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College faculty unionization still contested territory, scholar says

Timothy Reese Cain
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L. Brian Stauffer

Timothy Reese Cain, a professor of educational organization and leadership, says scholars have thus far ignored the long, contentious history of faculty unionization.

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4/13/2010 | Phil Ciciora, Education Editor | 217-333-2177;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Despite growth in recent decades, unionization of higher education faculty remains contested, and its modern concerns can be traced back to the 1910s and 1920s, according to a University of Illinois expert in historical issues involving faculty work and faculty workers.

Timothy Reese Cain, a professor of educational organization and leadership in the College of Education at Illinois, says that although roughly 400,000 faculty and graduate students are covered today by collectively bargained contracts, scholars have thus far ignored the long, contentious history of faculty unionization.

“Unions in higher education have played an important but somewhat overlooked role, especially around issues of professionalization of the faculty,” he said. “Most people who study and think about higher education don’t think about the union aspects of it. If they think about faculty, they think about teaching and research, not their role as workers. But with around 400,000 members – including at community colleges, which are largely unionized – those numbers are important.”

Cain, the author of “The First Attempts to Unionize the Faculty” in Teachers College Record, said the impetus for faculty unionization sprung from a belief among the professoriate that affiliating with labor would give them a greater voice in the institutional governance of their schools, an increase in professional status, and the possibility to make more money, along with achieving academic freedom and job security.

“In the 1910s and 1920s, critics like Thorstein Veblen were saying that universities are controlled by corporations, and one of the things they argue is that a union is a response to that,” he said. “We hear some of that same rhetoric today. It’s been a long-standing complaint.”

According to Cain’s research, beginning with the founding of the American Federation of Teachers Local 33 at Howard University in November 1918, college and school faculty organized 20 separate union locals for a variety of social, economic, and institutional reasons before the end of 1920.

“Popular sentiment eventually turned against union membership, and the AFT entered the 1920s in a precarious position, with membership plummeting from over 10,000 in 1919 to just over 3,000 two years later,” Cain said.

The Russian Revolution, the conclusion of World War I, the first Red Scare, and violent strikes in other industries also shifted national attitudes toward labor, and concern over leftist influence in schools grew, resulting in requirements that educators sign loyalty oaths and in investigations into pacifists, socialists, and others suspected of disloyalty.

“Faculty members in postsecondary education and educators across institutional levels abandoned unionization, as they worried for their positions and questioned the effectiveness of organized labor,” Cain said.

In the face of institutional and external pressure, and with many faculty members either apathetic about or opposed to unionization, this first wave of faculty unionization concluded in the early 1920s with the closing of all but one of the campus locals.

Cain said that unionization rebounded in the 1930s, in what he calls “the second wave of faculty unionization,” and played an important role in academic freedom. Members also believed that joining the AFT could foster larger societal and educational change, including providing support for K–12 teachers who were engaged in similar struggles for status and improved working conditions.

But an underlying tension between college and K-12 members in the AFT remained.

“A lot of it really became intense around academic freedom issues,” Cain said. “A lot of money was spent on big national efforts the AFT was trying to push on behalf of college faculty; a disproportionate amount of money went to college faculty cases. Then there were hurt feelings, arguments over who was in control of the funds, and questions about whether the K-12 teachers just supporting faculty members.”

That sentiment only further exacerbated other divisions within the union.

“You had all these competing factions who were eyeing each other suspiciously,” Cain said.

Still, Cain said, faculty unions could be quite influential, even without having the ability to collectively bargain and even though most faculty refused to join them.

The disagreements about the appropriateness of labor affiliation still remain for union organizers hoping to spread unionization to new institutions or to garner tenure-line faculty’s support of the unionization of contingent and part-time educational workers.

“Based on the historical record, faculty have, for the most part, been employees, we just don’t like to admit it,” Cain said. “One place where there is real tension is around graduate students, whether they should be able to unionize, whether they’re workers or students. For a long time, there’s been a reliance on poorly treated labor in higher education simply because teaching is labor-intensive, if you want to do it well.”

Editor's note: To contact Timothy Reese Cain, call 217-333-1931; e-mail

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