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Weak Anti-Faculty Union Arguments


University of Illinois professor Nicholas Burbules’ anti-faculty union arguments are laughable. They are laughable precisely because he ignores the reality of 21st century administration-faculty relationships and what administrations are trying to do to faculty. Burbules thinks that shared governance is a real and serious thing today:

By contrast, shared governance begins with a presumption of shared commitment to the constitutional principles and to the best interests of the institution. Faculty and administrators view themselves as partners in a common project; this is what the “shared” in shared governance means. This certainly doesn’t mean that the parties always agree—but even where there are disagreements, they are usually respectful and collegial.

Under shared governance, administrators assume that the feedback and advice of the faculty will help them make better decisions, and that those decisions will be better understood and supported by professors when they grow out of consultation and openness. They respect the faculty’s fundamental rights and control over academic matters, and involve them in a broad range of other decisions as well—even when they may not be strictly required to do so.

Faculty members, for their part, respect that administrators have an accountable responsibility for making certain decisions and sometimes have information and considerations that cannot be widely shared. They recognize that senior administrators are faculty members, share the values of the faculty, and understand the concerns of the faculty. The governance roles of administration and professors are viewed as complementary, having legitimate spheres of authority that need to respect each other.

Right…. Senior administrators totally share the values of the faculty, such as eliminating the German, French, and Philosophy departments, replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts, reducing budgets, and generally squeezing the faculty while padding administration with more positions and six-figure salaries. And the administration oh so much cares about faculty feedback to their bad ideas. I mean, in my 7 years as a faculty member, I’ve seen nothing but respect and positive responses to feedback from faculty. In my fantasy world, I’ve seen administrators realize their ideas were bad, restore funding for departments, take the humanities and social sciences seriously, reinforce the values of a liberal arts education, support professor free speech, and respect the traditional role of a higher education in shaping a new generation and exposing them to new ideas. It’s a fantasy world because the real world of academia is mostly terrible. Which is why we need unions.

If it wasn’t for my AAUP union, I would not have a job anymore. Burbules claims that faculty are professionals, not workers, but not only is that an arbitrary distinction, but it also doesn’t represent the reality of the 21st century university. There’s a reason why more and more faculty members are unionizing, including a major recent victory at the University of Oregon. I’m sure Burbules however is on his way to a nice administration sinecure through this essay and what is no doubt his other anti-union activities at his home campus at the University of Illinois.

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  • Snarki, child of Loki

    “..administrators have an accountable responsibility..”

    Well, perhaps the low-level drones in the Admissions Office have “accountability”, but top admins totally screw up, what happens?

    IOW, a microcosm of current American society.

    So, faculty unions good. Tumbrils better.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    (clarify: Tumbrils for ‘top admin screwups’. And I think that should be a metaphor, or something *like* a metaphor, but not quite the same)

  • Hogan

    They recognize that senior administrators are faculty members, share the values of the faculty, and understand the concerns of the faculty.

    Ladies and gentlemen, the president of Drexel University, who may have taught a class once.

    • StagParty Palin

      “modern urban university of the future”

      Oh yeah, he’s an educator all right.

      • What do you get when you cross a MUUF with a MOOC?

        • Joey Maloney

          A MUUFOOCer?

          • Anna in PDX


  • MAJeff

    Burbules claims that faculty are professionals, not workers, but not only is that an arbitrary distinction, but it also doesn’t represent the reality of the 21st century university.

    My union, AFT, refers to itself as a “union of professionals.” There is no reason that professional should be treated as equivalent to independent.

    • Yeah, that’s bizarre. Professional unions are quite common in other countries, and even where they don’t exist, you usually have guilds that work as pseudo unions.

      • Bruce Vail

        Profesional unions are quite common in this country. See AFT, AAUP, ALPA, CNA, MM&P, etc.

        Even many blue collar unions contain divisions to represent highly skilled professionals.

        • Is the AAUP actually a union like UTAG, however? My understanding is that it does not actually organize lecturers as collective bargaining units which is the main purpose of labor unions. I thought AAUP mainly existed to protect the academic freedom of lecturers rather than to advance their economic interests like UTAG does for instance. BTW, while I support academic freedom I find AAUP’s position that BDS against Israel is a violation of academic freedom to ludicrous. Especially, since earlier they were strong supporters of BDS against South Africa.


