To the Power of Many

On the importance of faculty committing not just to supporting graduate students but also to organizing themselves.
By Jamie Owen Daniel

Lest it not be clear from what follows, let me emphasize at the outset that I believe faculty should publicly and tenaciously support graduate student organizing campaigns. I state this not only from my perspective as a staff member of the largest higher education local in Illinois, University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100, which represents faculty and staff at seven of the state’s public institutions, as well as graduate student employees at the University of Illinois at Springfield, but also from my experience organizing my own graduate program at the University of Wisconsin– Milwaukee, which bargained its first contract in 1998.

I subsequently helped mobilize support for graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago when I was a faculty member there. They succeeded in their organizing campaign, winning recognition in 2004 and a first contract in 2006, but only after a grueling decade of struggle. They are currently bargaining their second contract. During the long campaign, many faculty worked with graduate students, building support for the students’ drive through legislative initiatives, departmental resolutions, faculty senate debates, and letters to the editor and other outreach to the broader public, as well as outreach to community organizations and other labor unions.

But important as I know this backing has been and will continue to be, if faculty limit their activities to offering support for graduate student organizing drives, they ultimately sell the students—and, I will argue, themselves—woefully short and limit the positive impact such drives can have on campus power relations. There are at least two other, more difficult actions faculty must take to ensure that their well-intentioned support for graduate student unionization has more than passing influence.

First, while anyone who has been part of an organizing campaign knows how much work goes into it, and how thrilling it is to see that work result in a majority’s voting to unionize, what many organizers do not realize is that winning the first election is just the beginning of a long and arduous process. AFL-CIO statistics confirm that fewer than half of all organizing drives result in the formation of a union local, and of these only half succeed in negotiating a first contract. Especially in states that have not passed “card-check” legislation—and this is the great majority of them—a long time can elapse between counting the ballots and getting the university to recognize the union, and as long a time again between recognition and winning the first contract. As I noted above, the University of Illinois at Chicago Graduate Employees Organization was recognized in August 2004, but it took two years to settle its first contract.

That first contract is the most important one, because it will form the foundation on which subsequent contracts are built, and no university—indeed, no management structure in any other industry whatsoever—will balk at investing as much time and money as it can get away with to wear down the new union’s often inexperienced bargaining team to the point that its members settle for weak or inadequate contract language. In addition, and again, like management in other industries, most university administrations will have already spent millions on union-busting law firms to block and delay the organizing drive, and they will usually retain the same firms to advise them on how to push through as many concessions as they can in first-contract language. (The same law firm that Yale University hired to bust its graduate organizing drive, for example, was also paid millions by the University of Illinois to fight the ultimately successful graduate organizing drives at the campuses in Urbana- Champaign and Chicago and then to advise the administration as both groups went to the table.)

So, just as faculty can and should organize support during the initial organizing drive, they must understand this as merely a first step. They should commit just as strongly—if not even more so—to supporting graduate unions during their strategic contract campaigns and to helping ensure that the first contract as well as any that are bargained subsequently are actually implemented. Just as the organizing drive is ultimately wasted effort if it does not result in a first contract, that first contract is not worth the considerable effort it takes to bargain if its language is not strong or if the contract is not actually implemented. In other words, faculty must commit to building a permanent structure of support for their unionized graduate students. Bargaining a contract, especially a first contract, requires considerable intellectual and emotional commitment, and faculty can continue supporting students after the organizing drive by committing to strategic contract campaigns to support the team at the table.

This leads me to my second point: the best way for faculty to support graduate organizing and to build a muscular and permanent structure of support for their students’ unions is to organize themselves. If they can form actual unions, they should; and if they cannot because of the 1980 Yeshiva decision (ruling that private college faculty are managers and therefore not entitled to bargain collectively) or because they work in one of the few states that prohibit public employees from collective bargaining, they can form organizations that walk, talk, and act like unions. Graduate student unions bring substantially less power and leverage to the table if they go there alone; likewise, administrations can continue to pit graduate students against adjunct and tenure-track faculty, and these faculty groups against each other, if graduate students and faculty do not share a common power base. Writing letters to the editor and getting resolutions passed at professional meetings are valuable expressions of support, but they will not have anywhere near the same impact on a recalcitrant administration as will a unified body of union members, organized across constituencies. Like all managers, university administrations know the difference between noise and power.

We have seen that, as administrations rely increasingly on private money and hire increasing numbers of administrators to administer it, the power of faculty senates has shrunk and administrations have loaded more work on everyone they employ (see, for example, the January 2009 study by the Delta Project of the relationship between administrative bloat and decreased money for faculty and students, “Trends in College Spending: Where Does the Money Come From? Where Does It Go?”). Faculty should be as concerned and as militant about stabilizing their own wages and working conditions as they are about those of their students, for the conditions under which many faculty members work are no less tenuous. Tenure is a valuable process for ensuring that one has a job, but it has no impact whatsoever on what the working conditions of that job will be.

As an organizer working on unionized campuses and as an assistant professor working on a nonunion campus, I have seen that the benefits of belonging to a union go far beyond the power and leverage exercised at the bargaining table, and I have seen the more obvious material benefits a contract provides. A strong union contract is also a social contract, and a strong union can function as a structure to ensure greater social justice for everyone working, and learning, on a campus. For just as most unions are rooted in the belief that an injury to one is an injury to all, so too do most unions help ensure that benefits to one are benefits to all. These benefits include greater academic freedom; a more stable and productive relationship between administrators, faculty, and staff; and a stronger and more unified focus on the educational needs of our students.

Jamie Owen Daniel currently works for University Professionals of Illinois, Local 4100, IFT/AFT/AFL-CIO. She taught in the English department at the University of Illinois at Chicago for nine years and still teaches intermittently in the gender studies program at Northwestern University.

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