In the 1970s, there was an incredible explosion of unionization among full-time traditional faculty," says Julie Schmid, PhD, associate secretary in the Department of Organizing and Services at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). "Where we're seeing a lot of growth currently is in the adjunct faculty and graduate student sectors. And my guess is that in the next few years, we're going to see faculty at some of the flagship state institutions turn to unionization.

According to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, 575 faculty collective bargaining units and 26 graduate student units already provide union representation to more than 375,000 faculty members and graduate student employees.

Proponents argue that unionization can improve salaries, benefits and working conditions; safeguard academic freedom; and improve the quality of education. Opponents worry that unionization hinders individual autonomy, prevents merit-based rewards and hampers universities' flexibility in meeting students' needs.

For unionization...

According to the AAUP, the first wave of faculty unionization began in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to changes in state and federal labor laws. A second wave of unionization--this time of adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants--began in the 1990s.

Since then, faculty unionizing has suffered a few setbacks. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has gone back and forth on whether graduate teaching assistants can unionize, for example. In 2000, the NLRB declared them workers with full bargaining rights, but later reversed that decision and declared them students with no rights. In 1980, the Supreme Court decided that faculty at private colleges and universities were managerial employees and thus not entitled to rights under the NLRB.

Although that decision put a stop to unionization at those institutions, unionization at state institutions is still going strong. The process begins with a faculty vote on unionization. Once a union is recognized, faculty are free to join or not. The union votes in leadership, starts collecting dues and negotiates collective contracts with school administrators. For added strength, some faculty unions affiliate with such organizations as the AAUP, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or National Education Association (NEA).

United Faculty of Western Washington, affiliated with both AFT and NEA, is typical.

One factor that prompted the faculty to vote for unionization last spring, was the feeling that the university administration wasn't listening to the faculty, says Kristi M. Lemm, PhD, associate psychology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham and the union's vice president.

"The faculty wanted more say in the decisions that govern our day-to-day lives on the job," says Lemm, citing promotion and tenure expectations, course loads and leave policies as examples.

Low salaries were another factor, she says.

"Our faculty salaries were not high relative to our peer institutions," Lemm explains. "With the salaries we're able to offer, we're having a hard time recruiting new faculty members and retaining faculty."

The union's collective bargaining team recently submitted its first contract proposal, which covers salaries, course loads, tenure and leave policies, and other working-condition items.

Being unionized doesn't just help with such concrete improvements as salary increases or fairer workloads, says Lemm. It also helps boost morale. "People feel like we're all being treated fairly," she explains. "And I like the fact that we're working together as a team."

Unionization is especially important for adjunct professors, part-time professors and other contingent workers, says psychology professor Kathleen Barker, PhD, co-editor of "Contingent Work: American Employment Relations in Transition" (Cornell, 1998) and senior college representative for the Professional Staff Congress at The City University of New York (CUNY): Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

The academic work force has undergone a huge transformation over the last 25 years that has resulted in a shift from full-time to contingent faculty with few if any rights, says Barker.

At CUNY, she says, the number of full-time faculty has dropped by nearly half since 1975 even though enrollment is at a 30-year high. The situation is much the same across the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, the percentage of contingent faculty positions grew from 43 percent in 1975 to 65 percent in 2003.

In addition to low salaries and poor benefits, Barker says, contingent workers must also contend with instability and unpredictability. Departments sometimes hire adjunct faculty the day before a class begins, says Barker.

"The lack of job security makes this a very difficult life," says Barker.

Unions like the Professional Staff Congress can help, says Barker. They can persuade administrations to increase salaries and benefits, bring more stability and predictability to adjuncts' lives and keep their hands off academic freedom, she says, noting that "management is seeking more and more control over faculty." Upcoming battles include ensuring that part-timers have access to unemployment insurance and limiting the percentage of contingent faculty at colleges and universities. "Adjuncts should not be treated as if they're the migrant workers of the academic world," she says.

...and against

Of course, not all professors agree.

"Any unionization decision is always going to be controversial," says Lemm, adding that the vote at Western Washington was very close.

Some professors oppose unions in principle, she explains. Some are convinced they can do a better job themselves than collective bargaining units when it comes to negotiations. Others feel that problems aren't severe enough to require unionization or don't feel that unionization is the best way to solve them.

A 2005 AFL-CIO poll of full-time professors at non-unionized public colleges and universities found limited support for unionization.

While 52 percent said they would favor the creation of an organization to advocate on their behalf, only 37 percent thought that organization should be a union. Respondents worried that unionization would antagonize administrators, protect poor performers and lead to strikes. Support for unionization was lowest among professors with tenure and those with high job satisfaction.

Ronald F. Levant, EdD, counts himself among those who don't think unionization is the answer.

"I am not a big fan of unionization," says Levant, a former APA president who is now a psychology professor and dean of the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Akron in Ohio.

The University of Akron unionized in 2003, and Levant and others have been working ever since to negotiate and implement a contract. Before coming to Akron, Levant taught at two other unionized campuses.

"Unionization is a model that doesn't fit intellectual activity very well," says Levant.

His main concern is the impact unions can have on the ability to try something new.

"Unions severely limit flexibility and inhibit innovation and entrepreneurship," he says. "Everything has to be thought of in terms of, 'Can we do this in light of the contract?' It ties everybody's hands." For example, Levant himself is trying to set up an interdisciplinary program--a new school of languages, cultures and world affairs--that would bring together several departments. Union rules, he says, are impeding this cross-departmental collaboration.

"There are far too many rules," he says, noting that's especially true when it comes to faculty members' time. "There are all these hoops to jump through."

Besides, says Levant, there are better ways to achieve the goals that unions seek.

"People are always arguing over how big a slice of the pie they get," he says. "My approach as a dean is to make the pie bigger."

One way to make the pie bigger, says Levant, is to address urgent public needs by creating new programs like the one he has proposed. Doing so, he argues, will increase the university's enrollment and thereby increase resources.

"That way," he says, "there are more resources to share."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.