By Sophie Foster
Washington College is not new to union dialogues, but 2023 is marking a significant turn in how those dialogues are allowed to progress on campus.
Students should be watching — and they should be hoping for the College’s faculty union to achieve its full potential. According to previous Elm coverage, the process to earn recognition as a union was long and complicated. Beginning in 2019, when serious conversations began at length surrounding budgetary constraints at the College, conflict arose between decision-makers on the Board of Visitors and Governors and the faculty task force members working to address financial issues.
The faculty passed their resolution to explore unionization in May 2020, which led to the formation of a Union Working Group and an American Association of University Professors advocacy chapter.
According to previous Elm coverage, the union-hopefuls faced continuous setbacks and stressors at the hands of the College, which perpetually places roadblocks in the way of the union’s actualization.
The function of a union, in this case, is relatively straightforward, according to Associate Professor of Sociology and President of AAUP-WC Dr. Erin Anderson.
“Labor unions are collections of individuals who work for an organization,” Dr. Anderson said. “There is an inherent imbalance between employers, who are in charge, and employees, who take orders. Labor unions give employees the power of numbers to negotiate salaries, benefits, working conditions, and other aspects of employment. Unions are particularly important in economies based on capitalism because they provide power and protections to employees who work at the will of their employers.” According to AAUP, this is not the first time WC has had its eyes on union efforts. In fact, the College first formed an AAUP chapter in 1949, but it fell dormant as activity dwindled — until the financial crisis at the College amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s height. WC’s chapter was, in actuality, one of many established as a direct result of COVID-19’s onset and affiliated financial disturbances.
“Unionization is a long-term goal for most Washington College faculty members, who face legal obstacles to collective bargaining at private institutions, but organizing as an advocacy chapter has empowered them to act rapidly and effectively in the short term,” according to AAUP.
About 25% of higher education institutions across the nation currently have unionized faculty and staff, according to Dr. Anderson. The presence of a union, or the lack thereof, carries significant implications about wages, benefits, and the ways in which tax dollars are spent.
“In general, unions provide better working conditions and better pay for employees,” Dr. Anderson said. “They also mean less employee turnover so employees and businesses can predict more stability. There is also evidence that unions can help to promote workplace diversity.”
Bearing these attributes of successful unions in mind, it is alarming that unionization is being met with such firm resistance at WC, according to previous Elm coverage. Regardless, the pushback indicates a concerning lack of empathy for the College’s faculty.
In the face of contract non-renewals, the elimination of positions, and a series of faculty and staff resignations in the last few years, it is, without question, time for WC to make its support of its entire employee base more sincere.
According to Dr. Anderson, increased stability for those tasked with teaching students is an excellent way to both recruit and retain “excellent teacher-scholars.” Becoming more competitive in terms of pay and benefits would lead to the College’s ability to offer more courses, more diversity in curriculum, and an overall improved educational experience.
With the dip in enrollment and retention, this endeavor of educational progression is certainly a worthwhile one.
“Faculty in support of this [union] believe that if we are able to act as a collective body, we will be able to ensure that the tenets of shared governance that our college subscribes to are applied consistently, thus allowing faculty to better advocate for the interests of our students,” Dr. Anderson said.
Students who are invested in indicating alignment with this advocacy can do so in a myriad of ways, according to Dr. Anderson.
The first step is asking questions and seeking a deeper understanding of unionization. Students should investigate organized labor’s history, its development and expansion throughout the 1900s, their nationwide contraction since the 1980s, and their continued value today.
According to Dr. Anderson, students can do this by taking courses in the social sciences and humanities that will expose them to this history and these realities. They should also begin learning about their own intended employment fields to more fully understand “the ways in which organized labor has or could contribute to fair wages, workplace safety, and job security.”
The next step is empathizing with inadequately paid workers and workers enduring difficult, dangerous, or vulnerable workplace experiences as a result of a lack of union benefits.
This empathy can be demonstrated by electing officials who stand for political office in vocal favor of unions and worker interests, giving their patronage to unionized businesses and avoiding those engaged in active labor disputes, and, here on campus, telling their professors and administrators that they are in full support of the unionization effort here.
“Unionization…can promote equity, transparency, and shared governance at Washington College, all things we believe will make a stronger institution,” Dr. Anderson said.
Whether or not the College is successful in achieving this unionization is integral to considering its ability to function enduringly as an institution at all.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Caption: Strong unions are, provably, often indicators of thriving institutions.