Kaler on labor unions in universities

Forum question: Do you support the right of employees and graduate students to organize? How should the university respond?

Employees who wish to unionize will do so under the full protection of the law.

I have mixed views about the benefits of unionization.

At the faculty level, if you have appropriate HR mechanisms, a good tenure system and a well-developed shared-governance system, the benefits of unionization are small.

Unionization also reduces the flexibility of institutions to respond to financial storms.

As an example, I had some colleagues who were awarded a 4 percent salary increase at a time when the budget was dropping precipitously. If a contract had not been in place, raises could have gone to employees at the lower end. Faculty — well-paid faculty — said they would have foregone the raise if it could have gone into the academic sector.

At the grad student level, the relationship should be a student-to-mentor relationship. Much of the discussion at the National Labor Relations Board is about the nature of the student — as a GA or a TA or RA — as a student or an employee. If they’re students, they can get fellowships without FICA (tax), but if they’re an employee, then they have FICA obligations, and the employer has FICA obligations. And they pay union dues, which puts them at an economic disadvantage. But if we have a graduate student population that feels it’s not being treated fairly, than we as institution need to get out in front and treat them the way they deserve.