Depending on how you measure achievement, the public higher-education system is either highly dysfunctional or hugely successful. While professors face sinking salaries and students writhe under crushing tuition and debt bills, higher education is a booming business, oozing with investment and research capital. But a close look at faculty compensation shows how labor shapes the political economy of the American campus.
A comprehensive analysis of public-regional-university faculties calculates the difference a union makes: about $21,000 annually in pay and benefits. Average salaries of unionized full-time teachers are approximately 15 percent higher, adding some $11,000 to annual earnings, compared to non-union peers. Their benefits bring in an additional $10,000 on average, roughly a third more than non-union counterparts.
Researchers Stephen Katsinas and Nathaniel Bray of University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and Johnson Ogun of University of North Alabama, crunched data for about 390 public regional universities and found that faculties with collective bargaining rights have a distinct advantage. Even accounting for region and institutional size, union-negotiated contracts are linked to markedly higher annual compensation levels, particularly in large suburban regional institutions ($18,500 more annually) and smaller urban institutions ($17,600 more annually), and significantly higher salaries and benefits even at relatively lower-paying rural institutions.
The study doesn’t cover other measures like academic productivity. But consider how union rights and the leverage of a strong contract could change how an institution values academic labor as a long-term institutional investment. According to the study, across a 30-year career at a unionized institution, inflation-adjusted earnings “can easily exceed $1 million.”
Maintaining a strong, dedicated teaching workforce is crucial at regional universities that serve as a middle tier of higher education, with high concentrations of disadvantaged students, such as “first-generation” college attendees. Additionally, researchers observe that these institutions “are highly committed to be good stewards of place,” with a focus on educating and improving the surrounding community’s social conditions (including, for example, uplifting a generation of students in depressed Rust Belt towns seeking brighter career prospects).
For these schools, labor power could have a massive impact on teaching and learning. In terms of a professor’s experience at work, a solid benefits package promotes maintaining a stable and devoted faculty. In an academic labor market reeling from budget deficits and economic volatility, the researchers argue that middle-brow campuses “are challenged, with state budget cuts, to recruit and retain talented faculty.” Meanwhile, the teaching profession is becoming deskilled and mechanized to serve more students with fewer resources. A union contract with job security and top-notch benefits could answer the prayers of many impoverished adjuncts and heavily indebted young doctorates, especially when ultra-prestigious, lavishly funded institutions shut them out of tenure-track positions.