Professionalism and Unionism: Academic Freedom, Collective Bargaining, and the American Association of University Professors

Not too long ago I was on a panel about academic freedom at the University of California, Davis, with Robert Post, Dean of Yale Law School, former AAUP General Counsel and Committee A Chair, and co-author (with Matthew Finkin) of For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom.  At a dinner afterwards with campus faculty leaders, one law professor opined that faculty unions are in conflict with academic freedom.  Needless to say, my hackles were raised but before I could argue otherwise Dean Post politely but convincingly responded by explaining that he had once thought the same but had come to see that faculty unions not only do not necessarily conflict with academic freedom but in many instances provide an important support structure for AAUP principles.

In a sense Post’s journey from skepticism about to advocacy for faculty unionism recapitulates a journey taken over the past century as well by the AAUP itself.  And that journey is the subject of my article, “Professionalism and Unionism: Academic Freedom, Collective Bargaining, and the American Association of University Professors,” in the latest issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom.  The article recounts the AAUP’s often troubled relationship to unionism and collective bargaining and narrates the tale of how the organization came ultimately to embrace unionism, albeit unionism with a distinctive AAUP “flavor.”  I demonstrate that the relationship between professionalism and union organizing has been a concern of the AAUP from its inception. Although the organization’s founders eschewed unionism, they remained concerned about the economic status of the profession. Interest in unionism did not become a significant force until the mid-1960s, however, when the AAUP was compelled to respond both to intensified discontent among faculty with their economic status and to increasingly vigorous organizing by union rivals.

By 1972 the AAUP was ready to endorse collective bargaining as an “effective instrument for achieving” its traditional goals and to trumpet the Association’s unique qualifications to shape bargaining consistent with standards of academic freedom and shared governance. Nonetheless, tensions persisted between unionism and the AAUP’s traditional work in support of academic freedom. After tracing this history, my article then argues that it is incorrect to oppose professionalism to unionism and that the tension between the two, while perhaps inevitable, can be constructive.

The concept of a union of professionals that not only seeks improvements in salaries, benefits, and working conditions but also strives to enforce broader professional standards and principles is not unique to the AAUP or even to academia.  Moreover, I argue, AAUP’s distinctive combination of union organization and professional association may provide the most effective method of defending professional principles today.  The AAUP’s continuing commitment to represent not only its own unionized membership but also its thousands of nonunionized “advocacy” members and, indeed, the profession as a whole; to organize and recruit for both union and nonunion chapters; and to continue developing and defending meaningful professional standards in support of “the common good,” has become more essential—and arguably more practical—than ever.

If unions are to remain viable defenders of those who work, be their labor physical or mental, they will need to organize and act in new ways. They will need to organize and act across workplaces and across industries, locally and regionally, in both traditional union structures and in new forms—some akin to associations like the AAUP—employing new strategies and tactics capable of mobilizing public support and exerting political pressure and moral suasion beyond the workplace. If this be true, I suggest, AAUP’s creative blending of professionalism and unionism, developed slowly and fitfully over the past century, may provide a model not only for other professions but also for the union movement as a whole in the century to come.

One thought on “Professionalism and Unionism: Academic Freedom, Collective Bargaining, and the American Association of University Professors

  1. The untold story of the AAUP and the SUNY faculty and professional staff union United University Professions involves the never-fulfilled pledge by then AAUP General Secretary Bertram Davis of $25,000 to support the efforts of the AAUP SUNY Council chaired by Prof. Leland Marsh of SUNY-Oswego to have an AAUP union for SUNY faculty.

    In 1972, when Prof. Marsh was president of the SUNY AAUP Council and trying to organize all of SUNY faculty, AAUP GS Davis and the AAUP Counsel came to Syracuse for a meeting of the SUNY AAUP Council where Prof. Marsh forced a “straw vote” and Davis learned that the majority of SUNY’s AAUP reps wanted a union.

    Prof. Marsh later visited Bertram Davis at AAUP headquarters in Washington, D.C., saw that an article he had written in The National Observer in 1970 about the fate of the university was framed and on the General Secretary’s office wall, and happily received the news that the AAUP had at last decided to support academic unionism in accordance with its 1971 report. The pledge that a check for $25,000 to establish what would become the largest higher education union in the nation was happily received, because until then, Prof. Marsh — who became the UUP’s first Chief Negotiator and who made the academic freedom clause article one of the first contract — had had to finance from his own personal funds his criss-crossing the state to organize the union.

    But, of course, the check never came. The SUNY vote was taken for union representation in SUNY with the AAUP SUNY Council as one of the contenders — but there was no majority and no winner. And so, fully aware of the fickleness of the National AAUP and its schizophrenic relationship to collective bargaining, Prof. March threw the AAUP SUNY Council votes in to a coalition with a rival organization contender, SUFT, and the United University Professions was born in 1973. Its first President was also from SUNY-Oswego, Prof. Lawrence DeLucia with Prof. Marsh as the first Chief Negotiator. Shortly thereafter the union affiliated with AFT.

    UUP is not now and never has been an AAUP-affiliated union. In the 1990s and for more than a decade, the AAUP leadership courted the UUP leadership, hungry for a percentage of the agency fees that the UUP had been able to establish relatively early in its now over forty year history. But the deal that was struck was a devil’s bargain: the AAUP would receive a six-figure contribution annually for a “relationship” with UUP (not an “affiliation”) and in return the AAUP would agree to grant memberships to the elected officials of UUP and would permit the UUP President to determine delegates to the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress and the Annual Meeting. Not once did any AAUP members in SUNY ever have the opportunity to participate in an election of their representatives to the CBC or the AAUP Annual Meeting.

    The UUP leadership eventually grew tired of AAUP leaders, especially after being pressured by UUP members in the AAUP to respect AAUP principles like academic freedom for all faculty. In desperate fear of losing those six-figure payments, the AAUP leadership granted the Sumberg Award to the UUP President as a sign of subservience and a willingness to abandon any/all AAUP principles for thirty pieces of silver. The gesture only confirmed for the haughty UUP leadership that it had taken from AAUP all that it wanted and that the AAUP leadership worshiped the money from UUP’s agency fees more than academic freedom itself.

    Thus, the then UUP President Sumberg awardee, in concert with the SUNY System President, refused to pursue the academic freedom grievance of adjunct professor Grabowski, a Kosciuszko Foundation Fellow at SUNY University at Buffalo. Hoping to retain the UUP leadership’s six-figure annual contributions to the AAUP Treasury, yet another AAUP General Secretary, Gary Rhodes, brushed off the UUP faculty requests for Committee A assistance for Prof. Grabowski. AAUP leaders clearly decided that the price of academic freedom was too high if it would cost them that six-figure contribution to the treasury. And so, AAUP leaders did not support academic freedom in the collective bargaining context, and especially not for adjuncts. Instead, they sought and seek, then as now, the steady stream of monies from agency fees imposed upon the faculty at unionized higher education institutions.

    The irony of this story was and is that the UUP leadership and the SUNY faculty have learned from this that the AAUP was and is indeed a toothless tiger and the UUP leadership voted to cancel the “relationship” — so the six-figure annual contribution went away anyway, along with the continued erosion of academic freedom in SUNY, actively undermined by AAUP.

    This is a true story that readers will not find in the AAUP Vice-President’s article, for academic freedom, then and now, is held hostage within AAUP unions to the over-arching quest for agency fees.

    “The AAUP is dead. Long live the AAUP!”

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