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Organizing the Professoriate: Faculty Unions in Historical Perspective


The unionization of academic workers is a crucial feature of American higher education, with more than 400,000 faculty members and graduate students at over 1,100 colleges and universities covered by bargained contracts and tens of thousands additional college educators otherwise affiliated with unions (Berry & Savarise, 2012). It is also a highly contested one, as the recent legislative standoffs and contentious organizing drives have demonstrated. Union advocates argue that it protects academic freedom, provides adequate grievance procedures, offers defense during retrenchment, ameliorates discipline-based salary disparities, and provides leverage on work-life issues. Opponents contend that unionization is antithetical to professionalization, mitigates expert judgment, hamstrings institutions, damages shared governance, and dismantles faculty status (DeCew, 2004; Nelson, 1997). These debates speak to long-standing questions of democratic functioning, political and social activism, and public trust, as well as to the roles that unions can play in addressing core issues of higher education.

Unionization in higher education is routinely thought to be a relatively new phenomenon. Ladd and Lipset (1973), for example, argued that it originated in the 1960s due to changing societal and employment conditions, and Gordon Arnold (2000) described the “abrupt appearance” of unions in the same decade (p. 37). But that appearance was, in fact, a re-appearance in a new form. College faculty unionization began in November 1918 at Howard University, spread rapidly during the 1930s, and suffered the effects of anti-communist purges from within and without in the 1940s and 1950s. Faculty unions are tied to the corporatization of higher education, as others have argued, but have been so linked since the 1910s, not merely the 1960s and 1970s. In today’s historic trends, events and experiences of organized faculty is important. From their beginnings to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 decision in the National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, the history of faculty unions might be understood as occurring in four phases.



Calls for unionization as a reasonable response to the increased corporatization of higher education began shortly after the turn of the 19th into the 20th century but took on new import as the country approached entry into World War I. With the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) founding as a professional association in 1915, the faculty began to take active steps toward protecting their rights and status, though in explicit opposition to unionization. The AAUP was founded by and for elite faculty at elite institutions. A year later, a very different organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was founded through the affiliation of a handful of existing teacher’s union locals. At first, the AFT was closed to college faculty, but in 1918, as part of a larger effort to expand membership, the union changed its constitution to allow for the affiliation of locals on college campuses (Cain, 2010).

The first AFT faculty local, Local 33 at Howard University, was founded in the immediate aftermath of World War I and was infused with a spirit of democracy and activism. As Walter Dyson (1941), the union’s secretary, later recalled, “The teachers returned to their work, determined to make the schools safe for teachers. They had worked to make the world safe for democracy; now they would work for democracy in education. They had fought autocracy abroad; they would now fight autocracy in the schools” (p. 86-87). The local was likewise concerned with the significant financial struggles that Howard experienced. The main activity of the local during its short existence was lobbying Congress for increased appropriations to the federally supported institution, an effort which the university at first approved but then countered due to fears that it would taint the institution. Indeed, amid the First Red Scare that followed World War I, the institution was under constant federal surveillance for any activity that appeared to be radical. Congressional pressure on Howard and the local’s inability to affect significant change on the institution caused it to fold in 1920 without being able to correct the “degradation of the faculty” that Dyson (1941, p. 96) identified and that the local sought to overcome (Cain, 2012a).

The issues at Howard were echoed at other institutions, including at the University of Illinois, where faculty founded the second college local in early 1919 in hopes of improving both their remuneration and the institution’s governance. Yet, the combination of significant new state funding to alleviate salary concerns, resistance from faculty, and an administration that sought to remove union leaders, caused this second AFT local to soon close, as well (Cain, 2010b). Indeed, of the 20 locals that explicitly included college and normal school faculty as members, all but one closed before 1923. That one, at Milwaukee State Teachers College, was hampered by the firing of its president, Lucius T. Gould, but was able to survive in a skeletal form until the rebirth of faculty unions at the end of the decade. This demise of the first wave was tied to both the larger struggles of the AFT in the period and was specific to higher education. Individual and institutional concerns over leftist politics amid the First Red Scare, attacks on the AFT by the National Education Association—decades from becoming a union itself—and the American Federation of Labor’s withdrawal of support for organizing educators all took significant tolls on the AFT. The tolls, though, were largest on the faculty locals (Cain, 2010a).

