The theme of Work* naturally raises issues of labor and unionization, issues that remain contentious in some parts of academe despite the decades of faculty collective bargaining. According to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, 368,000 college faculty are currently covered by collectively bargained contracts, as are almost 65,000 graduate students employees. The battles over public sector unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the on-going organizing efforts at Urbana-Champaign, the successful drive at Chicago, and the current GEO negotiations have brought some of these modern concerns to the campus’s consciousness. What is perhaps less recognized is this institution’s long history with faculty efforts to unionize. More than 90 years ago, a small group of faculty led by historian Arthur C. Cole organized an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local, and campaigned for faculty rights and improved working conditions in Urbana-Champaign. As with the other early locals, the Federation of Teachers of the University of Illinois (AFT Local 41) expired after only a few years, yet it remains an important part of the story of faculty unionization at Illinois and more broadly.
Local 41’s founding was set against larger shifts within American higher education, including an expansion of institutions (both in size and number) and a push for faculty professionalization. Elite faculty had organized the professional American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915 and, in The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Business Men in America, Thorstein Veblen had famously critiqued the influence of businessmen and business principles in higher education. A few faculty called for more direct action, including a handful calling for professors to unionize. In 1916, the affiliation of a handful of existing locals from Chicago, Gary (IN), and elsewhere created the AFT. Two years later, the union loosened membership requirements and allowed for locals on college campuses. Just days after the end of World War I, a small group of faculty at Howard University began the first college local in the nation in hopes of counteracting what the local’s secretary termed the “degradation” of the faculty. Pioneers who linked the fight for educational democracy with the fight for democracy in Europe, they were largely ignored off of their campus.
Two months later, the idea for a faculty local at the University of Illinois was raised by John V. Ross, the Vice President of the Illinois Typographical Union. He quickly received buy-in from a handful of faculty but he also realized that significant obstacles existed. He wrote to the AFT president that faculty were “ignorant of the benefits,” concerned about status, and hopeful of improvements in their situation without the need to organize. In some ways, these concerns were never overcome—membership hovered around 30 for most of the local’s existence—but the local was formed and soon garnered a great deal of local and national attention. Newspaper reports, letters to the editor, and editorials evinced disagreements over unionization, with some lauding the breaking down of barriers but others arguing that they should remain in place. Even editorials supporting the faculty played into stereotypes and expressed some surprise at the union of so-called “brain workers” and “hand workers.”
Several issues were identified as important from the local’s beginning. In a March 28, 1919, article in the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor, Cole noted: “Conditions in the University of Illinois reflect the general situation in the academic world. Unlike the followers of most professions, instructors generally are without democratic voice in determining the conditions under which they perform their services to the public. This has caused a widespread academic unrest.” The local’s constitution, completed the same month, spoke directly to these issues. It called for greater faculty input into the institution’s governance, greater security of positions, and the bridging of divides between the university’s faculty and the state’s laborers. The evidence indicates, however, that the most pressing issues for faculty, both unionized and not, involved salaries and economic distress.
The immediate post-war period was one of financial struggle for the institution as state funds waned amid a property revaluation. For faculty, concerns over stagnant salaries and rapid inflation were exacerbated by an on-going building campaign, which raised questions over institutional priorities. Beginning in November 1919, the local undertook its most significant project, one designed to highlight the toll that the financial strife was taking on faculty. Led by mathematician Aubrey J. Kempner, a subcommittee surveyed university faculty about their salaries and personal finances. Released the following April, the report included responses from forty percent of the faculty and demonstrated the significant burdens arising from the financial situation. Most reported being worse off than they had been before the war and claimed an inability to support their families. Many identified concerns about maintaining standards of living associated with professional status and some noted that they were unable to afford fulfill the requirements of their jobs. Almost a quarter of the respondents indicated having to put off medical and dental care, some with dire consequences.
The report dramatically demonstrated the situation at the institution and received significant national coverage, though its effects are unclear. Union members believed that it kept the issues in the public consciousness and pressed President David Kinley into action. Kinley did recognize the difficulties and, with the survey in process, began a public relations campaign designed to pressure the state to more fully fund the institution. He knew that some faculty were dissatisfied with their salaries but denied reports that it was causing them to leave the institution for higher paying positions. Years later, he admitted that some younger faculty had complained, but he asserted that most were understanding and downplayed the significance of the criticisms. At the same time, Kinley, who a decade earlier had decried educational unionization, acted against some union leaders, as well as against others thought to be radicals during this era of the First Red Scare. Many faculty soon left the university, including several who were pushed out by Kinley. According to historian Robert Feer’s undergraduate thesis, one notable exception was classicist William Abbot Oldfather, who kept his position because the institution needed a token liberal.
With faculty such as Cole departing for more welcoming environments, the local’s difficulties intensified and, in late 1920, members weighed its closing. It held on, though, until early the following spring as the state legislature considered more than $10 million in appropriations to the university. As its president Harold N. Hillebrand reported, such an increase would counteract the strongest arguments for the local’s existence and cause it to “quietly disappear.” Shortly before the appropriations were approved, the local did just that. In response to reports by former members, the AFT listed the reason as “Official Pressure.” Faculty apathy and concerns over status were likewise important.
Local 41, though short-lived, was significant for several reasons, including its highlighting of longstanding issues of academic exceptionalism, debates between faculty members of different ranks, and reactions of multiple stakeholders to faculty organizing. Although not surprising in a hierarchical and discriminatory society, the unionization of faculty at a predominantly white state university attracted much more attention than did a similar act at Howard; it was only after the organization of teachers at Illinois that national publications took notice. The local’s founding further revealed disagreements within the community and faculty, with some viewing the movement positively but others claiming that it was evidence of radicalism in education and that it would inhibit objective research on economic and social issues. Financial concern was widespread but many were unwilling to affiliate with labor, some on principle and others because they believed that existing mechanisms such as the Carnegie pension plan would provide for them. That the local’s membership was drawn primarily from junior faculty and instructors, those who were explicitly excluded from membership in the AAUP is also notable. In the end, although it underscored economic issues, sought to bridge divides between faculty of different ranks, and sought to bridge divides between faculty and other laborers, Local 41 was unable to overcome institutional resistance, concerns about status, and complacency. As such, it is a prime example of the earliest efforts to unionize faculty in American higher education.
For more on early unionization at Illinois, including sourcing for this entry, see: Timothy Reese Cain, “‘Learning and Labor’: Faculty Unionization at the University of Illinois, 1919–1923.” Labor History 51, no. 4 (2010): 543–569.