Why Academe Needs Unions and How to Form One: An Interview with Robin Sowards

June 28, 2022   •   By Jeffrey J. Williams

ACADEME SOMETIMES seems like a world apart from commerce, but it is currently the site of a good deal of union activity. Robin Sowards has been active in organizing campaigns in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, including successful efforts at Point Park University, Robert Morris University, and, most recently, the University of Pittsburgh.

He originally trained to be a professor, earning a PhD in English from Cornell in 2006, but after adjuncting for several years, he started working for United Steelworkers in 2012. He has also served as president of the New Faculty Majority, the leading organization of contingent faculty, and still occasionally teaches linguistics. I spoke with Sowards on February 24, 2022, in Pittsburgh.

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JEFFREY J. WILLIAMS: Why do we need unions?

ROBIN SOWARDS: The purpose of forming a union is for you and your colleagues to negotiate with your employer as an equal. If you are an employee, you aren’t usually an active participant in negotiating your terms and conditions of employment — how much you get paid, what working conditions are like, benefits — because you’re negotiating as an individual. That puts you in a fundamentally unequal bargaining situation. But if you join together with your colleagues and negotiate collectively, then you meet as equals across the negotiating table, and as a result, can get better terms and conditions of employment for everybody. It’s a difference between being in the position of pleading as a subordinate for improvements to your work life versus negotiating as an equal.

Some say that unions don’t belong in academia because it’s different from, say, a factory or other kind of workplace. Is academia a special case?

I tend to take a long historical perspective, in which academia doesn’t look different from other workplaces. If you look at the origins of the European university in Bologna, it started as a democratic organization of students. Then there was a similar organization of faculty, and they joined together. When Bologna was formed in 1088, craft guilds were a growing social phenomenon. Not only is the union form appropriate to the university, but universities also were originally something that looked like a labor union. And they were highly democratic at the very beginning.

In the 20th century, there was a lot of faculty unionization in higher education, with the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] in the 1940s and especially in the public sector a few decades later. So, there’s a long history of unionization in higher ed, and it parallels the history of unionization elsewhere in the economy. It’s something that people sometimes think of as foreign or unusual, but it’s not.

Do you think that the position of unions has changed in academe because there’s been so much casualization and adjuncting over the past 30 years?

You’re right that a lot of faculty unionization, especially in the last 20 years, has been driven by part-time faculty, in part because they’ve increased both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the profession. That shift toward increasingly precarious forms of faculty labor is damaging to the people who are working in those roles, and it undermines the academic mission even of tenured faculty, who are better off. But adjuncts have been leading the way recently.

One counter to unionization is that professional class people, like doctors or lawyers, don’t need unions. Unions are for line workers, and a union would be an external force and take away professional autonomy and control.

The union is not an external force. You’re forming a democratic organization of yourself and your co-workers. And we have physicians who are members of the USW. Historically, physicians were treated as something like an owner or a shareholder in the organization they worked for, so those who wanted to form unions faced greater legal barriers than faculty. But even with physicians, there’s been a shift away from having that professional autonomy. Very often, physicians are hospitalists: they’re straightforwardly employed by the hospital. Sometimes they might have their own individual practice, but, to a great extent these days, they’re aggregated into a larger structure and more in an employee role than in an employer role. And that changes your ability to control your working conditions, to treat patients as you see fit, and to ensure adequate staffing levels. So now it’s easier for physicians to organize, and they have a steadily increasing incentive to do so.

How does one start a union? We hear about them when there’s a vote, but I remember that Pitt’s union effort began in 2015, so it takes time.

Especially with a very large group like that, that’s spread across five campuses and is highly stratified, it takes a while.

How does the process work? What are the nuts and bolts of how people go about it, whether at a small college or at a big school?

Normally, an organizing campaign starts when a group of faculty, even just two people, get together because they want something to be different, and they don’t have the power to change it through the usual channels like the faculty senate. They usually try those mechanisms and find that they aren’t effective, so they decide they want to form a union. At that point, they usually reach out to one of the national or international unions that are active in the sector, and then there’s an initial conversation.

