The Research on Faculty Unions

by Tim Cain

On February 4, the Senate began considering the ongoing efforts to organize the faculty at the Urbana-Champaign campus.  To varying degrees and among various constituents, these efforts have raised both excitement and concern.  They have also raised questions.  One strand of my research explores the history of faculty unions and numerous friends, colleagues and stakeholders have asked for my views on organizing, raised questions about the issues involved, and wanted to know what the research on faculty unions says.  While I share my own views on the situation at this campus more privately, several specific requests for a big picture overview of what the scholarly literature says led me to assess the current state of research on faculty unions.

Below, I offer broad overview of key elements of the existing literature.  It is informed by a review of 40 years of literature on faculty unions, but is largely based on those peer-reviewed pieces that have (1) looked at the issues in the modern context, (2) looked broadly across multiple studies, (3) are the most methodologically sound, and (4) to the extent possible, looked at four-year and research universities.  The most valuable of these sources are Wickens (2008), Porter (forthcoming), Hedrick, Henson, Krieg, & Wassell, Jr., (2011), Rhoades (1998), and DeCew (2003).

Perhaps the most important understanding from this review of the literature is that much more is unknown than known about the effects of faculty unionization.  Part of this is due to the relative lack of peer-reviewed research on the topic.  As Gary Rhoades (1998) argued 15 years ago “one can read much higher education literature and not discover faculty unions exist. One can read many of the most widely read books on higher education and not learn that faculty unions exist” (p. 10).  The same complaint remains today.  Moreover, much of the literature that does exist is either dated, methodologically limited, or both.

First, a few caveats:

1)    As Gordon Arnold (2000) argued in his study of organizing at three universities in New England, faculty unionization is simultaneously a local and a national event.  This review emphasizes the national trends, issues and findings.  It is intentionally silent on the local ones, leaving those conversations to others, including the readers of the IPRH blog who are involved in the present local situation.

2)    In light of the comment above, it emphasizes the national studies and broader considerations, rather than institutional case studies.  A review of the latter (or a longer blog post) could offer additional nuance and information.

3)    This review considers the research literature specifically on faculty unions for tenure-line faculty.  It does not speak to the growing movement to organize contingent faculty, including the debates over how the unionization of tenure-line faculty relates to that of non-tenure-line faculty.  It likewise avoids the broader stresses on and changes in higher education that are part of the context faculty unionizing here and elsewhere.  These issues are just as or even more important than those discussed here.

4)    Finally, this essay is not intended to be a definitive statement on the pros and cons of unionization either here or more broadly, or to examine the important philosophical perspectives and political beliefs that inform debates over unionization.  Rather, it is an introduction to what the research on outcomes associated with faculty unions indicates.

Numbers of Unionized Faculty: Though methodological limitations raise questions about accuracy, the best estimate is that 386,000 college faculty are covered by collectively bargained contracts (Berry and Savaris, 2012).  Most of these are in a handful of states, with California and New York accounting for 48% of the covered faculty.  With 20,000 faculty in 53 institutions covered by bargained contracts, Illinois is ranked fourth among states.  Thousands more faculty members across the country participate in non-bargaining units and roughly 60,000 graduate student employees (including both instructional and non-instructional employees) are covered by contracts. Partly due to the Yeshiva ruling, the vast majority of these faculty members work in public institutions (344,762); in Illinois, (18,152) are at public institutions.  Nationally, just over half of those whose institutional type is known are at two-year institutions; while just over two-thirds in Illinois are at two-year institutions.  Just over half both nationally and in Illinois are off the tenure track.

Arguments for and Against Unionization: Unionization in higher education has been a contested issue for almost a century.  Numerous scholars and activists have articulated positions on either side, though not always with significant data to support their arguments. Advocates argue that it protects academic freedom, provides adequate grievance procedures, offers defense during retrenchment, ameliorates discipline-based salary disparities, provides leverage on work-life issues, and is a mechanism for retaining academic values during periods of corporatization. Historically, faculty unionization has also sought to promote broader social change and to provide support for those who are otherwise underserved in educational systems.  While advocates argue that unionization in education promotes professionalization by helping educators control the conditions of their work, some opponents contend that it is antithetical to professionalization.  Opponents further argue that it can mitigate expert judgment, hamstring institutions, damage shared governance, and dismantle faculty status.  Some believe that it reduces institutions’ abilities to keep high-performing faculty by emphasizing equality in compensation over merit.  In Unionization in the Academy, DeCew (2003) identified four broad areas of disagreement:

(1)  arguments concerning collegiality on campus and the extent it is enhanced by unions versus arguments claiming that unionization merely incited and increases adversity;

(2)  arguments citing the practical effectiveness of unionization versus those that find unions ineffective, harmful, and a liability on campus;

(3)  arguments about the nature of university and union organization and whether unions are needed because of a new corporate structure at institutions of higher education versus arguments that unions only cause colleges and universities to become more businesslike; and

(4)  arguments for and against faculty unions based on fundamental academic values. (p. 31).