Looking across this first wave of faculty unionization, several themes stand out. Perhaps the most important is the interest in organizing provides evidence of the significant changes in higher education taking place in the World War I era. Faculty were dissatisfied with their professional status, concerned about the conditions of their work, and upset with their salaries. They linked the changing control of boards of trustees to the shifting ethos of institutions and sought outlets to improve their lot, and the directions of their institutions. A small subset of these faculty saw unionization as the primary means of undertaking such change. Many of those who unionized also believed that they could achieve larger societal and political change through labor. Just as important as the reasons for unionization in this first period are the failure of the efforts: institutional pressure, fears over radicalism, and concerns over prestige and status. Indeed, this last reason was pressing and could be crushing. At the same time that some faculty saw labor affiliation as the way to overcome class divides, others avoided it in an explicit effort to maintain such stratification (Cain, 2010a).



The AFT as a whole struggled through much of the 1920s. Only at the end of the decade did the union begin to rebound, eventually growing to 32,000 members by 1940 (Murphy, 1990). This reemergence of teachers unions was influenced by larger, Depression-related changes in American society and labor, as well as the enflamed international scene. Unionization across sectors experienced substantial gains, especially after the 1935 National Labor Relations Act provided some workers with the rights to collectively bargain. Between 1930 and 1940, the percentage of the labor force in unions jumped from 12.3 percent to 27.6 percent (Vangiezen and Schwenk, 2001). The establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1937 and the industrial strikes in the late 1930s further changed the nature, experience, and perception of unions in the United States.

In higher education, the first step toward renewal was Columbia University philosopher John Dewey’s 1927 address to the New York Teachers Union. Dewey called on educators to undertake bold action by joining and actively participating in the AFT. Implicating the title of his talk, “Why I am a Member of the Teachers Union,” Dewey (1928) challenged educators by asking, “Why should I not be? Why should not every other teacher be?” (p. 2). He highlighted the idealism and energy of the union, and specifically called on fearful college faculty to abandon their “cowardly position” (p. 4) and unionize. Dewey’s appeal for increased college membership in the AFT was met with the founding of Local 204 at Yale University in 1928, Local 223 at the University of Wisconsin in 1930, and almost 50 additional locals for college faculty in the 1930s. These locals fought for academic freedom, for tenure, and for the rights of educators across sectors and across ranks. Indeed, many of the locals were formed explicitly to aid K-12 teachers, or to speak to issues faced by graduate students and other academic laborers on tenuous appointments. Even more important for many of the locals, was pursuing broader political and social change—joining the union was both a political statement and an act that afforded an avenue for greater political action (Cain, 2010c).

This second wave of faculty unionization came to an end with the beginning of the efforts that resulted in the purge of allegedly Communist-dominated locals in 1941. Never able to overcome the perceived divides between manual and intellectual laborers or fully counter claims that professionalization and unionization were at odds with each other, the movement attracted only a minority of college faculty. Murphy (1990) argued that this was a contentious period for the AFT but also one that resulted in a transition from a “gadfly” union focused on social issues to one more focused on working conditions and teachers’ lives. The experiences of faculty in the AFT emphasize a difficult and complicated transition that raised fundamental questions about the purposes and process of unionization. With the exception of Local 223, the locals in the first part of this period largely avoided issues involving the conditions of their own work. Later in the decade, though, more locals became involved in campaigns for faculty rights and increased compensation. And the AFT played a vital, if conflicted, role in developing modern academic freedom and tenure policies. Without the AFT and its aggressive—and at times politically motivated—stances on tenure and on contested cases involving leftist faculty, the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges would not have combined to write the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Despite this important role as an agitator, the AFT was unable to gain firm footing on college campuses for many of the same reasons that it failed to do so a generation earlier. Fears over radicalism and longstanding issues of stratification and elitism among educators fundamentally inhibited the faculty unions (Cain, 2010c, 2012b, 2013).



