From the President: What Is a Union?

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

Recently I heard from Jeff Halpern, the longtime chief negotiator for our Rider University chapter. He inspired me to use this column to highlight events at Rider, because they show what’s possible when faculty act collectively.

Like many institutions, especially smaller private ones, Rider has declining enrollments. Demographic changes are typically the cause of such declines. Most institutions react by raising tuition discount rates.

This strategy is clearly unsustainable. I am reminded of the story of two hikers who spot a far-off grizzly running their way. The first hiker sits down to discard hiking boots for running shoes. The second says, “Even with those shoes, you can’t outrun that bear!” The first replies, “True—but I can outrun you!”

When administrators at Rider finally realized they could not discount their way back to financial health, they embarked on an alternative path, heeding the canonical advice not to waste a crisis. They pursued a destructive path of “structural change.” Jeff said, “We are in a struggle over who will be at the heart of the university. Will it be the faculty as it has been until now? Or will it be a management that imagines itself running just another business—a management with clear disregard for the educational quality of the institution and obvious disdain for the professional standing of faculty?”

As a private university, Rider is subject to the 1980 Supreme Court decision in NLRB v. Yeshiva University, which denies most full-time faculty members in private institutions the right to pursue collective bargaining under the legal framework of the National Labor Relations Act. The administration could simply refuse to recognize the union: no federal statutes protect the right of faculty at Rider to unionize. So how does AAUP-Rider function successfully as a union? The chapter has about 98 percent membership, and members have shown they’ll do whatever it takes to preserve their union, including striking.

The chapter, Jeff continued, is committed to “the ideal of a university where real education is at the heart of the mission. A university where the relationship between faculty and students is recognized as the very essence of education. A university where the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge are seen as inseparable.”

Seeing this relatively small chapter battle so intently against such overwhelming odds is truly inspirational. By staying together, faculty preserved their right to speak with a collective voice.

Faculty often say, “I wish we had a union, but I teach at a private university,” or, “I live in a right-to-work state,” or, “My state ‘prohibits’ unions.” But what is a union? It is only a group of employees who act collectively in order to have a voice at work. You—everyone—can have a union, provided you and your colleagues organize and act collectively. Remember, unions long predated enabling legislation and state-sanctioned collective bargaining. Likewise, AAUP-Rider lives and breathes, Yeshiva notwithstanding.

What does it take to have a union? Faculty—you and your colleagues— must organize. You must collect “real dues”; twenty dollars annually won’t do. Resources facilitate organizing: conducting meetings; holding rallies and demonstrations; having a substantial campus, online, and media presence; disseminating information; and employing assistants to support such activities.

Any group of faculty can have a union. Aim for 15 percent membership within the first year, then 20 percent, and keep building. All the while, have chapter leaders speak out at every opportunity, issue demands, and work on broadening the circle of active members and leaders. Just building membership is not enough!

Organizing is a process. Nobody can specify the exact membership threshold you must attain. But with the support of a large majority of faculty willing to act together, the day will come when you decisively influence events on your campus. That’s a union.

Faculty have immense power, but in the absence of organizing that power is only unrealized potential. Fruitful negotiating entails issuing demands and acting collectively to realize that power. Of course, no group will get everything it wants. But without organized, concerted activity, you’ll get either nothing or just what the administration wants to give you.

The failure to exercise our power has allowed the malignant corporatization of higher education to metastasize. Faculty often seem reluctant to act because we worry about hurting today’s students. But our failure to act now actually hurts generations of students.

Frederick Douglass said it well: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”

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