The Call to Organize

By Cary Nelson

The AAUP has recently seen more new collective bargaining organizing opportunities than we have in years. In a successful solo campaign, we helped faculty at Bowling Green State University form a union, and—together with the American Federation of Teachers and groups of dedicated faculty activists on each campus—we made history with successful organizing campaigns at two research universities: the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Oregon. Five years ago, new faculty unionization at research institutions seemed a remote possibility, but thanks to decreasing state funding and increasing administrative centralization, more and more faculty members are realizing that collective bargaining is their best hope for preserving a voice in institutional decision making. My first union campaign was in 1971–72, so this year has been a personal forty-year anniversary. I had great fun walking the halls signing up faculty members in Chicago and Eugene, the latter in a two-week visit to help put the campaign over the top.

The two joint AAUP-AFT campaigns also made history by working for unified bargaining units that would include both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members, thereby seeking to heal the breach in faculty solidarity that the two-tier hiring system has created. I believe the example of such solidarity points to the only way for higher education to move forward productively. Unfortunately, perhaps fearful of the power these combined faculty bargaining units could wield, the Illinois administration fought recognition openly. But we succeeded in creating a joint union in Eugene. The resolve faulty members on both campuses have shown to work together will not be undermined. We now have a great message to carry to other research universities.

The days when a group of faculty members could organize for collective bargaining simply by collecting union cards themselves are, however, likely over. Attacks on collective bargaining have made organizing more difficult in many places, and speedup, overwork, and career expectations have made it harder for faculty members to walk the halls for long stints week after week. Faculty at Bowling Green succeeded because the bargaining unit was of a manageable size; because our national staff worked tirelessly to assist and train chapter leaders, combining forces with Bowling Green faculty who devoted their lives to the project; and because loyal AAUP activists throughout Ohio pitched in. This combination of demographic factors does not exist everywhere. Indeed, it may not currently exist anywhere else.

In many places, we would need significant numbers of staff on the ground for months and years to help faculty in their efforts to organize large bargaining units of 1,500 or more members. Seven or eight full-time organizers and trainers would be a reasonable expectation for a large campus. That is the level of staffing the joint AAUP-AFT campaigns have needed. But with a total national staff of about thirty-six, nearly half of them support staff or administrative employees, the AAUP alone cannot staff a single such campaign, let alone two simultaneously, without substantial additional recurring funds—unless we eviscerate our traditional academic freedom and shared governance missions. This is not a viable option.

Yet some have advocated just such a reallocation: “Cut the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Shared Governance by two senior positions.” “Our members are tired of funding our academic freedom work.” “Reduce the size of the AAUP legal office.” In truth the national office needs to add a full-time labor lawyer who can provide services to our collective bargaining chapters, not eliminate our other legal projects. One prominent AAUP collective bargaining leader disparaged our Garcetti campaign, believing that collective bargaining could secure all shared governance rights. But about 55 percent of US faculty members are not realistically eligible for collective bargaining. And AAUP collective bargaining contracts benefit from the language a national organization can craft. Last year the AAUP helped win a US Supreme Court case protecting faculty intellectual-property rights.

Despite the false dichotomy between unionized and nonunionized AAUP members, a dichotomy sometimes simultaneously decried and exploited, our amicus briefs and policy statements are written for all faculty members. Our membership department provides services to all AAUP members. Our communications department gets the news to all faculty members. Our government relations department tracks legislative developments that can affect members in union and nonunion chapters alike. If some members do not value this work sufficiently, perhaps that is because their leaders have not promoted it or socialized new faculty members into the AAUP’s culture and history.

Investing in organizing is important for the future of the faculty and the future of the AAUP. But unless we maintain our traditional academic freedom and shared governance activities at roughly current levels, the AAUP will be unable to produce the sort of thoughtful policy work that has been our hallmark for nearly a century. Our name and reputation would then mean little. Absent the US Supreme Court’s 1980 Yeshiva decision (declaring faculty members at private institutions to be managers ineligible for collective bargaining), we could help faculty at dozens of smaller private institutions organize over time. But that opportunity does not now exist. What is the winning formula for the future?

We can provide sufficient new resources to meet realistic collective bargaining goals only if we are able to increase our revenues. There are several ways to do this. First, we have to improve the collection of dues from our chapters. Many chapters, large and small, are significantly in arrears in their dues payments. If the Association is to grow and prosper, chapters must meet their financial obligations to the Association. Second, we need to raise funds specifically earmarked for new collective bargaining campaigns. Dues revenue from the next few newly organized collective bargaining chapters can be used largely to hire organizers. Some collective bargaining leaders have also called upon our collective bargaining chapters to consider a modest increase in Collective Bargaining Congress dues to support this effort. Now that our organizing opportunities are increasing, their suggestion seems worthy of consideration. Finally, we must develop new streams of revenue for the Association. We are in the process of hiring a professional fundraiser (admittedly part time to begin with). The fundraiser will be crucial for our transition to a restructured tripartite entity and for identifying new areas of financial support for the Association’s activities.

“Organize! Organize! Organize!” is an empty slogan unless it embodies a realistic assessment of what we can accomplish with the resources at our disposal and a devotion to the traditions that have established our reputation, our integrity, and our influence over the last century. That will require not only supporting new union and nonunion chapters and increasing our revenue streams but also recruiting new members who join because they believe in the principles the national AAUP articulates and defends.