Unions

Back in the day when I was a young, fresh PhD out of Northwestern University employed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Rhode Island, there was talk of the faculty unionizing. As I say, I was young (and naive) and I thought that such a thing would destroy “collegiality” and set the faculty and administration at odds — establish an adversarial relationship that would run counter to what we were trying to do at that University, which I naively thought at the time was to educate young people. In any event, despite my opposition unionization happened at that University though in the meantime I went elsewhere; a few years later I ended up in a state college in Minnesota that did not have any unions. But, again, there was talk of forming a state-wide union. Acrimonious talk. While this talk was going on the administration where I taught decided to hack up the faculty and fired seven faculty members from the liberal arts faculty, two of whom had tenure, in order to shift emphasis at the college to the “useful arts,” i.e., education and business (where they thought the dollars were hiding, and legislators would be made happy). I still fought the notion of unions, even though I realized that they might give the faculty some punch which they clearly lacked when dealing with unscrupulous administrators and legislators worried only about saving some of the taxpayer’s money (presumably so they could get more of it themselves).

We eventually became unionized and I have benefitted financially from it. As a retired fart I am comfortable and I need not worry over much about putting food on the table or paying for the medical bills that have begun to come rolling in. I hesitate to bite the hand that feeds me, but I am still anti-union — in principle. I still think it destroys collegiality and puts the administration at odds with the faculty. I have seen it first-hand. I have also seen the union save the job of an incompetent  member of my faculty who threatened to throw a student through the window! In that case, the administrator involved failed to follow proper protocol, as the union was quick to point out. Indeed, I am aware that there is a significant number of people in harness at my old university (as it is now called) whose job is protected by the unions and who otherwise would be on the streets begging for a handout. I dare say there are a great many incompetent teaching faculty around the country whose jobs are protected by the unions.

As I say this, however, I realize that there are also a great many decent, bright and able people whose jobs would be lost if it were not for the clout that the unions have and which small clusters of faculty members simply do not have. There are two sides to this issue when it comes to unions and I go back and forth, because I do not think they belong in a university setting, but I realize that without them the universities would be run by incompetent administrators (whose numbers have grown by leaps and bounds in the last twenty years and who are paid vastly more than they are worth.)

Now we hear, on another front entirely, that the football team at my alma mater wants to unionize. But, again, in principle, I think they are wrong to wish for such a thing: the grounds on which they stand on this issue are very thin indeed. They are not workers who require a strong voice. They are students (presumably) who have voluntarily chosen to play football for Northwestern University and who are given a huge amount of money (approximately $60,000.00 a year, I am told, plus free health-care for four years, which they apparently regard as inadequate) to attend classes and work for a degree that will stand them in good stead in the world of business when they graduate. The NCAA opposes the players (which is almost alone sufficient reason to support them). But the talk persists: there are huge amounts of money involved in collegiate football and the players want their share. They also fear concussions and other physical impairment that are almost certain to follow from four years of smashing heads with others of their ilk in the “Big Ten” [which now has about fourteen teams. Please explain, if you can]. They are right. But they are also wrong.

Unions protect those who desperately need protection. But they also protect the incompetent. And they tend to become over-large and frequently riddled with corruption. There’s the rub. In this case, they would protect those who are being clearly exploited by the universities whose main interest is with profits from TV revenue. But unions also imply that the players are not students at all, they are employees of the universities. In this regard, the attempt on the part of the football players to unionize is more honest because most college athletes at this level are not students (simply look at the courses they take and the disproportionate numbers that fail to graduate). And there are huge amounts of money involved and there are also, in fact, debilitating injuries and health problems that show up later. As I say, it would be more honest to allow the football teams to unionize. But if these players want to do so they should drop all pretense of being students and acknowledge that they are semi-professional athletes and play for pay. If they then want an education, they could pay part of their salaries to the colleges and universities and attend classes, working toward a degree like the other students. Then, as semi-professional athletes they can attempt to deal with the problems that seem invariably to accompany unionization.

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8 thoughts on “Unions

  1. I think we can all agree that “Collegiatily” is a dream that has never really existed. The goals of the professors vs the administrators are just too distant. So some kind of protection is warranted from arbitrary and capricious decisions, such as those you pointed out. By the same reasoning, all that is bad about union protectionism applies to tenure. The worst teachers I’ve ever had, both in grade school and college, were on board strictly from the protection afforded by tenure.

    But unionism in the workplace, within reason is a very good thing. The mass firings and exports of jobs would not have occurred in the times of stronger unions, nor would so many be working as “contractors” vs full-time employees. There is no doubt that at times, unions, like tenure, are their own worst enemy, but I believe we are currently seeing/living in the alternative, and it is an order of magnitude worse, for all of us.

    Great post

  2. you ‘got’ me again! i was reading along and came upon “As a retired fart” and i laughed!

    then i resumed and enjoyed your post and agree with your final summary. that makes so much sense! now how does one prod that into action?

    z

    ________________________________

  3. Hugh, very well rounded article. In my career, I have seen the good and bad sides of unions, which you and Barney note. Plus, any organization has to guard against poor governance by being the best stewards possible. Yet, many of the declines in our middle class can be traceable to the decline in unions. Part of this was precipitated for the bad reasons you mentioned, yet part of this is due to management and shareholders wanting cheap labor costs. Also, some of the obligations we have today are based on management not wanting to pay more and giving future benefits in retiree medical and pensions. When the accounting standard changed for retiree medical benefits (FAS 106) for private employers and then for government employers (GAS 45) later, these significant obligations came home to roost. Unions agreed to lifetime medical benefits, but management put them in place. This combined shortsightedness contributed to almost destroying our auto industry and is impeding are cities, counties and states today. Great post, BTG

    • Good comment, BTG. I suppose I would come down on the side of unions when push comes to shove — given the fallen nature of humans! But I do worry about the abuses we have seen historically.

  4. Hugh, I am not sure about college football players unionizing, but I would like to see a strike — a solid and long one — by major college football and men’s basketball players. That probably would take unionizing. Either way, the history of big-time sports in America has shown that in a strike (or if the owners lock out the athletes) it is almost always the athletes who win, and make big gains, which they should because the owners and TV networks were screwing them for years.

    I know that major-college athletes get scholarships, and they have access to classes — but considering that they are also working on behalf of their schools, have no access to their licensing rights, often sacrifice their bodies, I don’t know that the compensation is enough. A strike that silenced not only the stadiums and arenas but TV networks would force the NCAA and schools and networks (the real source of money) to listen, to respond.

    • It might get the attention of those in control. But it wouldn’t change things at the Division I level where
      it would still be semi-professional sports with no academic justification whatever.

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