Art by Maille Olgyay
In December of 2022, California workers engaged in the largest higher education strike in the country. Almost fifty thousand workers across nine campuses up and down the Golden State used their power to force a new “national standard” for workers. But why did education workers need to stage a strike? After all, college professors make six figures on average, a much higher salary than the average American worker.
Employees in universities have little job security, without the promise of tenure (a permanent post at the university). Until recently, Ph. D.s were available to too many candidates. This trend caused a gluttony of eligible professors for universities to choose from while the applicant pool had to deal with a lot of debt. Instead of raising wages to account for inflation and expanding staff to account for the debt these universities burden students with, schools decided to shrink the availability of Ph.Ds by requiring applicants to not only be admitted to the program, but also receive grants. Over time this may result in better conditions for workers. However, in the short term, workers decided their employers needed to do better.
All concessions were the result of union negotiations with the administration. As a result, employees received a 66% wage increase over the next three years. Additionally, there was an agreement to include childcare benefits for graduate assistants. In smaller cities this raise is enough, but some locations, such as where University of California (UC) Berkeley and UCLA are, are more expensive to live in, yet the pay increase is marginal to less expensive cities.
With all the facts of increased pay, it remains unclear whether or not this is truly a win for labor organizations. The answers will come in the next few years when the current contracts expire, but this major win for labor did happen first in California. Instead, it was the result of years of organizing across the country to combat the same problems UC employees ran into, a study found that “between 2013 and 2019, 188 new faculty unions were certified or recognized…”
This begs the question: what has Willamette done differently than the UC schools? And what can we learn from their approach? Seemingly Willamette has much less revenue, relies on the staff more so than the UCs, and champions progressive politics in their classes. The reason for this is a mixture of in-house work by the university and the legality of organizing a small liberal arts school.
The “in-house” work was done years ago by a past Dean that changed the system by which tenured professors receive wage increases. Before the current system, professors negotiated their base salary, then each year the administration would raise these salaries by a percentage, say 5%. This system created an unfair pay scale because professors did not start with the same base salary. To solve this issue, the administration placed all professors onto the same 30-year payment plan that started at 60 thousand dollars a year and could end at around 120 thousand dollars a year. Additionally, the University has worked at creating a much more secure job in comparison to larger state schools.
Who better to explain the security of employment than Willamette’s History Department head: Professor Bill Smaldone. He has taught in Salem since 1991 and has been witness to multiple administration shifts throughout the years. Smaldone has authored five books and numerous scholarly articles focused on class struggles. Describing struggles on behalf of Willamette faculty, he explained that this job security is quantified with “about 85% of all faculty now are on the tenure track, whereas nationwide, it's like 30%, 40%, depending on where you are…We also have a group of non-tenured track but permanent faculty who are paid a higher rate at a higher rate and sometimes have benefits that adjuncts who teach course by course don't get right…Then we have a small minority of people who are what we call continuing non-tenure track.” This has kept the professors satisfied and minimized the need to unionize.
But why are they legally unable to organize? This is due to a court case from the National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University 1980. The court decided (5-4) that, “faculty members of a private university were de facto managerial employees and therefore were not entitled to the protections afforded to regular employees by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), or Wagner Act (1935), about forming collective bargaining units.”
While state schools will likely experience similar union activity to California this past month, professors at private universities won’t have the same legal protections. The key issue has been tenure, or the lack thereof. Universities are trying their best to end tenure for professors.
This is incredibly important because of the debt one must incur (in the USA) to earn a Ph.D. and then teach at a college. Willamette has been at the forefront of increasing the job security of professors and minimizing turnover. Hopefully, this trend will continue and Salem can remain a safe place for experts to teach the next generation.
A recent development on campuses is that student workers have tried to unionize at the University of Oregon. In Eugene, the goal has been asking for better mental health resources, more flexible scheduling, and a pay raise due to high inflation.” And while the 1980 Supreme Court decision barred full time employees of private schools from union, there has not been a determination on the legality of student-workers forming a union.
The University of Oregon union has not yet gathered enough traction to force the administration’s hand. Although, it is worth noting this union is still in the early stages of organization. If given the legal protections this group should receive, there is no reason to doubt the potential power they can wield on campus. There is good reason to believe labor will continue to organize in higher education because, as Smaldone said, “the victory in California is a clear victory…It's a sign, a signal to other places, other states,” that organizations will improve their wages and workplace experience.