AAUP Unionism

For almost five decades, unions have proven effective in struggles to defend tenure, protect academic freedom, and secure “a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.” In this phrase from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) made clear the connection between the well-being of the nation’s faculty and the integrity of its educational system.

Consistent with its articulation and defense of professional standards, the AAUP since the 1970s has helped organize and strengthen the efforts of AAUP collective bargaining chapters throughout the nation. Since then, collective bargaining chapters of the AAUP have developed a distinctive kind of unionism that responds to the missions of American colleges and universities. 

Below, you can read about the context and the character of AAUP academic unionism and the aspirations that guide our activities. Although local union chapters vary from place to place, they all strive to develop a model of unionism that embodies the finest aspects of academic tradition. You can also read a statement adopted by the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress in 2005, which elaborates on the material below. 

Unions and the University

Academic unions are the most recent in a long line of collegial structures forged to protect the rights and professional roles of academics. Increasingly, tenure-track and contingent faculty, academic professionals, and graduate assistants have formed unions to ensure their professional standing and protect themselves from the threats and challenges presented by the corporatization of American colleges and universities.

Academic unions provide many benefits:

  • Unions enable faculty and other members of the academic community to safeguard their teaching and working conditions by pooling their strengths.
  • Unions make it possible for different sectors of the academic community to secure contractual, legally enforceable claims on college administrations and boards, at a time when reliance on traditional advice and consent has proved inadequate.
  • Unions provide members with critical institutional analyses—of budget figures, enrollment trends, and policy formulations—that would be unavailable without the resources provided by member dues and national experts.
  • Unions increase the legislative influence and political impact of the academic community as a whole by maintaining regular relations with state and federal governments and collaborating with affiliated labor organizations.
  • Unions reinforce the collegiality necessary to preserve the vitality of academic life under such threats as deprofessionalization and fractionalization of the faculty, privatization of public services, and the expanding claims of managerial primacy in governance.

Member-Based Unionism

Our chapters have developed expertise on professional principles and a model of member-based, democratic organizing whose emphasis on participation grows out of the academy’s bedrock commitment to collegial decision making. AAUP collective bargaining chapters believe that unions best serve their members by promoting local initiative and cultivating rank-and-file activism. While we of course advocate efficient management of collective bargaining chapters, we warn against the growth of bureaucracy that can dilute the role of the membership in shaping the direction of the chapter.

Members of AAUP union chapters can draw on the national AAUP’s expertise as needed. This expertise ranges from providing training on organizing colleagues to helping devise strategies on bargaining first contracts and enforcing contracts after they have been signed. The AAUP’s annual Summer Institute draws hundreds of members from local chapters around the country for an intensive three-day education in all phases of chapter activity. To supplement this, the national office also provides on-site education and training tailored to local needs, as well as webinars on collective bargaining topics. Professional national staff and experienced leaders from other collective bargaining chapters devote substantial time and resources to educational activities on AAUP campuses, always with the goal of helping fellow union members become successful organizers and leaders on their own campuses.

Characteristics of AAUP Unionism

Four main factors distinguish AAUP unionism: a commitment to academic freedom and shared governance, local autonomy, an emphasis on organizing, and dedication to organizational democracy.

Commitment to Academic Freedom and Shared Governance

The emphasis of AAUP unions on the primacy of members and local autonomy grows out of our basic commitment to the freedom and creativity that collegial self-governance makes possible. That is why local AAUP unions defend traditional forms of collective self-governance such as those embodied in faculty senates. Strong senates and strong union chapters can work together to establish the institutional terrain and precedents on which individual rights are defined, defended, and sometimes adjudicated.

Contract articles that provide for individual rights, enforceable grievance procedures, and transparent compensation packages are desirable and necessary on the modern campus. But basing our efforts on a commitment to academic freedom also means that we view collective bargaining agreements as an effective means of protecting the faculty’s independence in governance—for example, by incorporating senate regulations.

Local Autonomy

In the context of the American labor movement, the AAUP’s local collective bargaining chapters are unusual in their autonomy. Members of each AAUP chapter decide their priorities for themselves, and determine what is best under their particular circumstances.
The AAUP strives to avoid a model of “service unionism,” where the union becomes essentially an outside grievance agent or a third-party provider hired to do things for the members. Rather, we encourage an alternative model in which local union members do as much as possible for themselves. While the national AAUP staff provides training and support, most of the day-to-day work of our unions is performed by chapter employees or by members serving as volunteers or during release time won in the collective bargaining agreement. If there is a staff, it is hired directly by the chapter.

The AAUP’s commitment to local autonomy is reflected in our dues structure and governs our allocation of resources. AAUP collective bargaining chapters enjoy the benefits of a local retention of dues. The lion’s share of members’ dollars stays on campus; a small portion supports the national AAUP’s work in extending academic freedom and providing support to chapters throughout the nation. And the AAUP's national reputation in this arena is a vital contribution to all local chapters.

Emphasis on Organizing

An AAUP union is not an off-campus organization. It is the profession, in an organized form. AAUP member-based unionism relies to an exceptional degree on empowerment of the rank and file so that local members can exercise local initiative. And thus our emphasis on member-based unionism means that a major part of AAUP union activity is educational, to give chapters the skills they need to organize themselves, bargain and enforce contracts, and process grievances. These tasks are not easy, but the AAUP does not believe that faculty and other academics can contract out the acquisition of power.

The energies and expertise that member-based unionism has unleashed in AAUP union chapters have won contracts that are strong on bread-and-butter issues and superior regarding matters of due process and shared governance. Active union chapters have provided fertile ground for new ideas and tactics in day-to-day campus affairs. And they have enabled a mobilized faculty to join in broader political actions beyond the campus to defend the rights of working people and participate in struggles for social justice.

Commitment to Organizational Democracy

A union of professionals committed to retaining power and autonomy in their work must be organized differently from other institutions in modern America. Faculty and academic professionals join unions not just to get higher wages, but also to maintain authority and a primary role in university decision making.

Preserving open debate in local chapters is vital. AAUP union chapters require the full membership to elect officers and hold them accountable. AAUP union chapters exemplify the autonomy and self-governance that faculty and other academic professionals strive for in their traditional governance structures and provide an alternative to the competitive market forces increasingly at work on our campuses.

Corporatization and the University

American colleges and universities are faced with escalating threats and challenges. Market values increasingly encroach on campus decision making. Academic management, once cooperative and collegial, is increasingly modeled on corporate management. This frankly commercial stance confuses teaching and learning with the exchange of commodities and thus undermines student understanding of the nature and value of a genuine higher education. Meanwhile, colleagues across the nation have fallen victim to a range of cost-cutting schemes adopted from the world of private enterprise, including downsizing, outsourcing, the creation of two-tier occupational structures, health-care cutbacks, and increased managerial supervision.

Against such threats, the need for a new and participatory faculty unionism becomes more urgent than ever. The nation’s campuses have carved out vital public spheres in American society. They have been the training ground for its future citizens. By ensuring an open and challenging education for college students, conducted by trained and committed academics, a renewed academic union movement can be crucial in continuing the American experiment of making a high-quality liberal education available to all.


Commentators sometimes mistake unions for special interest groups. But AAUP unions are public interest groups. The AAUP believes that unions provide the best way for tenured and tenure-track faculty, contingent faculty, academic professionals, and graduate assistants to work for their institutions and so fulfill that “duty . . . to the wider public” that the AAUP’s founders affirmed in 1915 in their first declaration of the faculty’s mission in American democracy.