requests for routine cost-of-living raises. News flash: Administration salaries always seemed to keep pace with inflation.

Changing jobs and coming to WMU brought me a number of financial benefits, both immediate and long-term. I reckon that vision, dental, and parking save me nearly $600 a year. My salary’s modest cost-of-living raises have made me the envy of my friends still teaching at University #2, where declining state appropriations have made raises of any kind a thing of the past. Those WMU raises have a positive impact on my retirement fund, too, since the amount of WMU’s contribution is tied to my base salary.

The benefits aren’t merely financial, though. Belonging to the WMU union has provided structure and certainty about my working conditions. I don’t have to wonder what the policy is when an untenured colleague becomes pregnant and wants to stop the tenure clock. I don’t have to hope that a co-worker with newly documented heart problems will be granted medical leave. I don’t have to dread a teaching schedule that could have me on campus teaching at night until 9pm and require me to be on campus at 8am the next morning. Clear guidelines creating a fair workplace give me certainty and peace of mind. It is hard to put into words how much I value these things.

The biggest benefit to me, though, has come in terms of community and collective morale. I remember colleagues from University #1, who had lived through decades of favoritism and arbitrary choices. They were worn down and despondent. At University #2, chronic low pay led many of my colleagues to “phone in” their teaching, giving only the minimum: If they weren’t being paid fairly, where was the motivation to give the job their all? Likewise, if research and creativity were not reliably rewarded, why bother? The number of smart people there who had “checked out” was staggering.

I contrast both of these situations with what I see around me at WMU. Here, I have colleagues who are engaged and constantly thinking about how they can make a difference in the lives of their students. We work hard to become better teachers and also better researchers and scholars. We celebrate each other’s discoveries and contributions. We take pride in doing a good job because we know it will be respected.

Being part of a community that respects its union members makes everyone hold their heads a little higher, whether it is in the lab, the practice room, or the classroom. If we are evaluated by fair standards, given a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, and treat one another with respect, everybody wins. Morale stays high, people want to do their jobs well, students get stellar instruction, creativity and discoveries flourish, and the university’s reputation continues to climb. I know why belonging to a strong faculty union matters—I see it every day at WMU.

One thought on “Guest post: Why Belonging to a Strong Faculty Union Matters

  1. My experiences have been much the same–one non-union, one weak, one strong. Our union has protected me numerous times and changes have occurred because I could fight back against the administrative over-reach with the union’s assistance. I just wish the administration did not see us–faculty and union alike–as the enemy.

Comments are closed.