Academia is More Broken than Ever. To Fix it, We Need More and Stronger Unions.

Rally for a free and fair election at Santa Clara University

Start a union

If you don’t have one, roll up your sleeves and get to unionizing. Hook up with a local union in your area. SEIU, AFT, UAW — these are just a few of the big unions that have successfully organized faculty, staff, and grad students and are in the process of running unionization campaigns. The very process of starting a union drive is transformative. It’s hard work but I genuinely know of no better approach to building community on a campus. Union organizing means that you will get to know colleagues in different departments and stages of life and career. You’re going to have a lot of conversations — difficult, awkward, wonderful conversations that will genuinely challenge, (righteously) anger, and fulfill you. You’re going to learn about the vulnerabilities of your colleagues, the specific issues that matter to them, the inconsistencies across programs, departments and colleges. You’re going to see your colleagues in a new way, learning about not only their struggles but the creative ways that they survive at the institution and work their magic in the classroom.

Support those who start unions

If a union campaign takes off on your campus, don’t be a bystander, even if you can’t be included in the unit. For example, if you’re tenure-track and it’s the students (grad or undergrad), contingent faculty members or staff who are unionizing, don’t act like you have “no skin in the game” (something someone literally said during our unionization campaign). When a campaign gets underway, so does the union-busting. Administrations hire law and PR firms that specialize in destroying union campaigns. Protest this waste of money and be in solidarity with those who are organizing unions. All too often I hear faculty say “This is not my struggle, the adjuncts should decide for themselves, I don’t want to influence anyone.” While it’s good for tenure-track faculty to be mindful of the power asymmetries between them and those who try to unionize, it’s a moral failure not to use one’s power to fight union-busting. Also, cite the overwhelming body of evidence that proves unions improve working conditions. It’s ok to make evidence-based claims that unions are good for workers! Don’t fall for “both sides” rhetoric. One side is fighting to pay the bills and have respect and the other side is fighting to defeat that effort. As the song asks, “Which side are you on?” Besides, a rising tide lifts all boats and tenure-track faculty benefit from unionization even when they’re not unionized.

In many ways, all of us are precariously employed at the neoliberal university, even the tenured. But when it comes to faculty, contingently employed are particularly dispensable and replaceable in the hands of administrators.

Take a more active role in a union

Say you already work at a university with a union. You lucky cat, you! Are you a member or a free rider? If you’re not a member yet, you should become one today and you should get your fellow colleagues who haven’t joined yet to become members too. But even as a member, chances are you can probably do more, way more. Since I’m not in a union, I’ve crowd-sourced some ideas for how to be a better member from my union friends on the internet.*

…if you’re tenure-track and it’s the students (grad or undergrad), contingent faculty members or staff who are unionizing, don’t act like you have “no skin in the game” ...

Act like a union even if you aren’t formally recognized

This is me anticipating the “What if we can’t unionize?” question. It’s true that there are numerous obstacles in the way of unionization. Maybe you’re in a right-to-work state where organizing and winning is considerably harder. Maybe you’re a graduate student whose university refuses to recognize your union claiming, as Loyola Chicago does, that grad students “are fundamentally students and therefore do not qualify as ‘employees’ within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act.” Maybe, like me, you’re at a private, religious university and can’t currently file through the NLRB. Maybe you’re tenure-track and can’t unionize because university lawyers keep talking about the NLRB v Yeshiva decision (1980) that determined that TT faculty are “managerial” employees (even though they might not qualify as managers today).



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Maggie Levantovskaya

Maggie Levantovskaya

I write about adjuncting, chronic illness and whatever else strikes my fancy or makes my blood boil. More: