Unlike with other academic workers, unionization among tenure-track faculty is rare. But unions can make it easier for tenure-stream faculty to fight back against the corporatization of higher ed.

Elisheva Gross, a continuing lecturer in the University of California system, supporting a graduate student worker strike. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The last few years at the University of California (UC) have been marked by labor militancy. In 2019, graduate workers at UC Santa Cruz launched a wildcat grading strike to address the soaring cost of living in the coastal enclave, an effort soon joined by many across the UC system. In 2021, with their contract negotiations dragging through a second year, nontenured adjunct faculty represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) voted to authorize a two-day strike, reaching a midnight deal only after they authorized a strike. And late last year, forty-eight thousand graduate workers, postdocs, and academic researchers in four United Auto Workers (UAW) locals walked off the job for six weeks in the largest strike in the United States in 2022 — and the largest higher education strike in history.

In each case, tenured faculty at the UC have found themselves in something of a bind. While they enjoy the great security offered by tenure, they are not themselves unionized, having foregone the opportunity to affiliate with a union after state law allowed them to do so in the 1970s. When graduate students threatened to withhold grades during last year’s strike, this lack of union representation became salient, with the university threatening its tenured professors with discipline and possible docked pay if they collaborated with striking workers.

There is one group of tenured faculty with union representation in the UC system, however: Santa Cruz’s professors formed the Santa Cruz Faculty Association (SCFA) in 1981, and have remained organized since. The SCFA is one chapter of the Council of UC Faculty Associations (CUCFA), a coordinating organization with chapters statewide. But it is the only chapter that is also a recognized union. All tenure-line faculty are meanwhile a part of the Academic Senate, by which faculty engage in shared governance duties within the school.

Jacobin spoke with SCFA cochair Jessica Taft, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at UC Santa Cruz, to understand the relationship between tenure and labor politics at the university, touching on the increasingly corporate structure of academic workplaces, the recent UC academic worker strike, and strategy for organizing in its aftermath.

Sammy Feldblum

The California Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (HEERA) was passed in 1978, and after that there were votes among UC faculty on unionization. Most campuses voted no; at Santa Cruz you all voted yes. Why has it turned out that you all are the only ones with union representation?

Jessica Taft

It’s a good question. I was not here then, so I’m not sure. Santa Cruz was small at the time; it was, I think, only two hundred people who voted in the election. We’re still fairly small compared to UCLA or Berkeley or even Davis. That might be part of it. But also, Santa Cruz was always known as the kind of edgy, critical, interdisciplinary, experimental campus. That was part of its history, around its founding especially — this unique approach to undergraduate education. Santa Cruz didn’t have grades until sometime in the ’90s, so it’s always been a radical, weird UC.

Sammy Feldblum

Are there special challenges to navigate organizing tenure-track professors?

Jessica Taft

We have been thinking about this a lot lately as some of the other campuses reach out to us to ask, “What do we get from being unionized? Should we be thinking about it too?” One of the challenges for tenure-stream faculty is that the usual easy targets around union organizing aren’t available. We already have job security. We already have quite a bit of transparency around our promotion procedures, especially in the UCs. Our wages are decent. They may not always be as equitable across the system as we might like, but a lot of the things that you would go to first in an organizing campaign are not available for tenure-stream faculty.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to unionize. We think a lot about workload issues, which have been an increasing burden for tenure-stream faculty. I think people have been particularly aware of it in the shift to remote instruction, with issues around broader control over the workplace. On the one hand, we have the Academic Senate, which does a fair bit of governance work for us and is supposed to be a site for voice, but it doesn’t quite do the same things that a union can do in terms of making particular elements of workplace life bargainable.

A lot of the things that you would go to first in an organizing campaign are not available for tenure-stream faculty.

There are great models out there of unionized tenure-stream faculty: Rutgers, USC [the University of Southern California], and the University of Oregon, which organized not that long ago. We have some particular restraints and challenges because we can only bargain on local issues. If a decision is made at the UC Office of the President (UCOP) and it comes down to the campus, we don’t necessarily have to be consulted in that decision. If there is campus discretion, then we do. We’ve been perpetually trying to expand the terrain of what’s bargainable.

John Schmidt

Does the nature of tenure as an institution, which we historically associate with protecting the pursuit of individual academic inquiry, also prevent faculty from connecting it to more immediate workplace issues?

Jessica Taft

Although it’s clearly a workplace protection in many ways, right? But the other element of it is that faculty have a tendency to see ourselves as doing the work for the love of the work. There’s a narrative around professional identity, but also a passion for your work, that can make unionization tricky. But I also think that the increasingly corporate structures, the neoliberalization of higher education, the bureaucratization, the ways in which faculty find themselves increasingly being treated as cogs, opens up possibilities as well. The conditions of the higher ed workplace are changing. In response to some of those changes, there’s more openness to unionization among tenure-stream faculty than there might have been fifteen or twenty years ago, when the idea of a passion for the work was maybe more compelling.

I also think there’s an interesting generational shift happening with graduate student unionization over the past twenty years, as you see more faculty entering the system having come from graduate worker unions and with union experience. That’s changing the terrain, making it much more possible to imagine a successful union campaign among tenure-stream faculty in the UC system. During your strike [of grad workers, postdocs, and academic researchers in 2022], the number of faculty I talked to who were like, “I was a member of 2865 three years ago. I’m not going to cross that picket line” was notable.

Sammy Feldblum

What were you able to do on Santa Cruz’s campus, having union representation as tenure-line professors, versus on other campuses during the 2022 UAW strike? Did that change the experience for you all? Were you able to do things that other campuses weren’t?

Jessica Taft

I think it changed how people related to the information that was being provided to them. SCFA, because we’re the [sole] bargaining agent that exists within CUCFA, had a significant role in producing the CUCFA legal guidance, because of our particular responsibility to our unit members. We then used the CUCFA guidance the same way that the other faculty associations did. But I think it was received differently. It’s a different thing when you get a message from the group that you know is your union, telling you that these are your rights in a labor dispute, than if the message comes from a faculty association that you’ve never heard of before.

The increasingly corporate structures, the neoliberalization of higher ed, and the ways faculty find themselves being treated as cogs open up possibilities for organizing.

SCFA called a lot of meetings over the course of the strike. Some of them were more informational, but some of them were organizing meetings, to think together about what our support would look like. I think that, given our size, we can get people together and plan and engage in political action quickly. Some of that is the SCFA particularity, but I think a lot of it is learning from the wildcat, when faculty who think about themselves as organizers came together, found each other, and were mobilized by grad student radicalism. This was in some ways a pulling back together of a community that already knew each other.

John Schmidt

I know that is important, because I was sharing CUCFA guidance with faculty on my campus. The overwhelming response was, “I have never heard this before.”

Jessica Taft

My sense is that CUCFA has for most of its recent history been primarily focused on issues of lobbying the state government and thinking about funding for higher education. That’s super important work, and I am glad that they have been doing it. But there’s been a shift recently in CUCFA to also start getting back in touch with the idea of the faculty associations as proto-unions. The president of CUCFA has been pretty active in Higher Education Labor United, and also in doing more coalitional work with AFT and with AFSCME [the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees], and with UPTE [University Professional and Technical Employees] in these UC union meetings statewide — trying to reorient CUCFA from just thinking in terms of lobbying for public higher ed and thinking more in terms of faculty organizing. And SCFA, I think because we’re a bargaining agent and the other faculty associations are not, has helped keep that approach present in CUCFA.

And there are things that CUCFA has to be notified about because of the existence of SCFA. The fact that there is one faculty association that’s a union matters for everybody.

Sammy Feldblum

What was the relationship between SCFA and the grad workers during the UAW strike?

Jessica Taft

It was great. The grad organizers here are really sharp and strategic. They know what they’re doing, and the relationship between SCFA and our local leadership in the UAW was great. I think we had lots of good conversations and collaboration about what solidarity would look like, what the needs were, and when various things needed to be communicated to who and how to do it. It felt really collaborative. We’re still dealing with the aftermath of the strike, and we’re doing it together with UAW and AFT.

