Union Busting Is Still an Ugly Business


Writing for University Business, Nick Kalm and Courtney Harper advise universities on how “Strong Messages Can Defuse Campus Unionizing Campaigns.” The authors’ bio note indicates that “Nick Kalm is president and Courtney Harper is senior vice president at Reputation Partners, a communications consultancy that specializes in labor communications for universities and other organizations.” The euphemistic tone of the phrase “labor communications” is indicative of the tone consistently maintained throughout most of the article and, seemingly, of the tone that they are recommending that institutions take.

Although the article never does indicate exactly what types of messaging should be used to counter unionization efforts, it does open by noting that over the past three years, SEIU has organized “more than 10,000 adjunct faculty at more than 40 different schools” and that “if union targets for higher pay are met, U.S. universities’ costs for courses currently taught by adjuncts could increase to $24 billion from $4.3 billion, according to a study recently cited in The Wall Street Journal.” So, the key to the messaging seems to be to convince economically exploited faculty that asking for fairer compensation is somehow not in their best interests, and that aim seems to make the questions under the heading “Take a Pulse Check” laughably disingenuous: “How satisfied are employees? Do they have adequate channels to voice their opinions? What are the key issues?”

The closest that Kalm and Harper come to articulating the actual messaging that they are recommending is in the following passage: “Take time to crystalize your position on unionizing and what it would mean for the culture of your school. Also consider the key themes, tone and approach that will resonate most with faculty and staff. Depending on the type of university and employee group being targeted, this could take many different forms. Cite facts, data and anecdotes to strengthen your message and block the perception that it’s just ‘spin.’” In other words, identify cultural flashpoints that will cause adjunct faculty to act against their own self-interest and accede to their own continuing exploitation. We have all heard these arguments: if you want to be treated as professionals, recognize that most “real professionals” do not belong top labor unions; or, we regard our faculty and staff as a community or (worse) as a family, and unionization of one group will create unnecessary and lasting divisions among us. Of course, these arguments expediently ignore that adjunct faculty are not paid like most other professionals and that if activism in pursuit of fairer treatment causes divisions, then the divisions already exist.

But the most telling passage in the article is probably the following:

“First, determine what you want to achieve through communications. You should focus on three core areas:

–articulating the university’s position on unionization in a consistent and compelling way;

–educating employees about the realities of union representation and what it will mean to them;

–reaffirming the university’s commitment to being a responsible employer.

“Executing such a communications campaign with these objectives can be difficult for university leaders who may have a progressive mindset and tend to sympathize with organized labor.

“Additionally, this mindset is also often pervasive through the faculty leadership. A successful communications effort considers employees at all levels—not just the potential bargaining unit.”

Beyond the very, very remote possibility that an administration will provide faculty with an accurate sense of “the realities of union representation and what it will mean to them,” the last two paragraphs clearly suggest that administrators and full-time faculty need to be persuaded to put the institution’s bottom line and their own self-interest above their ethical sense that adjunct faculty are being shamelessly exploited.


The complete article is available at: http://www.universitybusiness.com/article/strong-messages-can-defuse-campus-unionizing-campaigns.


3 thoughts on “Union Busting Is Still an Ugly Business

  1. A couple of additional points stand out: I am assuming that this article is targeted at institutions where full time faculty are also not unionized: otherwise why the comment about “real professionals”? I woudl assume one goal of most adjunct faculty is to become full time.

    Another, I do not see the article referenced from WSJ, but are they indicating that adjunct are paid less than a fifth of a normalized rate? I do not see many cases where collective bargaining has raised salary by such a significant multiplier.

    • Just to be clear, the “real professionals” comment was my illustration of the arguments that I have heard against unionization, even when full-time faculty have been trying to unionize. That said, most of the efforts to unionize adjunct faculty have thus far been at private institutions–for two reasons, I think: in very pro-union states such as California and New York, adjuncts are already organized, often in the same unions as full-time faculty, and in many other states, state law prohibits them, often along with full-time faculty, from unionizing. In Ohio, state law does not require recognition of unions formed by part-time public employees.

      On your second point, there was no link to the article in the Wall Street Journal, or I would have simply copied it with the quotation. I think that you make a good point about the projected increase in costs. Perhaps they have calculated how costs would increase if adjunct faculty were paid equivalently to even full-time instructors and lecturers. But that’s just a guess.

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