Though some will likely disagree, DeCew finds these arguments evenly balanced, at least in part due to the variety of institutional contexts (and, thus, power relationships) in which unionization is considered.

Salaries & Compensation: Unionization in higher education has never been just about compensation but salaries, benefits and related issues remain important to considerations of them.  The most recent evidence indicates that there is no statistically significant gain in average faculty salary for unionized faculty in four-year institutions, though there is for faculty in two-year institutions (Hedrick et. al., 2011; Wickens, 2008).   Some union leaders are among those who admit that there is no union wage premium (Nelson, 2011) and some research has pointed to a slightly negative effect on wages at public research universities (Ashraf & Williams, 2008).  Still, the research on the topic needs to be handled with caution due to concerns involving spill-over effects (that is benefits that unionization provides to non-unionized faculty), due to the possibility that salaries are affected by institutional efforts to forestall unionization, due to non-wage compensation that might be affected by unionizing, and due to the methodological limitations of many of the early studies.

Although there is little recent evidence of increased average salaries, Porter (forthcoming) recently found that both presidents and faculty senate leaders believe that bargained contracts provide greater faculty input into salary scales and salary distribution.  In so doing, he echoed claims made by Tullock (1994) almost two decades ago: unionization may not influence average salary, but might affect who gets what.  Porter likewise suggested that faculty unions might positively affect compensation relative to working conditions through their bargaining on issues such as teaching loads.

Some opponents of faculty unionization point to the leveling of salaries as a negative that would harm institutions’ abilities to attract and retain “high performing faculty” (a highly problematic term that might be used to privilege certain types of productivity to the neglect of other equally important types).  Leaving aside counter arguments that the benefits of such leveling in terms of community and traditional academic priorities, one useful ways of examining this claim is to consider whether collective bargaining necessitates such leveling. Rhoades’ (1998) examination showed that numerous faculty contracts include specific language allowing institutions to surpass set salary scales to hire and retain faculty; more than two-thirds of contracts at four-year institutions contain traditional merit-based pay systems and almost half contain provisions that allow for market-based adjustments.  Indeed, Rhoades critiqued contracts for allowing, rather than ameliorating, the continuation of salary disparities across fields.  A second way is to consider whether bargaining is associated with the flight of highly research productive faculty from four-year institutions.  To this point, there is no research-based evidence of such flight, despite findings that such faculty may be less likely to vote in favor of unionization.

Rhoades’ (1998) analysis also included considerations of faculty control of their intellectual property, which implicates compensation among other issues.  Rhoades found that roughly one-third of faculty union contracts included provisions for ownership of intellectual property, with most providing faculty with substantial or complete control of their work.  Rhoades called for greater emphasis on faculty rights of ownership in bargained contracts and Klein (2012) argued the major national faculty unions have done so in recent years.  In 2008, 55% of contracts included provisions on copyrights, patents, and related property, but the terms of such provisions were not as favorable to faculty as those that Rhoades examined.  This shift occurred as institutions increasingly sought to control faculty intellectual property and Klein’s study only looked at the contracts, not specifically whether faculty rights were improved through them.

Governance and Faculty Input: The relationship between governance and unionization is difficult to untangle, with conflicting findings resulting from the empirical studies of the topic. There is some evidence that a loss of faculty influence in governance is associated with some members’ desire to unionize, though the evidence of the outcomes of that unionization is less consistent.  In her review, Wickens (2008) cited research largely from the 1970s and 1980s to note both that “there has been some support for the contention that unionization improves faculty power in university governance” (p. 549) and that “there is some empirical support for the argument that unions actually reduce faculty influence over university governance” (p. 550). Based on differing views of shifts in power, she concluded that the overall research lacked consensus on the roles of unions in governance.  Building in part on Rhoades’ (1998) examination of union contracts, DeCew (2003) was more positive, if still hesitant.  She noted, “The effects of faculty unions on faculty governance and academic freedom are varied and complex, but generally positive” (p. 64).