I encourage people to talk to several different unions with which they might affiliate because every national or international union is structured differently, and those structures have upsides and downsides. There are not good unions and bad unions, but it’s important for there to be a good fit with what the group of workers wants to do and what kind of local union they want to be. So, they do their research and take a vote to affiliate their organizing committee with the union that best fits them.

By the way, they could also do it on their own, forming an “independent” union. But there are significant obstacles: there’s a set of arcane legal regulations, and the organizing process itself is difficult. I like to say that organizing is not rocket science, but it is a science and has a methodology, so it helps to have someone teach you. The things that are effective aren’t obvious, and some things that seem like they would be effective can be catastrophic. For example, academics frequently have an impulse to start an organizing campaign by having a big, open forum, but that does not work.

Why is that?

When you’re forming a union, you’re building a democratic organization among your co-workers. That organization consists of a set of relationships, of a network of people who trust and respect one another and are willing to have each other’s backs. That sense of solidarity is the source of the union’s strength; it is where your leverage comes from.

Now, every workplace already has a bunch of social relationships; you’re not starting with a blank slate. But even people subject to conditions that make them unhappy have a bias in favor of the status quo. So there have to be one-to-one conversations between co-workers because they’re the ones who are going to have to stand up for each other. That’s also not something that a union staffer can do for them. They have to build their union themselves. That’s why the individual person-to-person conversation is more or less synonymous with organizing. Later on, mass meetings of various kinds can have their role, but not until you have an organization developed enough to hold such meetings.

Sometimes there’s the idea that a union is something that you bring in, like bringing contractors into your house, so I see your point that, while you might suggest methods, they have to make the union themselves. How does that work?

Often the employer will focus on the idea that the union is an outside third party that’s coming between the faculty and the administration and wrecking the collegial model of governance. But that’s not true; it gives faculty their own control. For faculty, it’s a natural thing for some people to want a union that’s a fee-for-service organization, but that just isn’t how a union works. A union is effective to the extent that its members are active participants and leading it.

For us in the Steelworkers, we’re like most CIO unions: our members include a wide spectrum of people working in a wide array of different workplaces, from higher ed to nursing homes to literal steel mills. And we assume that the workers in a particular workplace are the experts on their workplace. They know their co-workers, they know the work they do, and they know the employer better than anybody coming from outside. Union staff can provide the expertise on labor law or analyses of their benefits package and so on, but as far as the substance of the issues they want to negotiate over, they know what they need and they know what their priorities are. People sometimes take a while to get their heads around the fact that the union really is just them, not an outside entity.

So at first a few people get together and start talking to others in their workplace, and maybe to other unions too. What happens after that?

Step one is to form the initial volunteer organizing committee and make an affiliation decision. Then they build a list of all their co-workers. That seems like a trivial thing, but it’s very significant because you’re building a structure-based organization, not an activist group. An activist organization is usually self-selecting. If you’re an environmental activist group, for example, then environmentalists will join it, and, in general, you’re speaking to people who mostly already agree with you. But that limits your ability to grow a support base, and your goal in a union is to form a democratic organization of all of your co-workers.

For instance, if the entire faculty organizes, it’s going to include people who have politics you disagree with and who have different backgrounds from yours. You’re building an organization that people will become part of purely by getting hired at that workplace, so your list includes a very heterogeneous universe of people. Also, in academia, there are often barriers according to rank: Are you on the tenure track or off it? Are you full- or part-time? And there are other hierarchies according to discipline. You’ve got to break down all of those barriers to build an organization that cuts across and enables everyone to show solidarity with people who are not like them.

What is your advice for starting those conversations? What are some of the techniques?

Part of my experience of learning to organize was learning how to have normal conversations with people, which is mostly about listening. As a socially awkward person in academia, you know how to orate and debate but not how to shut up and listen. Your interactions with colleagues in the scholarly context are often when you’re debating and making arguments. That adversarial way of doing things is not what an organizing conversation is about.

So, one lesson is listening, and we train people to respond by asking questions instead of shifting it back to themselves or delivering a pitch. Sometimes informative responses have their role, but if you want to get somebody to a place where they see things need to change and believe in a plan to make those changes, feeling genuine hope that they can actually win, then that’s about them. It’s not about you, so you have to get in the habit of asking questions and following up on the things they say. To build the relationship I am talking about, they have to trust that you are there to stand up for them. You’re calling upon them to stand up for you too, which is a mutual recognition, and you have to start by genuinely taking an interest in them and learning what their concerns are.

