A new study suggests public universities with faculty collective bargaining unions are better off than universities without them.
Mark Cassell, an associate professor of political science at Kent State University, conducted the study, which includes more than 23 years of data and took a year to finish. He found unionized schools tend to have higher graduation and retention rates and lower budgets than non-unionized schools. Unions promote collaboration between employers and workers to negotiate things such as wages and health and safety in the workplace. In 2006, the Directory of Faculty Contracts and Bargaining Agents in Institutions of Higher Education reported 320,000 faculty members were involved in 575 separate collective bargaining units. The units were separated into 491 higher education institutions across 1,125 campuses.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is non-unionized. The University of Nebraska at Omaha, which is unionized, actually has lower graduation and retention rates than UNL.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, UNL, a non-unionized school, had a freshman retention rate of 84 percent from fall 2010 to fall 2011. In the same time period, UNO, a unionized school, had a freshman retention rate of 71.8 percent.
Also, UNL had a four-year graduation rate more than twice that of UNO, 32 percent to 15 percent, for students who started school in 2005, according to the center.
Cassell said he referred to the National Center for Educational Statistics and collected data on budgets and graduation rates from every school that receives financial aid. He then looked at the data and merged it with information from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining and determined which schools have unions and for how long.
Cassell factored in other data in his research, such as economics, population of the school and Republican dominance of the area.
He said the United States differs from other countries because people find unions questionable, while “other countries have higher union rates and higher productivity.”
John Kretzschmar, director of the William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies at UNO, said people in Nebraska have a negative image of unions.
“From my understanding, unions were never fully accepted by the populous,” Kretzschmar said.
He said from the start of unionization, media misinterpreted the purpose of unions, and now people have a negative image of them. Unions are meant for employees to collaborate and voice their opinion on issues in the workplace, but many people view union members as greedy, he said. Kretzschmar said the negative connotation is “still with us today.”
Kretzschmar said a lot of “emotional content” goes with talking about unions, but they are an important piece to have in an institution. He said people get frustrated when their voice isn’t heard, but collective bargaining gives them the chance.
Cassell found institutions with faculty unions tend to have a lower budget and more money is devoted to construction, rather than administration. He said he also found unionized schools to usually have lower salaries, which could be a factor.
“The common view is that unions drive costs up, so it was a little surprising that there was a difference at all,” Cassell said.
Kretzschmar said faculty unions are about more than just finances, but are about making the academic institution a better place.
“I am a big believer that the more heads are working together on a problem, the better the solutions will be,” Kretzschmar said via email. “Faculty did not get into teaching for the financial rewards. From my experience, faculty want to teach in ways that improve/deepen a student’s understanding of the content material, and administrators want to do that in a way that leaves a positive experience in the heads of students.”
He said his theory is when workplaces contain little partnership or interaction, there can sometimes be a “dismissive attitude toward faculty inputs.”
However, Cassell’s research charted unmarked territory where no one has studied a lot about before.
“It’s useful to actually have some data and critical analysis and not ideology driving the discussion, so hopefully this is helpful,” Cassell said.