Yesterday I was unabashedly pro-union. Today I’m going to play a bit of a skeptic.
That’s pretty much the way I’ve always dealt with unions. I like them in theory, but I sometimes wonder how much they actually do for their members. I think it’s good to challenge the union occasionally to keep it working hard for the people.
I have a little union experience myself actually. My first paycheck came from a union job. I bagged groceries at Kroger, and I paid union dues out of every paycheck. $4.23 a week. That was 1996 and I was sixteen years old.
As far as I could tell the main thing we got in exchange for our membership was a due process system that basically made it impossible to be fired. Stealing was about the only justifiable cause for a supervisor to can one of us.
Truth be told, most of my fellow baggers and cashiers—myself included—deserved to be fired at least once a week, but the management’s hands were tied. I remember thinking it was kind of absurd that our jobs were that locked down. I witnessed aggressive insubordination and drug-fueled, on-the-job antics that always went unpunished. All in exchange for $4.23 a week.
I’m sure there were serious grievances also being filed, but I never heard about any during the two years I crammed groceries into paper or plastic. The union system seemed like it was just existing. Just feeding off the corporation in some kind of asymbiotic state of dependence.
These are the times when I question the value of unions. When they seem to have stagnated and just gotten comfortable making very small token gains occasionally—just enough to project the illusion of helpfulness so people will continue paying dues.
On Monday, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources released a new report known as the “Two-Year Institution Faculty-Salary Survey” that details pay raises for faculty members at community colleges and other two-year institutions. The report indicates that many faculty unions at two-year colleges are existing in the same kind of comfortable “maintenance mode” that my union at Kroger occupied.
Salaries at schools with faculty unions increased by 2.1% this year. No issue with that number per se—a raise is always a good thing. The problem is that this salary increase is almost identical to the average salary increase for faculty members at schools without faculty unions. Salaries at these schools were up 1.9% this year.
So what exactly did the unions do here? When it comes to salaries, not much. Professors did just fine without the unions and they didn’t have to pay dues, so they probably actually came out ahead financially.
Obviously there are lots of intangible benefits to having union representation. Job security for professors is probably more of a concern than it was for me and my grocery-bagging buddies, for one. And sometimes just having a union stand behind you keeps potential management bullies at bay. No question that’s also a valuable benefit that shouldn’t be denied. But is it enough to make it all worth it?
Despite my critiques, I’m of course pro-union. I think faculty unions are almost always a good idea, but I do think it’s important to shake them up a little bit from time to time. Make sure they haven’t fallen asleep and gotten comfortable living off the system. When a union is making salary gains identical to those at non-unionized schools, that’s a red flag and it should be explored more deeply.