Higher Ed Faces Labor Crisis, Unionizing Efforts

Unions have become a contentious topic on college campuses as faculty, staff, and student employees demand better working conditions and pay.

December 6, 2021 · Updated on December 6, 2021

Higher Ed Faces Labor Crisis, Unionizing Efforts
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by urbazon / E+ / Getty Images

Images of drive-thru intercoms covered with signs saying "Closed due to short staff" and "We all quit" became common sights on social media as customers returned to restaurants but workers did not. What some have argued is a labor shortage has actually unveiled an underlying reality — employees want better working conditions and they are ready to fight for them.

The pandemic has further exposed an array of concerns employees have among various industries and many workers have opted for striking, unionizing, and other actions to demand improvements to working conditions. The surge in labor stoppages has been so staggering that last month was referred to as "Striketober" as substantial numbers of fast-food, factory, and manufacturing workers took to the picket lines.

In a segment of Consider This from NPR, guest Joseph McCartin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, explained that "strikes tend to breed strikes" when discussing some of the driving factors behind Striketober.

This latest exodus of workers is part of a larger phenomenon called The Great Resignation in which large numbers of workers are vacating their positions in response to government and employer inaction on implementing COVID-19 safety protocols, wage increases, and working condition improvements.

There's also a particular age-group that may be more likely to quit their jobs — Gen Z and millennials. An Adobe study of 5,500 people revealed that college-aged and younger members of the workforce were the least satisfied with their jobs and that half of Gen Z were ready to find a new job in the next year.

A 2021 report by insurance and consulting firm Gallagher found that 72% of employers are prepared to increase base salaries. However, increased salaries are only one item on a long list of key demands from those engaged in labour struggles.

The Labor Struggle Hits College Campuses

Higher education is not exempt from the wave of labor movement and unionizing efforts across the country. Faculty and staff as well as student employees are demanding improved working conditions.

Some issues unions and strikes are aiming to address in higher education are:

  • Better pay and benefits, specifically cost of living adjustments and healthcare
  • Pandemic protections such as mask and vaccine mandates
  • Including student workers in union protections
  • Third-party legal experts to facilitate Title IX cases rather than school administrators
  • Schedule flexibility, e.g. working outside of traditional "office hours"
  • Union contract agreements and back pay for years worked without a contract in place

There's no question of the impact of COVID-19 on college students and staff. And while "post-pandemic" has been increasingly entering the vernacular, it's clear that higher education is still reeling from the sudden shifts brought about by the pandemic.

Staff on college campuses represent an alarming percentage of COVID-related deaths and hundreds of thousands of employees have been let go from their jobs since the onset of shutdowns.

These compounding predicaments have campus faculty and staff especially active in combating future pay cuts and dangerous working conditions that could expose them to the virus. One major tactic staff are using is forming unions to leverage collective power against universities. They are also threatening to withhold labour if demands are not met.

Augsburg University staff began efforts to form a union in 2020 after changes in "financial security and institutional procedures" exacerbated existing concerns about compensation, benefits, and working conditions.

In January of 2021, staff members voted to form a union with OPEIU Local 12 as the first staff union at a private university in Minnesota. Since then, the group has engaged in contract negotiations and has been invited to participate on the university's COVID-19 task force.

A union representing Columbia College staff, the United Staff of Columbia College, has been working without a contract since 2018 and voted in October to strike in an effort to obtain one. More than 300 staff positions have been cut between 2015-2019 and with salary increases not matching rising living costs in the Chicago area, staff have been taking positions at competing institutions.

In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at private universities are allowed to unionize. In that time, graduate students at Columbia University have been trapped in a two-year negotiation process including intermittent strikes on campus while seeking a contract that includes various protections, including a request for external arbitration in discrimination and harassment cases in an effort to make them more neutral.

The university responded with multiple counter-offers to address this request but members of the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC) union rejected the proposed amendments because they did not meet the union's enhanced neutrality standards. This semester, SWC formed a bargaining committee to continue negotiations with the university and more than 3,000 grad student workers are participating in strikes during the writing of this piece.

Student workers at Harvard went on strike for the second time in two years seeking a new union contract. With the university experiencing record endowment returns and budget surplus last fiscal year, union organizers believed an increase in employee compensation was a reasonable request in order to keep pace with cost of living spikes in Boston.

The union also wants third-party legal experts to handle Title IX complaint processes, viewing the SWC's demand as a promising precedent even though it wasn't ratified. As of November 15, the union and the university reached a four-year agreement that will bump members' compensation and benefits by $23.5 million with further details yet to be released.

Creative Solutions as a Starting Point

One "experiment" to address labor shortages that received mixed reactions is Michigan State University's call for faculty volunteers in the dining halls. Due to a staff shortage that could not meet the demands of MSU's student diner population, faculty received an email asking them to consider filling a few two-hour shifts on evenings and weekends.

Another tactic MSU's residential and hospitality services is implementing is increasing hourly pay rates for student workers from $10-$12 an hour to $13-$15 an hour. Higher minimum wages is a consideration being made in many employment sectors — however, there's data to indicate that this bump of a few dollars an hour is too little too late.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition released a report this year titled Out of Reach, which details the mismatch between housing rental costs and renters' income. Using a U.S. map, the report shows that making $15 an hour in any state would not be enough for renters to afford a two-bedroom home without paying more than 30% of their income.

So even though a higher minimum wage puts more dollars in workers' pockets, the cost of living anywhere in the country requires even higher wages to enhance housing security for hourly-wage workers. This is why union efforts include a call for salaries and benefits to match inflation where workers live.

In his NPR interview, Joseph McCartin also shared that this mythical "labor shortage" is the opportune time for workers because their labor has heightened value. While a hefty signing bonus might be alluring for individual workers, there is always going to be greater power and comradery when the bargaining is done collectively.

Not every university setting is going to be booming with union employees making proposals for improved working conditions. And even if there are organized employees, there won't always be an amicable or productive relationship between that group and the university.

However, it's going to require many bold experiments to address the labor crisis. While not all of them will be successful or sustainable, it's evident that what's in place right now is overwhelmingly unsatisfactory to workers and employers alike.