In this week's Pope Center Clarion Call, we feature two sharply differing views on the hotly debated topic of faculty unionization. Arguing in favor is the AAUP's Cary Nelson. Arguing against is Professor Charles Baird, who fought against mandatory unionization in the Cal State system. Comments encouraged!
Naomi Schaefer Riley writes in USA Today about the ongoing unionization of public higher education. The sprawling labor force of an ever-expanding academy has become a fertile recruiting ground for the labor movement. The results could be unfortunate for scholarship, schools and the public. Riley and others have cited the recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report indicating that public sector union ranks continue to swell and now exceed the total number of private union members (7.6 vs. 7.1 million). While overall union membership rate dropped from 12.3% to 11.9% in 2010 according to BLS, the writer notes that faculty and graduate student membership in collective bargaining units has increased 17% over the last five years. Educators, administrators and policy actors should resist public university system collective bargainning, as Gov. Scott Walker is doing in Wisconsin. In the long run, higher-ed unionization threatens not only state budgets but the ability of public universities to compete deftly with private counterparts.
David Brooks of the New York Times writes a fine column on the power of books in the age of the internet. His observations are prompted by a study which finds that low income elementary school students who receive books prior to summer break become better readers than peers who do not. Working with colleagues, Dr. Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee carried out the study, which will be published in Reading Psychology later in the year. This kind of book distribution program can be seen as a low-cost alternative to summer school, which brings up a couple interesting questions. Would it be a realistic and adequate substitute for summer school? If so, will it be adopted or will challenges arise to prevent or limit its implementation? Tomorrow is the last day of summer school for the local school district, in which I volunteer. I'd like to think the students have learned and grown in ways that they wouldn't have if they weren't there. However, there's no substitute for young students reading on their own and working with their parents at home. Ceteris paribus, students and society would seem to be better off not with summer school but with this alternative. In terms of politics, it will be interesting to see the unions and the rest of the public education bureacracy react to this. If expanded, the program could presumably be a small but important step towards today's holy grail in education policymaking - closure of the achievement gap. However, ditching summer school means school districts have a lower demand for labor. When was the last time a teachers union embraced anything of the sort?
Last fall the CUNY faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), settled Professor David Seidemann's law suit by paying Seidemann's pro bono attorney, Jones, Day, $250,000 in legal fees, roughly 1.5% of the PSC's budget. The suit concerned the PSC's use of dues to pursue political activities unrelated to contract negotiation or administration. There have been periods when the PSC has released e-mails concerning the Iraqi War virtually every day. At issue was the agency fee arrangment whereby non-members are compelled through the threat of state violence to pay union fees. Seidemann's case went through several appeals, and was remanded to a magistrate sympathetic to the PSC at least twice. As the appellate court was mandating that more and more of the PSC's budget be reviewed for being "non-chargeable" to dissenting non-members, the PSC settled. The PSC had originally claimed that less than one percent of its budget is used for unrelated political purposes. The settlement occurred at a point where the amount had increased to over 14 percent. Seidemann suspects that the actual number is much higher. A witness heard a PSC spokesperson say that the percentage is between 15 and 20%. In a statement to its executive committee the PSC calls its payment to Jones, Day and the increase from 0% to over 14% "a victory". I wrote a two-page description of some of the details of the PSC's loss and the leadership's recidivist lying in Sharad Karkhanis's Patriot Returns newsletter that is released to 13,000 CUNY employees.
Barbara Bowen, the president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the faculty union of the City University of New York (CUNY), circulated an e-mail asking union members to protest creation of a fifth pension tier that would reduce pension accruals for future New York State workers. The bill might reduce CUNY's and SUNY's competitiveness in attracting new faculty. Two flies in President Bowen's ointment are the state's parlous economic condition and current benefit structure. CUNY retirees still receive retiree health benefits, unlike two-thirds of the 2005 American workforce, according to the Kaiser Foundation, with a lower percentage today. But between 2000 and 2007 1.5 million New Yorkers exited the State as tax increases made $1,000 per month burdens on homeowners common and jobs fled. Stock market bubbles have subsidized New York. Even if the stock market does return, the St. Louis Fed reports potentially inflationary increases in the money supply. The State's Constitution forbids reduction of accrued retirement benefits. However, it does not require a crystal ball to consider that pension and health insurance bills may lead to bankruptcy. This occurred in the mid-1970s. The State has been resuscitated by a 30-year long Wall Street bubble, but the public will protest the bubbly monetary expansion should inflation accelerate. At that point, retiree health insurance and other future and non-funded benefits are likely to become a thing of the past. If the state does not get costs under control, collapse is possible. If so, CUNY faculty will say goodbye to retiree health insurance.
In recent weeks, the USA Today and National Public Radio have crowed that this recession is different: most of those losing jobs were men (and predominantly white). This is "encouraging" according to these news outlets. Why is it good? Because a majority of the workforce is now made up of women; and blacks have not been hurt as much as whites (the media seem to have forgotten about Asians and Hispanics but what else is new?). This is an advance in gender, if not racial, diversity. Whooo. One wonders how those women married to unemployed men think about their gender's "advance." Is this recession different? We won't know until later but with "diversity accomplishments" now part of our academic job descriptions, there is reason to think that we may be evaluated accordingly when (or if) layoffs occur. After all, what better way to "diversify" the faculty than to adopt the slogan:
"First thing we do, fire all the white males!"
Employers are fearful of employment-related lawsuits and this is the first recession to seriously threaten academic jobs since 1982. The Diversity Machine has grown enormously since 1982, when it was only a glimmer in the eyes of campus social engineers. Today it is an industry that influences accreditation bodies, professional associations, and university practices (think of the money set aside for "diversity hires"). If universities can make diversity hires, why not make the same decision when firing people? Time to dust off your computer screen and search for labor relations law in your state. Those of us with unions ought to contact them too if the proverbial four-letter word "hits the fan."
A group calling itself The Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University is circulating a statement and a petition decrying "the intrusion of partisan politics into universities' hiring and tenure practices." Inside Higher Education reported on it here and the statement and petition issued by the Committee are here. The Committee seems mainly exercised by critics of Middle East Studies professors. The petition, however, takes the position that matters involving faculty appointments should be the exclusive province of scholars within the relevant disciplines. The petitioners reject the idea that "balance" and intellectual "diversity" ought to be significant considerations in shaping university faculties. The Committee's states that, "It is university faculty, not outside political groups with partisan political agenda, who are best able to judge the quality of their peers' research and teaching."