          • It depends on the AAUP chapter. My AAUP local acts like a regular union with collective bargaining rights and negotiating a contract.

            • On the other hand, what would have been my AAUP chapter, had it actually existed in more than name (and that barely), was the fiefdom of an old SDSer (and signatory of the Port Huron Convention!), a great exponent not of “shared governance” but actually of “faculty governance”, who used all of his considerable institutional power and charisma (the latter invisible to me, but evidently not to all) to consistently squash anything that might conceivably resemble effective “collective bargaining rights” and contract negotiations, as well as (repeatedly, and despite a lot of push-back from a few of us other senior faculty) suppressing nascent attempts by junior and temporary faculty to use the faculty LISTSERV as a tool for mutual support, not to mention stopping dead in its tracks a student-led campus coalition in support of food-service workers.

              So, yeah, it depends.

              • AcademicLurker

                and signatory of the Port Huron Convention!

                The original or the doctored second draft?

            • Joseph Slater

              It also depends significantly on what labor law allows. In the private sector, most faculty are excluded from the NLRA as “managers” (see Yehsiva) so they don’t have collective bargaining rights. In the public sector (where most of the faculty unions are), state public-sector laws vary tremendously, from allowing faculty unions more-or-less NLRA-style bargaining (and in some places, even strike rights), to more limited bargaining and no strike rights (maybe interest arbitration, maybe not), to no right to bargain collectively. So, AAUP chapters/locals in different places have to act differently.

              • To me collective bargaining and strikes are pretty much integral to what a union does. Striking is pretty much the only leverage public sector workers like university lecturers have with governments in Africa. Otherwise members of parliament would just allocate 100% of the national budget to their own salaries and not pay teachers, doctors, university lecturers, or pharmacists anything at all ever.

                • Bruce Vail

                  No, that is not quite right. Unions are denied the right to legal strikes in many cases (and in the case of federal got. employees are even denied the right to bargain for wages) but that doesn’t mean a union must be ineffective to protecting and promoting its members.

                  Cop unions are a good example of this.

              • Bruce Vail

                It’s worth noting that NLRA does not forbid unions of managers or supervisors, even as it fails to extend to them the same protections against employer retaliation as non-managers.

                Thus a union like the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots contains many managers and supervisors. The union has to walk a fine line to maintain their power in the marketplace without much legal protection at all.

        • Yeah, that was a bit reductionist. I was more thinking of the Scandinavian context, where pretty much all professionals are in white-collar unions.

  • Josh G.

    Burbules claims that faculty are professionals, not workers, but not only is that an arbitrary distinction, but it also doesn’t represent the reality of the 21st century university.

    It doesn’t represent the reality of almost any 21st century workplace. Has Burbules been asleep the past 30 years? White-collar workers today are subject to the same management BS that blue-collar workers have been subject to all along. If you’re not a high-level executive, the suits see you as a fungible drone.

    • MAJeff

      If you’re not a high-level executive, the suits see you as a fungible drone.

      As I tell my students, there’s a reason “resources” is the noun, while “human” is relegated to being an adjective.

  • Shared governance is one of those phrases like People’s Democratic Republic (Korea, etc.) where the words have the exact opposite meaning that they do in the dictionary. I eagerly await universities to be run by the shiny happy people’s democratic governance, a.k.a. absolute dictatorship for life of one man. So far only Bard under Botstein seems to have gone for the absolute dictator for life model. The rest have successive temporary absolute dictators.

  • BoCo

    “such as eliminating the German, French, and Philosophy departments, replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts, reducing budgets” sounds like a good start.

    Next, try working 9-5, twelve months per year, like the rest of us.

    • work doesn’t end at tenure..

      idiot. i work 60-70 hours a week 12 months of the year and only get paid by the college for 10 months (academic year) any summer money is from some other source (i.e. grants). This would be true for the vast majority of faculty on academic year appointments.

    • Your concern has been noted, BroBoCo.

    • Rigby Reardon

      You are the dumbest sort of shit. Next time, don’t comment on subjects you clearly have no understanding of.

    • Enjoy some crab-bucket pancakes.

    • Reasonable 4ce

      I KNEW this thread was JenBob bait.

    • wengler

      9 to 5? Like the movie? Because an 8 hour job that includes paid lunch isn’t one that I’ve heard about it lately.

