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.