Usually, another lesson is about the union not being a third party. Part of that is helping people shift how they use language: if they say, “Our salaries have been stagnating for a decade, and we need a union to bargain for us to have better salaries,” I’d say that the idea is fine, but it’s not this outside entity, “the union,” that will bargain for you. The faculty are the agent acting on their own behalf as a union. Those ways of talking about unions as outside entities appear in the media and in popular discourse, so it’s a hard habit to break.

After the organizing committee assembles a list, they go out and talk to people. That must take a while.

Ideally, you reach out to everyone, which takes time. You follow the paths of the organic social networks that already exist, but, in the end, you want to include everybody, so you want to add new people to the organizing committee who are strongly supportive of the union and willing to talk to their co-workers about it. That also increases the pace, since you have more people talking to other people. More than anything else, your pace and your ultimate success are determined by how large that organizing committee is and who’s on it.

So it might take a matter of months or a year or more to build the organizing committee and then talk to people?

The timeline can vary. Sometimes things happen fast. There’s a moment where the people on the initial organizing committee have exhausted their organic social networks, and they’ve got to cross over to a building they’ve never been in with colleagues they’ve never talked to. How long that takes varies depending on the size of your organizing committee and the size of your bargaining unit.

After you talk to everybody, then you need to go through a process to get recognition from the employer to collectively bargain. There are a couple of different routes to recognition. One is a labor board election. In the public sector in Pennsylvania, you would ask union supporters to sign authorization cards that basically say they want a union. Under both the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board and the National Labor Relations Board, you have to have at least 30 percent of your prospective bargaining unit sign cards for it to be worth it for the government to spend taxpayer dollars to run an election. But you usually don’t want to file with just 30 percent.

Why not?

For practical purposes, the rule of thumb is that you want two-thirds of your bargaining unit to sign cards. As soon as you file a petition, there’s a notification to the employer. They might already know about the organizing campaign, but that’s when they usually start running an anti-union campaign to try and suppress the free decision of their workforce.

When you petition for an election, the labor board conducts a secret ballot vote. If you win that vote, if more than half of valid ballots favor forming a union, then the labor board will certify it. That basically amounts to the government stepping in to require the employer to recognize you and bargain in good faith. You can skip the labor board election if a majority of the faculty have signed cards, and the employer is willing to recognize you based on a confidential count of the cards by a third party, but employers are rarely so reasonable.

Many universities like Pitt hire law firms that specialize in anti-union activity. What do administrators and those firms do to thwart the union?

There’s been a number of studies, including a recent report from EPI [Economic Policy Institute], that look at anti-union activity in the United States and techniques that employers use, both legal and illegal. Some of the things that seem manifestly unethical are, in fact, legal. Employers frequently lie in various ways, and lying is often not illegal. They’re legally allowed to deliberately mislead people.

What kind of things do they lie about?

They’ll say, “If the union comes in, you won’t be able to even have a conversation with your chair anymore. Everything will have to go through the union.” And they’ll be able to point to a court case that says “direct dealing” is unlawful. But the phrase direct dealing is a legal term of art with a different meaning from its meaning in ordinary English.

Does it mean that if there’s a union contract on salary, you can’t have a direct dealing with a dean to make a separate deal?

At a university like Pitt, the normal thing to do is set salary minima, and then above that everybody is negotiating individually over salary. If the minimum in the union contract says you can’t get paid less than $50,000, it would be illegal to cut a deal where you’re paid $45,000. But you can talk to your chair whenever you like about anything. There’s nothing in the law that bars that.

What other kinds of things do administrations do?

Lying isn’t illegal, but United States employers also sometimes do illegal things, like identifying the biggest union supporters and firing them. That happens shockingly often in manufacturing and some service sector environments. For instance, Starbucks fired several people who were prominent leaders in recent union campaigns.

