Academic Workers Looking to History for Organizing Strategies in Antiunion StatesHistorians in the News
tags: unions, labor history, academic labor
Public university employees in states lacking collective bargaining rights aren’t letting that exclude them from the current wave of union organizing and action in higher education.
Their efforts to build faculty-staff coalitions and improve working conditions despite lacking university recognition or contracts harkens back to higher education organizing before the Cold War.
“What’s happening now is a new regeneration of that concept, that wall-to-wall organizing,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.
Unlike for private employers, which are regulated by the National Labor Relations Board, states decide whether to offer public university workers collective bargaining rights.
“Wall-to-wall” means trying to unite all workers into a single bargaining unit, even or especially when collective bargaining—the officially sanctioned bargaining process leading to an officially recognized contract—isn’t available.
“It’s literally an old-school form of labor organizing,” said Herbert, whose center is at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. In a 2017 history published in the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy, he wrote about what he calls “the little-remembered United Public Workers of America.”
“UPWA and its predecessor unions played important roles in advancing collective bargaining in education and other fields in the 1940s,” he wrote. “They sought to organize wall-to-wall educational units that included faculty and staff for purposes of collective bargaining, and they successfully negotiated some of the first contracts covering teachers and faculty.”
“The successful anti-communist attacks on UPWA, and the demise of the [New School for Social Research’s unionized] Dramatic Workshop, lowered the curtain on faculty collective bargaining in higher education, which did not resume until decades later when the AFT [American Federation of Teachers], the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) began organizing faculty for purposes of collective bargaining in the late 1960s and 1970s,” he wrote.