• Home
  • About Us
  • Guest Posts

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Stuck in the Middle with You

This is the second of two papers from an MLA panel on "Organizing University Labor," organized by Eva Cherniavsky at the University of Washington-Seattle. The first, by Thomas Winningham, is here. This piece explains why collective bargaining has worked better for faculty at Western Washington (pictured) than shared governance.

by Bill Lyne, English Department,  Western Washington University

The legislation allowing faculty at four-year public universities in Washington state to unionize passed in 2002.  Union organizers from NEA and AFT arrived on our campus at Western Washington University the next fall, and three years later, after a lot of organizing work and a series of relentless, baseless and tedious bargaining unit challenges from our administration, our faculty voted to unionize as the United Faculty of Western Washington, affiliated with both NEA and AFT.  The university president--who was near retirement, had argued vigorously against our unionizing, and took our vote very personally—hired the law firm of Jackson Lewis (a firm famous for their scorched-earth approach to unions) to bargain our first contract.  

After 18 months of bargaining, stalemate, and arbitration, we declared impasse and the lawyer went home to Seattle, no doubt convinced that he had earned his hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.  Four days after he left, one of the vice presidents from the administration bargaining team called me and she and I settled a full tentative agreement in a three-hour session on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.  When the expensive lawyer was informed of the details of our deal (which included basic things like grievance to arbitration and a stable workload), he strenuously urged the Board of Trustees not to ratify it. The trustees, about to hire a new president and fed up with a process that had taken so long, wisely chose to ignore him and support the university’s faculty and administration.

For the next ten years, we amiably bargained successor agreements (one of which NEA called “the best contract in America”) without the benefit (or expense) of a union-busting lawyer sitting between faculty and administration.  Our relatively short experience with collective bargaining has revealed both its value and its limits and clarified quite a bit about the predicament of public higher education in the 21st century.  If nothing else, it has helped us understand who’s really on what side and why.  

When we first began to organize, the university president met us with the standard tale of academic romance.  Collective bargaining, she argued, would wreak havoc on our cherished values of collegiality and shared governance. Deans and faculty would no longer be able to say hello to each other in the grocery store or compete on the same bicycle race teams. Our august faculty senate would be rendered impotent.  One administration spokesperson even suggested that something called “the union” might make us all wear uniforms. The whole campaign resembled that of a 1960s southern sheriff warning that Yankee agitators were coming to put crazy ideas into the heads of the local happy Negroes.  

This tone deafness showed how disconnected the administration had become from faculty life on the ground and how ripe we were for unionization.  Our salaries were in the 19th percentile of our peer universities, tenure and promotion decisions had become increasingly mysterious and arbitrary, tenure track faculty lines were disappearing and carloads of new administrators seemed to be arriving every week.  The faculty senate had devolved into a bi-weekly forum for complaints about parking.  An actual voice in the running of the university—the thing that the administration argued we would lose with unionization--was the thing it was clear we didn’t have.  We spent a lot of time in committee meetings and doggedly fulfilling the requirements of empty process, but all real decisions, especially about the deployment of university resources, were made without faculty in the room.  

All of that changed with collective bargaining.  When recommendations from committees that administrators are under no obligation to follow metamorphose into binding and enforceable contractual agreements, the administration-faculty relationship changes dramatically.  Shared governance was the impotence of faculty resolutions followed by the omnipotence of administrative decisions. Collective bargaining is nobody gets to leave the room until we have an agreement that recognizes the interests of both sides.  That legal requirement made it imperative that both sides start paying more real attention to the predicament of the other.  If we were going to get to a good, workable contract, we had to stop pretending that we were all on the same side with the same interests.  The formal exchange of proposals that each side would actually have to live with forced both the faculty and the administration to crawl out of their own echo chambers and actually listen to the other side.  