The third period began with the decline of the left in the AFT and the build up to the 1941 expulsion of the New York College Teachers Union and two other locals from the AFT. The purge decimated college faculty unionization within the AFT both by eliminating the largest college local and by alienating the college faculty who were often at the left edge of the union; college faculty overwhelming voted against the purges, while K-12 AFT members voted for them even more resoundingly. The vote caused some college locals to fold, dramatically cut membership in others, and added to the great reduction in faculty leadership in the AFT. Eight years later, after World War II had further devastated membership in remaining locals, the AFT expelled perhaps its most vibrant remaining college local, that at the University of Washington (Local 401), amid the increasing pressure of the anti-Communist hysteria. Those faculty remained in the AFT sought a more conservative path, often eschewing any activities that could make them suspect (Cain, 2012b).

As a result of these drastic setbacks in AFT faculty unionizing, radical faculty activists sought alternate routes to affiliate with organized labor. Expelled New York unionists maintained their locals and soon affiliated with the UFW, which became the United Public Workers of American (UPWA) after its 1946 merger with the State County, Municipal Workers of America. Just as significant were the UFW and UPWA locals at Howard and Fisk Universities which rejected AFL-style organizing in favor of industrial approaches and eventually negotiated the first bargained faculty contracts in American higher education. Yet, amid the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ own push to eliminate Communist unions and increasing legislative attacks on public workers, the UPWA was expelled from the CIO, and the first contracts were allowed to expire. This third period was one of two distinct approaches; both ultimately withered, as even the most active college locals shut down or became largely dormant amid fears over communism (Cain, 2012a, 2012b).

The 1960s saw a new era of educational unionization—an era in which the very terms and scope of unionization changed. It was, as Wisconsin Federation of Teachers President William Herziger (1967) an “era of collective bargaining” which brought new opportunities but also “new and complex problems.” Although faculty status and salary had risen in the 1950s and 1960s, difficulties remained in many sectors, especially during the economic downturn in the 1970s. More than ever before, and in part fueled by the growth of higher education, faculty turned to the AFT to improve their working conditions.

The spark for the mass unionization of educational workers was the successful efforts of K-12 teachers to organize and negotiate a contract in New York (Murphy, 1990). The key event at the college level was a strike by the United Federation of College Teachers (AFT Local 1460) at St. John’s University in 1966 after the dismissal of 31 faculty for their efforts to increase salaries. The strike failed to provoke institutional change but galvanized college faculty in the union movement (Kugler, 1997). Shortly thereafter faculty at a number of institutions, including Henry Ford Community College, Chicago’s City Colleges, and Lake Michigan Community College successfully bargained for new contracts. By 1969, faculty at 21 two-year colleges and two four-year colleges in addition to the 19 colleges of the City University of New York, were represented by the AFT in collective bargaining. Just as significantly, the NEA and AAUP reconsidered their approaches, shifted their models and began to support bargaining, as well (Lester, 1968; Hutcheson, 2000).

These organizational efforts bore fruit as faculty unionized at substantial rates in the 1970s, including at private colleges after the National Labor Relations Board provided them with bargaining rights in 1970. The causes for this rise included the enabling legislation and a handful of successful negotiations and strikes in the late 1960s, but extend to the changing conditions of faculty work and of higher education. Certainly, financial concerns were at the heart of this growth of unionization as faculty salaries experienced consecutive years of real declines in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The expansion of higher education, including the growth of multi-campus systems and a perceived rise in stratification and bureaucracy within institutions and systems, likewise contributed. Together, these conditions led to approximately 25-30 percent of all faculty to be covered by bargained contracts by 1979, a number that included faculty at roughly 20 percent of all institutions of higher education in the country (Ladd & Lipset, 1973; Garbarino & Lawler, 1979).

