Study Casts Doubt on Union Skeptics

Any graduate student who so much as mentions the word "union" in the presence of a university administrator has probably heard the argument: Unions poison the educational relationship between faculty and students. But a new study of 299 faculty members at five universities with graduate student collective bargaining agreements is casting doubt on that truism.

Gordon Hewitt of Tufts University and the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison's Chris Golde sent a questionnaire to faculty members in the arts and sciences and asked them a series of open-ended questions to "measure the faculty's general attitudes and specific experiences" with collective bargaining, says Hewitt. They selected the five universities--UW Madison; the State University of New York (SUNY), Buffalo; and the universities of Florida; Massachusetts, Amherst; Michigan; and Oregon--because each has had a collective bargaining agreement in place for at least 4 years.

Contrary to the conventional administrative view, they found that over 90% of the faculty thought that agreements had either no effect or a positive effect on their relationship with students. "The sciences were somewhat less positive than the humanities," Hewitt tells Next Wave, "but all were generally positive."

The results seem to correspond to the experiences of graduate students, faculty members, and administrators interviewed by Next Wave. Monazir Khan, a graduate student at SUNY Binghamton and chief negotiator for the Graduate Student Employment Union, says, "I think it has no effect on the faculty-student relationship, as long as the faculty are not also administrators." Richard Lutz, associate dean of graduate students at the University of Florida, Gainesville, for the past 5 years, agrees. "The number of times you would see conflict [between faculty and students] was very small," he says.

Explanations for the results vary. Winfred Phillips, the graduate dean at the University of Florida, says that "students don't seem to connect to the faculty through that mechanism. Collective bargaining seems to relate more to quality-of-life issues." Others think it is just an expression of ignorance. "I think that students and faculty are largely unaware" that an agreement even exists, says Lutz.

And some professors feel that the study misses the point. "In my experience, the union doesn't negatively affect the relationships between individuals," says Wendy Crone, an assistant professor of engineering physics at UW Madison, "but the unions are an adversarial voice, not a collaborative one." Crone feels that a strong union presence can limit the ability of other graduate student organizations to work productively with the administration.

While acknowledging that assessing the effect of unions is a complicated task, Golde and Hewitt stand by their work. "This study lays to rest one of the key arguments that gets made against collective bargaining," says Golde. "Now we can determine the real issues and allow any good arguments against unions to come forward."

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