What’s Up with Faculty Unions?

Over the past few years, there has been a renewed interest in unionizing in higher education across the country. According to a report from the National Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, between the years of 2013 and 2021, 126 new faculty collective bargaining unions were formed, in addition to the many unions forming for undergraduate and graduate student workers. Across all unionized campuses, the decade from 2013 to 2023 also saw an unprecedented number of faculty strikes, including recent strikes at the University of California, Rutgers University, and the New School. This year got off to a fast start of union activity with faculty members at the largest public university system in the country, the California State University system, striking for a living wage.

Despite this renewed interest in unionization, many faculty members are not familiar with unions; the majority of faculty in the United States are not part of a union and may never have been at a unionized college or university. The UNL AAUP chapter has received a lot of questions as faculty unions show up more and more in the news, so in this blog post we are answering some of the most frequently asked questions about faculty unions.

Faculty at a rally at the University of Kansas, from the University Daily Kansan
Faculty at the University of Kansas recently moved to call a vote for unionization.

What is the process for forming a faculty union?

Typically, a group of faculty interested in forming a union on their campus will create an organizing committee. Anyone who wishes to help organize the campus can join the organizing committee.  Ideally it is broadly representative of all units and ranks on campus.  The committee then oversees a process in which faculty will speak one-on-one with each other in order to learn the employment issues that are most important to faculty and to discuss their interest in forming a union. After key faculty concerns have been identified, the organizing committee will determine if they have the numbers to win a vote of the faculty to form a union. If they do, they will go public with the campaign and hold a vote. The AAUP has a lengthier outline of the process here.

Who does a faculty union represent?

This depends a lot on the particular union. Faculty unions can represent some or all of the following groups:

  • Tenure-line faculty
  • Non-tenure track/contingent faculty (i.e., professors of practice, research professors, and lecturers)
  • Part-time faculty
  • Adjuncts
  • Graduate student lecturers and/or teaching assistants
  • Librarians
  • Coaches
  • Counselors
  • Department chairs

The faculty at some institutions are also part of larger unions, such as those that also include professional staff at the institution, or even those that cover all state employees. 

Are unionized faculty forced to join the union and pay dues?

No and no. Nebraska is a so-called “right to work” state, which means that no one can be forced to join a union or can be denied employment because they are not a member of a union. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employees cannot be forced to pay even partial dues to support union activities if they opt not to do so, even if they benefit financially from those union activities.

Why do universities have unions if they have a faculty senate?

There are numerous differences between faculty unions and faculty senates that make it advantageous for the faculty of an institution to have both. The faculty senate is ultimately part of the institution, and with that comes advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the faculty senate represents the entire faculty and can establish policies and procedures for areas of university governance under its purview. On the other hand, a faculty senate is typically limited in its power to whatever powers it is granted by the administration. A union, on the other hand, is explicitly an advocacy organization, and as such it can advocate for faculty interests in ways that the senate cannot. Unions are also independent of the institution, and can engage in collective bargaining in order to codify the powers of the union and the rights of the faculty. When done well, the work of unions and faculty senates can be complementary. 

What kinds of work conditions are dealt with by unions?

Each union contract, or collective bargaining agreement, is different, so the types of work conditions covered by those contracts can be pretty much anything that the union and the governing board of an institution agree to! However, there are common themes in faculty union contracts when it comes to working conditions. Many of these documents cover things like minimum salary levels, guaranteed pay raises, and formulas to determine pay for overload or summer teaching assignments. Contract can also cover things like:

  • Benefits
  • Contract length and renewal for pre-tenure or non-tenure track faculty members 
  • Guarantees of office space, supplies, and other materials necessary to perform one’s job duties
  • Guarantees of administrative support
  • Protections against unreasonable class scheduling 

In addition to basic working conditions provisions, faculty union contracts can also include provisions on shared governance (e.g., requirements for faculty representation and power on key committees, the right of the faculty to transparent information on budgets and other governance issues, etc.) and academic freedom.

Do any universities in Nebraska have unions?

Yes, both UNK and UNO in the NU System have faculty unions: the UNK Education Association and the UNO AAUP. There are also faculty unions in other public higher education systems in the state, including the State College Education Association (representing faculty members at Chadron, Peru, and Wayne State Colleges), the Southeast Community College Faculty Association, the Metropolitan Community College Education Association, the Central Community College Education Association, the Mid-Plains Faculty Association (at Mid-Plains Community College), Northeast Community College Faculty Association, and the Nebraska Western College Education Association.

Do any other universities in the Big10 have unions?

Yes. Rutgers and the University of Wisconsin – Madison have broad faculty unions. The University of Michigan lecturers are unionized, as are non-tenure track faculty at Michigan State University and the University of Illinois, and librarians at Northwestern. And as of this writing, a union for tenured faculty at Michigan State was about to gain official recognition.