The public sector has lower levels of anti-union activity than the private sector. In private sector organizing campaigns, three-quarters of employers will hire anti-union consultants; in the public sector, it’s more like a quarter. And, even in the private sector, nonprofits do much less anti-union activity than for-profit entities. Higher education is on the less aggressive end of the scale. In the manufacturing environment, you often have aggressive anti-union activity, and it’s perfectly legal for the employer to force every employee to come to a captive audience meeting, where they can force you to sit there for eight straight hours, listening to a continuous stream of anti-union propaganda. In addition to videos, they bring in full-on professional persuaders. The point is not the information; the point is a show of force — to show you that they can force you to sit there.

In higher ed, the most common anti-union tactics usually involve dilatory litigation, which was the main tactic at Pitt, and top-down misinformation, so maybe emails from the provost’s office blasted to the entire faculty. Those messages might be signed by the provost, but they’re written by an anti-union consultant. It’s illegal to say, “If you vote for a union, xyz negative thing will happen,” but they can cherry-pick an example where a union was formed and then the mill closed, or something like that. They don’t directly threaten to close the facility, but they just leave open the implication.

A lot of the rhetoric at research universities focuses on prestige and class. There’s a sense of, “Aren’t unions for construction workers?” Even though plenty of people in research universities are organized, administrators will still try to treat unionization as abnormal. Another typical thing employers say is that there are no guarantees in bargaining that things will get better; they could get worse. That’s one of those things that technically is not false. But as a practical matter, if you look at first contracts, they are always improvements to the status quo.

I know you’re aware of the larger history of unions, and USW is a broad industrial union. Is that the right model for academia?

There are craft unions that are for a particular trade. Most of the building trade unions still have an identity anchored in a particular craft. That structure works because, in construction, for example, you’ve got jobs that come and go, and there are multiple employers, and it changes over time. The union offers training programs that give people the skills of the craft, after which they can join the union, and then it goes to the employers and offers them labor that has that high skill level. The union controls the pipeline of training and the price of certain kinds of skilled labor.

Theoretically, academia looks similar. It looks like a guild and sometimes talks about itself in that sort of language, but we don’t actually control, say, how many people get PhDs in the aggregate, and we don’t control the price of labor. In fact, it’s our employer who does that, so it’s actually much more like a steel mill. In keeping with that, the CIO model is that we should organize every employee in the workplace, instead of separate unions for each craft. You have leverage to the extent that you’ve got people standing together, and that’s directly proportional to how inclusive you are.

How did you end up in a union?

A lot of my transition had to do with the fact that I went from being a non-tenure-track but full-time faculty member in Central New York to being a trailing spouse who was an adjunct. It meant that my teaching load didn’t change, but I got paid $40,000 less a year to do the same job. The contrast was really conspicuous to me. And my experience was going from being treated by my colleagues as an equal to being treated, I don’t think deliberately or consciously but just because of the way academia acculturates people, as a second-class citizen. I was outraged in various ways by the experience of being an adjunct, and one of my co-workers proposed we form a union. A few of us met in a conference room in a public library, and we had a conversation, four of us at first, going through the process that I talked about before. We reached out to various unions, but we all wanted to be in the Steelworkers. I mean, this is Pittsburgh!

For me, there was a lot of disappointment and frustration, but that was when I started organizing, and doing so altered my experience at work. Being an adjunct is mentally damaging, I think, but organizing adjuncts is very liberating. I felt I recovered some dignity and felt intellectually energized and engaged in my workplace when I became a union staffer.

What was one of the lessons you learned in unionizing?

One was coming to understand the problems in the workplace in institutional rather than personal terms. Often people have got a bad dean or provost, and that prompts a lot of outrage, which then gets focused on the individual and their conduct. That’s why faculty who don’t have a union do things like no-confidence votes: people see that specific person as the problem. But the next provost still has the same job, and even though they might be perfectly nice, the institutional forces acting on them are the same, and systems can do evil things. The problem is that, without a union, the faculty members don’t have the power to be a countervailing institutional force.

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Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted nearly 80 interviews with critics, writers, historians, philosophers, and editors, published in Minnesota ReviewSymplokeIowa Review, and elsewhere. He has written on the form in “Criticism Live” (Biography, 2018) and “The Rise of the Critical Interview” (New Literary History, 2019), and his book, How to be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, includes profiles drawn on various interviews.