While bargaining sharpened and clarified our differences, it also began to show how much we actually had in common.  And for that we owe a debt to the union-busting lawyer that the administration hired for that first contract. He was a formidable fellow, with a wealth of labor law experience, but he had done very little public sector bargaining and had no experience with higher ed bargaining.   What he didn’t understand was that, unlike his private sector clients, his current client actually had a lot in common with the faculty that sat across the table.  This was not a situation where one side’s goal was to squeeze as much blood as possible from labor and the other’s was to retrieve as much of the fruits of their labor as possible.  Our trustees were mostly business types, but they had no obligation to shareholders and most of them vacillated between idealistic and clueless about public higher education.  The administrators who sat across the table from us were certainly subject to the neo-liberal pressures that bore down on all university bosses, but most of them had been faculty at one time and even the most mendacious among them probably still cared about students.  We watched them grow frustrated and bored with their lawyer’s strategy of stonewall and delay.  The members of their team who engaged us in actual conversation or nodded too sympathetically at our points suddenly disappeared from the bargaining room.  

The university president had been right in her warning that collective bargaining would put a third party between administration and faculty, but that third party turned out not to be the union thugs she was imagining, but rather the mercenary lawyer she had hired.  Once he was gone, the rules and responsibilities still remained for both sides, and that structure along with the legal equality of the two sides at a bargaining table forced us to stop hurling blow-off platitudes past each other and get down to cases.  Collective bargaining has brought us better salaries and working conditions, but perhaps the most important thing it has delivered is a vastly improved working relationship.  We now have a respect for each other and a problem-solving working relationship that we never would have achieved under the old myths of shared governance.  

This kind of class collaboration as the pinnacle of faculty union achievement has sent and will continue to send shivers down the spines of my faithfully radical colleagues, and rightly so.  Just as collective bargaining has revealed the bankruptcy of shared governance, it has also definitively shown us that college professors are not a revolutionary class.  We are mostly the children of the professional and managerial classes, our jobs require us to spend a lot of time alone with our books so solidarity does not come naturally to us, our professional training has conditioned us to suck up to authority, our political and ideological commitments vary wildly across disciplines, and within our larger class we are divided into comfortably upper middle class tenure-track professors and a large proletariat of contingent faculty who still live better and have more prospects than most Americans living below the middle class. Even those of us who teach from a radical or Marxist perspective have mortgages, drive Subarus, and contribute to a 401(k) plan.  Ultimately, we are much more of a guild than a union, at least as a union might be imagined by the Third International or the IWW. 

In this, of course, we are no different from our parent companies at NEA and AFT, who both have multi-story buildings blocks from the White House, complete with outsourced cafeterias and human resources departments.  Higher education unionization fits squarely into what is left of the U.S. labor movement.  We are part of a slightly left-liberal consensus, carefully regulated by state and federal labor law (the sturdy framework created by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, amended by Taft-Hartley in 1947, and perpetuated through a series of Supreme Court decisions up to and including Janus), designed to give U.S. business relative labor peace.  We raise millions of dollars in PAC money and are a reliable phone banking army for the Democratic party.  

So it should come as no surprise that the conditions always exist for faculty unions and university administrations to work and play well together, especially when administrators can be convinced that it is worth it to trade a little bit of power for a more content faculty.  And it just may be possible, especially in the current moment, that these conditions could allow faculty and administration to collaborate on something relatively radical that goes beyond guild wages, benefits, and working conditions.  

The real reason that public higher education faculty need unions is the same reason that public higher education administrators behave like corporate bosses: the defunding of public higher education that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  At about the same time that organized labor was fully defanged, college campuses became the center of progressive and radical organizing in the U.S.  In the 1950s and 60s, in the wake of the GI Bill, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s movement, students of diverse races, classes, and genders began showing up in public colleges in significant numbers for the first time.  They brought civil rights, women’s rights, and free speech movements to campus and began demanding respect and curricular change (Ethnic Studies Programs, Women’s Studies Programs) in ways that began to fundamentally rearrange colleges and universities.  

