At colleges, unions fight for equity as well as pay

Higher education unions have been on the rise in recent years, and experts say this labor movement is different from other sectors: more focused on equity issues, racial justice and academic freedom at a time when many feel schools are under attack.

Financial matters, however, are still a primary concern. The most recent labor win came from the California Faculty Association (CFA) on Monday after California State University (CSU) reached a deal with the union less than 24 hours after it declared a strike, securing pay increases and better maternity leave for employees.

The CSU system had also faced a strike in 2021 in part over salary discrepancies that largely affected minority educators. Organizers said some lecturers and librarians, who were primarily Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, were paid much less than tenure-tracked full-time faculty.

“With diversity and inclusion statements now a part of the landscape at colleges and universities — thanks to decades of hard work by union activists and others, and partly due to the ‘racial reckoning’ that followed the murder of George Floyd — many of those associated with higher education have been hopeful that equity on campus would begin to become a reality,” the American Federation of Teachers said at the time.

“But faculty, staff and community members are finding that despite grand proclamations, follow-through action is often in short supply and the issues of inequity continue to plague them.”

The new agreement reached by the CFA, however, still needs to be ratified by the full union and has faced pushback from those who say it doesn’t go far enough.

“I think what makes the labor movement in higher ed different from the larger labor movement is that in addition to bread-and-butter issues, there’s always demands for academic freedom and often racial justice, equity issues, mental health issues, social justice issues,” Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, told The Hill.

There were 20 higher education strikes from the beginning of 2022 to the middle of 2023, one-third of all such strikes since 2013, according to the “State of the Unions 2023” report released in September.

Unions at Rutgers University last year secured pay increases for all graduate students and for graduate fellows to be reclassified as graduate assistants so they can receive benefits.

And the University of Michigan’s Graduate Employees’ Organization was able to secure full-paid diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions and benefits for graduate students through its negotiations in 2017.

Tobias Higbie, director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Los Angeles, said lecturers in particular often face a tough combination of low salaries and poor job security.

“Housing is very expensive, and you have academic workers who are housing insecure and sometimes even without homes,” Higbie said, adding that schools are facing “pressure across the board for all kinds of workers.”

“More and more, you’re seeing that academic workers are ready and willing to go on strike to press their demands in negotiation,” he added.

The recent surge in the higher education labor movement coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic as educators fought over school openings and mask policies while witnessing unions in other industries score big wins.

“I think it was a perfect storm of COVID where people are just open now, realizing that some of the benefits that they thought were good weren’t,” said Melissa Atkins, a labor and employment lawyer at Obermayer.

“They want to be compensated like other unions. They see other unions getting these historic raises and think ‘well, why not us?’ That’s probably what they’re talking to their union leadership about,” Atkins said.

Colleges have taken notice, and the swift win from CFA could potentially give more confidence to other higher education unions to take action.

“I do think campus managers are probably discussing these things a little bit more than they used to, how to prepare for job actions. And, undoubtedly, they’ve got their management consultants, just like private sector managers do, telling them how to do this,” Higbie said.

Meanwhile, those in higher education continue to feel like their profession is under siege, especially with calls from conservatives to abolish DEI departments and entire disciplines such as gender studies.

“Faculty are never just negotiating around compensation. It’s always the larger issues of academic freedom, faculty governance, the working conditions,” Mulvey said.

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