The Ongoing Labor Crisis in Higher Education
To our readers: Previously, writer Marisa Sanfilippo examined the higher education system and its funding problems. Today, she looks at the system’s labor issues.
The cost of education continues to soar. That’s not news, but it’s only part of the story. As education costs and public outcry continue to increase, schools struggle to find ways to cut costs. One way many universities have attempted to do this is by reducing the number of their tenured professors, which puts a greater burden on contingent faculty and teaching assistants.
The result: A labor crisis at many colleges that shows few signs of letting up.
Changing political climate
Educators, administrators, students, parents, and other stakeholders have been faced with uncertainty as the Trump administration took the reins of the nation’s higher education policies. But an increased interest in unionization can’t be placed solely at the feet of the administration.
Over the past several decades, the public has continued to lose faith in higher education. This is due in part to its rising costs but also because of the difficulty college graduates – even those with advanced degrees – have finding jobs.
In an interview with HigherEdJobs, Timothy Reese Cain, Ph.D., and assistant professor at the college of education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, explains some of the increased interest in unionization of higher education educators. He says, “Part of the push on many campuses is for a broader change in educational policy and some joined not to affect their own positions or salaries but in response to the shifts affecting higher education writ large.”
This appears to be true for the United Faculty of Florida, one of the state’s higher education unions. It experienced explosive growth in 2016, adding three chapters that represent faculty and graduate students. In addition to providing personal liability insurance, life insurance, and a host of other benefits, the union actively pursues legislation that promotes member viewpoints.
Contingent faculty and labor unions
Hiring more contingent faculty allows universities to pay less in educator salaries and benefits. The dark side: It creates a profession filled with people who hold multiple advanced degrees and still don’t earn enough to exceed the poverty line.
What’s worse, many contingent faculty members have taken out higher levels of student loans and can’t find a career that will allow them to repay those loans at the anticipated pace, thus decreasing their quality of life.
A study published in the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy found that the number of unions in higher education has expanded dramatically. The greatest amount of growth was seen in the private sector for nontenured instructors, although the public sector still has a greater total number of unions.
The paper highlights the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor and the New Faculty Majority as being significant forces behind the success of the unionization movement.
COCAL is a network of activists and is not affiliated with any single union. Rather, members work to promote grassroots organization to promote greater awareness and activism for better working conditions, legislation, and collective bargaining for stronger contracts. The first iteration of the organization was established in 1996, underscoring the history of the movement.
NFM was founded in 2009 and has a mission statement to improve the “quality of higher education by advancing professional equity and securing academic freedom for all adjunct and contingent faculty.”
Graduate student unions
In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling that student assistants at private universities and colleges are classified as employees and protected by the provisions under the National Labor Relations Act. This gave graduate students at private universities the right to organize unions.
Like contingent faculty, graduate students are paid far less to work as teaching assistants or even teaching classes independently. Recent reports indicate they too are working at wages that often make them eligible for welfare benefits.
Educators need financial security and career stability to engage in academic research and give their students optimal learning experiences. Attempting to piece together enough work to financially support themselves has led to a labor crisis, which has further exacerbated the problems in higher education. Addressing these underlying problems in the structure of the system of higher education is a necessary step in building a more highly functioning system for the future.