Business elites quickly began to recognize colleges as a problem.  Lewis Powell, in his now-famous “Powell Memorandum” to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, devoted several pages of his conservative blueprint to “The Campus,” offering a detailed plan to regulate textbooks, make the faculty more conservative, and influence graduate schools of business.  This turned out to be overkill, as most of his objectives could be achieved by simply defunding public higher education. Up until this time, public higher education had been essentially free. But as soon as Black and Brown, first generation and working class students began arriving in numbers, states, led by Governor Ronald Reagan’s very public attack on the University of California (especially the Berkeley campus), began the systematic disinvestment in public higher education.  As the percentage of white students in public higher education has declined over the decades so has state funding, at almost exactly the same rate.  This massive, nationwide act of structural racism has led to public tuition rising to private school levels and created the bankers’ paradise of massive student debt.  

Turning public institutions private has also no doubt shaped the careers and mindsets of college administrators.  We should never mistake the time when public higher education was available to only white men as a golden age, but the job of college president in a time when the campus was fully funded by the state was surely more academic and faculty oriented.  It was a job for which someone with a PhD in Physics, English, or Political Science might be relatively qualified. Today, the academic training a college president receives when they are still planning a career as a teacher and scholar has little relevance for the CEO job they have ended up with. A day filled with courting donors, building marketing campaigns to attract premium-paying out-of-state students, managing the debt-financing of fancy dorms and gymnasiums, and negotiating food service contracts with private prison vendors is a long way from that dissertation on Hawthorne or that article about molecular biology. The recent history of public higher education is what has turned administrators into managerial overseers and faculty into labor costs, putting us on opposite sides of a divide that is best bridged with collective bargaining.  

And it may be that the relationships we’ve developed in that bargaining have prepared us to work together on something bigger than the labor/management dance.  Here in Washington, the last few years have brought tangible signs that the ground of higher education may be shifting.  In 2015, the Washington State Legislature, led by the Republican-controlled Senate, reduced tuition at Washington’s public universities by 20%. This would not necessarily be that remarkable were it not for the fact that they also replaced the lost tuition revenue with an equal amount of new state appropriations. In 2017, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began funding the College Promise Coalition, whose goal is to increase post-secondary degree attainment to 70% of Washington citizens. In 2019, the legislature instituted the Washington College Grant as an entitlement available to all students who qualify. Under this entitlement, anyone from a family of four making $50,000 or less can go to any public college in Washington for free. Any student from a family making $96,000 or less receives some grant support. This grant is funded by a tax on businesses, a tax that was strongly supported by both Microsoft and Amazon.  

At the same time, there are signs that voters and policy makers are beginning to come around to the idea of higher education as a public good.  In a 2020 poll conducted by the College Promise Coalition, 70% of voters, perhaps fed up with the chaos that ignorance brings, said that the most important thing higher education can do is produce well-rounded citizens who make our communities strong.  And in our tech-heavy state, so far the digital giants don’t seem to be trying to use the pandemic as a way to move all education online. Most people seem to be recognizing that online education is a ghost of the real thing and that digital divides create huge educational inequities.

A confluence of accidents, consequences, and intentions has brought us to a place where a fairly broad consensus is developing around the idea of making public higher education more public.  In this context, we might convince our administrations that instead of hiring a token vice president for diversity, they should recruit many more low income Black, Brown, and Native students. Together we might convince state legislatures to fund food, housing, and childcare subsidies for those student for whom free tuition is not enough.  And perhaps at the bargaining table we can agree that committing to a larger percentage of tenure track faculty is the best thing we can do for students, especially those from the neglected regions of capital.  If we can convince our administrative friends that we are in a place where running a college more like an educational institution and less like a business will bring them praise rather than pink slips, we might be able to turn the institutional battleship just a little bit.  The revolution we will have to leave to our students.   

United Faculty of Washington State blog is here.


Join the Conversation

Note: Firefox is occasionally incompatible with our comments section. We apologize for the inconvenience.