John Schmidt

UC graduate workers have a contract now. Are there concerns at Santa Cruz that the university might try to pay for that contract by pushing the cost downward to departments and individuals?

Jessica Taft

It’s a huge issue. What we’re seeing here is less pushing of costs, although that may be happening more in the sciences with the research costs. What we’re seeing more is a pressure to shrink graduate programs. It’s coming as a demand that we admit less students. That has huge consequences for faculty, for the institution. They’re still talking about growing undergrad enrollment, but then shrinking the number of graduate students. How are we going to be a functional research university if we don’t have graduate students? My hope is, in addition to working with the unions, that we can also get the senate on board around this because it’s about the health of the university in an obvious way.

How are we going to be a functional research university if we don’t have graduate students?

SCFA’s been thinking about it also as a labor argument, although we have concerns about thinking about graduate students only as labor. There’s some caution about how to approach this, because we don’t want graduate students just so they can be teaching assistants in our classes — we want graduate students because that’s the intellectual work that we’re committed to. It’s not just a labor problem.

Sammy Feldblum

Certainly on our campus, it seemed like a lot of tenure-line professors found themselves flummoxed by the messaging that was coming from the UC during the strike. Do you think that has provoked a change within the senate faculty in thinking about their position in the university?

Jessica Taft

I definitely have heard that, on some other campuses, folks saw the university treating them in ways they didn’t expect. There was some outrage about the attestations in particular and some of the other manipulative, intentionally vague messaging. There was a sense that the faculty senates were a little too aligned with the administration and that messaging — and that was very divergent based on different campuses, some senates were putting out the administration line and some were not. But for some people, this was also illuminating: they had thought that the senate was the place that protected faculty rights, and this was surprising to them. I think that certainly creates some shifts.

Faculty are good at complaining, but they’re not always good at organizing. How do we build more structure and capacity for organizing each other in response to these problems? There’s always a simmering discontent about the administration doing this, that, and the other thing. But the ability to figure out how to act collectively on it is where we’ve not always been great. That’s also one of the real values of unionization: it creates a structure for channeling discontent.

There’s the commitment to the rational also, like, “If I can just write another strongly worded letter, it will convince them that this is the right thing to do.” It takes a while to get faculty to realize that their strongly worded letters are not working. It’s not about reason and having the better argument in this case. When it comes to our relationship to our employer, we have to think about how power works. Writing the right argument won’t necessarily get us there.

John Schmidt

We care a lot about UC-AFT and adjuncts, because I think that we see our future there. What is your relationship like to AFT? How have you tried to build or deepen relationships between tenured and nontenured faculty? And a related, broader question: What’s the road map for academic unionism?

Jessica Taft

AFT is a great resource for us. They have folks who’ve been thinking about these issues; they’re our colleagues and have a lot of insight and a lot of skill around organizing. In terms of our relationship with them: great. We get along well. We work together on various things. People were ready to honor their picket line last year when they were talking about a strike as well.

That’s one of the real values of unionization: it creates a structure for channeling discontent.

The road map: in this moment, post-pandemic, faculty just keep being given more to do and less support to do it — less staff support, fewer graduate students to work with. “Just move it online. Shift to remote instruction.” The sense of speed-up is palpable. I also think that there is widespread concern about the defunding of public higher ed. So if we’re talking about public higher ed unionization, the faculty see the problems with the privatization of the institution, the lack of central support for research. My colleagues in the sciences are constantly having to pursue grants to support their graduate students and don’t have time for their own research anymore. There are broad working-conditions issues that faculty across multiple disciplines, multiple locations in their career are concerned about. I think the idea of having more control over those structural conditions and seeing them as structural problems . . . because there’s also a tendency to be like, “Oh, it’s just my problem. I have too much to do. I’m overwhelmed. I have to always apply for grants.”

I have been pleasantly surprised by how many people have been reaching out. The conversations have been great, and it makes me optimistic. I’m glad people realize that we are unionized. And I’m glad people are interested in thinking about what that means and how we build from this. We would benefit from being able to negotiate the systemwide level and not just local issues, but even having our local thing is better than not having it.

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