  • Linnaeus

    There’s really nothing in Burbules’ piece that I haven’t seen in arguments against ASE unionization: the virtues of shared governance, characterizing unions as “outsiders”, appeals to trust and “collegiality”. Like those arguments, this one doesn’t address the issue of power in the institution, i.e., who holds it and who doesn’t.

  • Fake Irishman

    And upon closer inspection, the “shared governance” argument is an even emptier shell. Doesn’t collectively bargaining a contract imply some sort of shared governance? Doesn’t that contract lay out the spheres of authority for both workers and management and how decisions will be made in areas of overlapping authority? And doesn’t that contract create a commitment device (i.e. binding arbitration) when one side doesn’t live up to its responsibilities?

    • something something requiring people to live up to their commitments instead of relying on the honor code cheapens the institution something something, apparently.

  • Fake Irishman

    Here’s my all-time favorite clueless faculty member/administrator decrying unionization, but for Research Assistants.


    In a darkly humorous side note, I believe that one of the students who led the anti-union side in this particular campaign (with lots of support from a right-wing think tank and ultimately the state legislature) ended up getting fired by his boss. He then loudly demanded “due process” and couldn’t figure out why every admin pointed and laughed at him.

  • Example du jour of why academic workers need unions.

    But I’m sure Professor Burbules is right; the administration of the U.C would never needlessly screw over its employees for mere pecuniary reasons, so high is its shared commitment to the academic mission.

    …ow. That level of sarcasm hurts. I might have pulled something. Maybe I should go and see a doctor. Oh wait, I’m on filing fee leave of absence because that’s the only way to avoid paying $5,000 to take zero classes at the U.C, so the U.C generously allows me to stay without being covered by health insurance.

  • Bruce Vail

    “…professionals, not workers…”

    Surely even Barbules would concede that there is no contradiction between being a professional and a (unionized) worker. If not, he might consult the typical airline pilot, containership captain, registered nurse, special ed teacher etc.,etc.

    • Lurker

      As an example of a strong union for professionals, and how the organising works in practice in Europe, please see: http://www.akavalaisetammatit.fi/en. The search engine allows you to find the union that is for you, based on your education.

      In the Finnish practice, most professional unions are simultaneously learned societies of their field. Some unions, e.g. the Trade Union of Education and Finnish Medical Association, bargain collectively directly with the employer, but in most cases, the bargaining is undertaken by the central organisation of the field-specific unions. In such cases, the field-specific unions mainly center on advancing the position of that field within the central organisation and within the society.

    • You’d think so, but the professional/worker divide is a really pernicious element of class consciousness, especially in the U.S.

      As a union organizer, I’ve had to deal with tons of workers who were really resistant to joining a union because unions are for blue-collar folk and they were a future professional who was going to be rolling in the money in the future so it didn’t matter they were living off ramen now.

      • You never escape Ramen if you are an academic, no matter how strong of union you have. But, you can do interesting things with Ramen.


        • ruviana

          Careful, Otto–I noticed one of your ingredients was ketchup!

          • Yes, it is because of the sugar and vinegar in it. Only one place here sells sriracha and I can’t get there that often. You can do it without the ketchup, but it doesn’t taste as good to me.

      • Bruce Vail

        True about professional/worker divide.

        We saw this in our unit of news reporters and editors at a newspaper where I once worked. There was a group very proud of their ‘professional’ status and could not be induced to join the union and pay dues. It is not a coincidence that most of these individuals saw themselves as ‘management material’ and thought that union membership might impede their climb to the top

  • wjts

    Here in Pittsburgh, the USW is making some modest inroads towards unionizing adjunct faculty in western Pennsylvania. Area universities are, unsurprisingly, not particularly pleased. Duquesne University has attempted to block its adjuncts from organizing, with its president claiming that the university’s “concerns for our religious mission are a higher priority… than deference to the machinery of NLRB regulation, which has no explicit expression in Church social teaching.” Unions, you see, make baby Jesus cry.

    • wjts

      The president’s proclamation that union protection for adjunct faculty is less important than Catholic social teachings is particularly loathsome in light of what happened to Duquesne adjunct professor Mary Margaret Vojtko.

      • Fake Irishman

        …and in light of several papal encyclicals. But hey, who’s counting?

  • CP Norris

    “If it wasn’t for my AAUP union, I would not have a job anymore.”

    Well, obviously, but the AAUP also does some good work.

  • The UK faculty union will go on strike on Thurs.

    The student union is in support.

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