Porter (forthcoming) concurred that unionization has not only not decreased faculty input into governance—a contention of some critics—but that it has increased faculty input in governance.  In the working paper version of his forthcoming piece, Porter notes that in addition to affecting salary scales, unionized faculty “also have more influence in many other areas, such as appointments of faculty and department chairs, tenure and promotion, teaching loads and the curriculum, and governance…. With the exception of setting degree requirements, areas where unionization has little impact tend to be administrative, such as the size of faculty at the institution, construction programs, appointment of deans, budgetary planning, and selecting members of institution-wide committees.  However, note that even here unionization has small, positive effects for weak influence.  Unionized faculty are more likely than non-unionized faculty to have some influence over the size of the faculty, appointment of deans, budgetary planning, and institution-wide committees” (p. 13).

Tenure and Promotion: Perhaps the greatest consensus in the research is around the effects of unionization on promotion, tenure and related issues.  As Wickens (2008) concluded, “Although not entirely unanimous, most empirical researchers agree that unionization has provided benefits to job security and tenure, promotion procedures, and due process” (p. 552).  Recent research (May, Moorhouse, & Bossard, 2008) also suggests that female faculty members benefit substantially from these formalized procedures, hold a greater proportion of faculty positions at unionized institutions, and are more prevalent at both the associate and full levels at unionized institutions.

Collegiality/Relationships: Debates about unionization frequently invoke concerns over whether the faculty unions are an outgrowth of or contributor to lacks in collegiality between faculty and administrators. Hutcheson (2000), Arnold (2000) and several others have highlighted that conflict between faculty and administration can help organizing succeed, while others have argued that unionization negatively affects such relationships.  Wickens’ (2008) found evidence that faculty-administrator relationships suffered as a result of unionization, although all of their supporting evidence is based on studies undertaken in or of the 1970s and early 1980s.  Like Wickens, DeCew (2003) argued that unionization can negatively affect relations, though her evidence was similar and she cautioned that both national affiliations and individual personalities will influence whether it does.

Wickens (2008) further argued that “one of the primary concerns expressed during a drive for faculty unions is that inter-faculty relationships may be harmed” (p. 556).  Although the evidence was sparse and spread over several decades and contexts—the most recent studies in the United States States (Ormsby and Ormbsy, 1988; Lillydahl and Singell, 1993) offered conflicting findings—she argued that it was “fair to conclude that inter-faculty relationships in an unionized environment may be more strained” (p. 556).  Although some anecdotal claims concur, the issue has not been adequately studied in recent decades.


Arnold, G. B. (2000). The politics of faculty unionization: The experiences of three New England Universities. Westport, CT: Bergin & Harvey.

Ashraf, J. & Williams, M. F. (2008). The effect of faculty unions on salaries: Some recent evidence. Journal of Collective Negotiations 32, 2, 141-150.

Berry, J. & Savaris, M. (2012). Directory of U.S. Faculty Contracts and Bargaining Agents in Institutions of Higher Education. New York: The National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

DeCew, J. W. (2003). Unionization in the Academy: Visions and Realities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Hedrick, D. W., Henson, S. E., Krieg, J. M., & Wassell, Jr., C. S. (2011). Is there really a faculty union salary premium? Industrial and Labor Relations Review 64, 3, 558-575.

Hutcheson, P. A. (2000). A professional professoriate: Unionization, bureaucratization and the AAUP. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

Klein, M. W. (2012). Ten years after Managed Professionals: Who owns intellectual property now?  Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy 2. Available at:

May, A. M., Moorhouse, E. A., & Bossard, J. A. (2010). Representation of women faculty at public research universities: Do unions matter? Industrial and Labor Relations Review 63, 4, 699-718.

Nelson, C. (2011). What faculty unions do. Retrieved from:

Ormsby, J. G. & Ormsby, S. Y. (1988). The effect of unionization on faculty job satisfaction: A longitudinal study of university faculty. Journal of Collective Negotiations in the Public Sector,  18, 327-336.

Porter, S. R. (forthcoming). The causal effects of faculty unions on institutional decision-making. Industrial and Labor Relations Review. Retrieved from:

Porter, S. R. & Stephens, C. M. (2010). The causal effects of faculty unions on institutional decision-making. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

Rhoades, G. (1998). Managed professionals: Unionized faculty and restructuring academic labor. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Tullock, G. (1994) The effect of unionization on faculty salaries and compensation. Journal of Labor Research 15, 2, 199-200.

Wickens, C. M. (2008). The organizational impact of university labor unions. Higher Education 56, 5, 545-564.

–Tim Cain

About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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1 Response to The Research on Faculty Unions

  1. Pingback: Research on Faculty Unions by Tim Cain | Campus Faculty Association

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