Teacher's Unions and Collective Bargaining: Higher Education

Collective bargaining is the process by which an organized body of workers (such as a union) negotiates with employers for wages, benefits, and other working conditions. Public employees—including public school teachers—are not granted the right to bargain collectively by the federal government, leaving that up to the states. But while most public primary and secondary school teachers belong to one or more unions, collective bargaining is more complex in colleges and universities.

This article provides a brief overview of collective bargaining in higher education, particularly how this process differs between public and private institutions, and among various types of staff. See Unions Basics and FindLaw's Teachers' Unions section for more information.

Collective Bargaining: Private vs. Public Institutions

Some faculty and staff at private institutions are unionized, but collective bargaining is much more common at public institutions. The University of California, for instance, negotiates with 14 different unions over the wages and terms of more than 79,000 faculty and staff members, according to the Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining section of UC's Website. Still, some states prohibit public employees from bargaining collectively (including Georgia and North Carolina).

But while faculty and staff working throughout a state's university system have strength in numbers and negotiate with a single entity, employees at private institutions usually don't have the same leverage.

Collective bargaining at private institutions sharply declined after the Supreme Court issued its opinion on NLRB v. Yeshiva University in 1980. In that case, the Court ruled that the full-time faculty at Yeshiva University were managerial employees and thus not entitled to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The court based its ruling on the fact that Yeshiva faculty had broad authority over their curriculum, grading policies, tuition, and other decisions, unlike the typical university faculty member.

Since the ruling, Yeshiva has been the main test for determining whether private university staff are indeed "managerial" and thus barred from collective bargaining. Some private institutions bargain with employee unions, but others discourage the practice by making sure their faculty members fall into the definition of "managerial."

Graduate Assistants and Part-Time Faculty

Most full-time faculty members at public universitities and colleges negotiate through collective bargaining, as long as their state allows it. But part-time faculty and graduate- student teachers (or graduate assistants) usually find it much more difficult to join a union. The reasons for this discrepency stem from court rulings as well as the challenge of organizing part-time workers, who often work at multiple institutions and have a higher turnover rate.

In order to cut back on expenses, colleges and universities have become more dependant on part-time faculty, graduate assistants, and other nontenure-track professors. They are often paid a relative pittance and denied benefits, although graduate assistants at public institutions often have access to unions.

In a 2000 ruling, the NLRB held that graduate assistants at New York University (which is a private institution) are employees and thus eligible for unionization. This ruling set a precedent for similarly situated graduate assistants at other private institutions as well, but they still are finding it difficult to organize at many private colleges and universities.

While the employee status of part-time faculty is not in question, many of them choose not to "rock the boat" because they have limited job security. Also, many of them work at several different schools and don't stay at one place for too long. So while they don't face regulatory hurdles, part-time faculty often don't form or join unions for the practical reasons already mentioned.

Collective bargaining in higher education is complex. Consider speaking with an employment attorney if you have more questions.

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