By the end of the 1970s, though, things began to change. The chartering of new locals slowed dramatically in the last two years of the decade, at least in part due to the lack of new state-level enabling legislation. In 1980, faculty unionization met an even more significant challenge when, in NLRB v Yeshiva University, the Supreme Court ruled that faculty at Yeshiva held sufficient managerial power so as to be classified as management, rather than employees, and were therefore precluded from unionizing. The ruling fundamentally changed the nature and experience of faculty unionization in American private colleges and universities, led to the decertification of other units, and largely reverted private college locals to the advocacy and activism model that had existed prior to this fourth phase. In so doing, it marked the end of this fourth phase.


Unionization is a key but under-appreciated facet of American higher education. Collective bargaining is the central feature of many modern union locals and undoubtedly offered new possibilities for faculty when it blossomed in the 1960s. It gave faculty very real power to affect change in their working conditions. Yet faculty unions have and do exist without the ability to bargain and are part of the larger story of unionized faculty in the United States. At times, they have been quite successful in affecting higher education and society, as in the late 1930s. In the modern era, in many states and for some sectors of educational workers, such non-bargaining units are the only options for those interested in affiliating with labor. The historical record demonstrates they should be taken seriously  and that they both reveal and can affect contested aspects of American higher education. At the same time, it highlights that the political pressure placed on them and the bewilderment over professionalism and unionization are longstanding challenges to their success.


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

Berry, J. & Savarese, M. (2012). Contracts and bargaining agents in institutions of higher education. New York, NY: National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. Hunter College of the City University of New York.

Cain, T. R. (2013). Establishing academic freedom: Politics, principles, and the development of core values (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Cain, T. R. (2012a). “‘Only organized effort will find the way out!’: Faculty unionization at Howard University, 1918–1950.” Perspectives on the History of Higher Education 29, 113–150.

Cain, T. R. (2012b). “Unionized faculty and the political left: Communism and the American Federation of Teachers on the eve of World War II. History of Education 41(4), 515–535.

Cain, T. R. (2010a). The first attempts to unionize the faculty. Teachers College Record 112(3), 875–913.

Cain, T. R. (2010b). “‘Learning and Labor’: Faculty unionization at the University of Illinois, 1919–1923. Labor History 51(4), 543–569.

Cain, T. R. (2010c). Why they were members of a teachers union: College faculty and the AFT. Paper presented at the Newberry Seminar in Labor History, The Newberry Library, Chicago, IL.

DeCew, J. W. (2003). Unionization in the academy: Visions and realities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Dewey, J. (1928). Why I am a member of the Teachers Union. American Teacher 12, 3–6.

Dyson, W. (1941). Howard University: The capstone of Negro education. Washington, DC: The Graduate School Howard University.

Garbarino, J. W., & Lawler, J. (1979). Faculty union activity in higher education. Industrial Relations 18, 244-246.

Herziger, W. A. (1967, 29 June) [Letter to Hervey A. Juris]. Wisconsin Historical Society (U.S. Mss. 77a, Box 2, Folder 4), Madison, WI.

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

Kugler, I. (1997). The 1966 strike at St. John’s University, a memoir. Labor’s Heritage 9(2), 4-19.

Ladd, Jr., E. C. & Lipset, S. M. (1973). Professors, unions, and American higher education. Berkeley, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Lester, J. A. (1968). The American Federation of Teachers in higher education: A history of union organization of faculty members in colleges and universities, 1916-1966. Doctoral dissertation, University of Toledo.

Murphy, M. (1990). Blackboard unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Nelson, C. Ed., (1997). Will teach for food: Academic labor in crisis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Vangiezen, R. & Schwenk, A. E. (2001, Fall). Compensation from before World War I through the Great Depression. Compensation and Working Conditions, 17-22.



Dr. Timothy Reese Cain joined the Institute faculty in fall 2013 as an associate professor of higher education. He is an associate editor and the book review editor of History of Education Quarterly. Professor Cain’s research examines a set of interconnected issues involving faculty work and the faculty workers, student protest and speech, shared governance, professionalization and unionization. One main strand of this research considers the development of academic freedom and tenure, in the decades before World War II.

Professor Cain’s research has appeared in Labor History, Perspectives on the History of Higher Education, Teachers College Record, American Journalism and History of Education among other journals. His first book, Establishing Academic Freedom: Politics Principles, and the Development of Core Values, was released in September 2012.

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