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Frequently Asked Questions: Collective Bargaining in Higher Education

What is collective bargaining?

When faculty or staff sit down at the bargaining table with administrators or boards of trustees, they are meeting as equals to negotiate salaries, terms, and conditions of employment. This process results in a legally binding, collectively bargained agreement that cannot be unilaterally changed by either party, but may be changed in whole or part if the parties mutually agree to renegotiate the contract.

The key word here is equals. Many faculty or staff may have worked within a faculty senate that makes recommendations to administrators. But the process of negotiating an agreement as equals is fundamentally different than making recommendations. When you sit down at the bargaining table, by definition, you have equal legal standing to any administrator in the room. Collective bargaining statutes also require both parties to negotiate in good faith to reach a collective agreement, encouraging open dialogue and demanding all voices be heard. Finally, when an agreement is reached, the law requires the parties to accept the results.

A traditional approach to bargaining has one side presenting its proposals, and the other countering until agreement is reached. While this process isn't necessarily confrontational, other, more cooperative models also exist. "Interest-based bargaining" involves the parties jointly examining issues and writing the agreement, sometimes with the help of a third-party mediator. Through this collaborative process, faculty or staff and administrators may find new trust. At any point in negotiations, no matter the bargaining model, both parties may resolve disputes through fact-finding, mediation, or arbitration.

Why collectively bargain?

The fundamental question is this: Do you want an equal voice? Do you want a seat at the table where decisions are made? A union would significantly shift the balance of power at an institution where faculty or staff have had an advisory role only.

Those who believe the status quo adequately addresses workload, job security, wages and benefits, academic freedom, intellectual property, the impact of technology, and other issues, will likely vote against a union and collective bargaining. But those looking for a stronger, equal voice should consider supporting a union.

There are four basic reasons to engage in collective bargaining:

  1. To achieve greater involvement in the decision-making process, to strengthen shared governance.
  2. To get clearly defined conditions of employment, including a fair and effective grievance process to resolve disputes.
  3. To achieve a negotiated, collective agreement that is stable, secure, and legally binding. The terms will reflect faculty concerns, and the terms can not be changed without full faculty involvement.
  4. To increase legislative advocacy, lobbying, presence, and pressure.

Are there other faculty or staff unions?

Yes! NEA represents more than 200,000 higher-education faculty, staff, educational support professionals, and graduate assistants on public and private campuses. They include educators across the country, from technical and community colleges in Washington State to Tier 1 research universities in Florida, and countless places in between, including the California State University and University of Maine systems, the Massachusetts state and community colleges, the 24-institution City University of New York, and more.

Somewhere around 386,000 faculty nationwide are covered by collective bargaining agreements (Berry and Savaris, 2012). The vast majority work in public institutions, a little more than half at two-year institutions.

What our members have achieved through union membership and collective bargaining is a long, impressive list that benefits students, faculty and staff alike. A few recent highlights include:

* A Western Washington University contract that stakes new ground on faculty workload, tying it clearly to the number of students in each class, including online classes;

* A Massachusetts Community College Council contract that provided wage hikes and job protections to its 5,000 part-time faculty members, plus additional pay to attend campus meetings and training sessions, and greater access to classes for veteran instructors;

* A Klamath Community College contract, its first one ever, that established a grievance process, workload limits, pay raises, even email addresses for adjuncts;

* An Eastern Washington University contract that tied faculty salaries to market rates, an innovative approach that created raises as big as $18,000.