On this Labor Day, we can’t help but notice a certain irony in the state of campus labor relations. A significant percentage of university students entering careers in academia have only been able to do so due to the fruits of their parents’ Union Bargaining. It was Unions that enabled their families to start “college funds” for them while they were still in diapers .If it were not for the union scale wages earned by their middle class families, no amount of state and federal aid would have been enough to make higher education economically feasible.
But during their gradate study, and subsequently upon graduation, they find themselves locked into quasi indentured servitude as “teaching assistants”, itinerant “instructors”, and “adjunct” faculty, locked out of the Tenure Track benefits won by past generations of Unionized Professors. We have thus allowed our campus labor relations to degenerate into a two tier system with the benefits of unionization restricted to an ever shrinking and aging slice of the labor pool.
Even worse, the precarious position most young academics find themselves in leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by tenured faculty and career blackmail by unethical students using their power of feedback though platforms like Rate My Professors to punish anyone daring to demand a high level of intellectual rigor in their courses. The deal becomes, “an easy A in exchange for a shot at having one’s teaching contract renewed” with the implicit threat of student boycotts of hard classes.
In a wider culture that values paper credentials over substantive learning, this creates a very rational but ultimately toxic dynamic in which the tenuously engaged academic lives in fear that an honest grade would trigger a bad student review that could end his or her career.
With such lopsided bargaining power, it is particularly risky for grad students to start down the road to unionization and sadly those campuses where the benefits of collective bargaining are most desperately needed are no doubt the hardest to unionize.
This is not to say that Tenure for a much wider swath of academia is the answer, since one can point to countless examples of abuse in that system. When faculty unions use their power to insulate poorly performing professors from accountability and drive up salary costs to the point that insufficient funds are left to employ the next generation of the professorate, they become indirectly complicit in grinding grad student instructors and adjunct faculty into poverty.
The current status quo could hardly be more dysfunctional making it a clear imperative for upcoming future faculty to organize and for founders of Universities of the Future to reach out to Union leaders to develop win-win scenarios that can restore balance to the bargaining table.