Why I Belong To An Academic Union

    Copyright 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli

I was a reluctant academic unionist who "retired" mid-career from active union work, and happily returned to the status of "dues-paying member" before retiring in May of 2015.  In addition to having given some of my time to UFF [The United Faculty of Florida], I paid dues for more than 24 years; and since I consider every penny I earn to be sacred, I must have had some reasons (my wife certainly hopes, and expects, that they be good ones) for being a member of an academic union.

In a perfect world faculty unions would be unnecessary--the academic enterprise would be richly rewarded given its inestimable extrinsic and intrinsic value to both citizens and society; the academic community would be well-governed; justice would prevail; and there would be no inappropriate or untoward external intrusions upon the academic enterprise.  In some less than perfect worlds, faculty unions might still not be necessary.  In some such conditions a strong and well-functioning collegial governance structure might suffice for the protection of the academic community and its interests.  I am a vocal proponent of such a strong system of collegial governance, and I have done what I can to try and foster and sustain it over the years.1

Unfortunately, I don't believe we live in a world where a collegial governance system alone will serve to preserve the interests of the academic community and its members.  This provides the first, and for me the most important, of four reasons I offer for the importance of a faculty union--and for joining UFF at FIU [Florida International University].  Call this the "stake-holder argument:" when social conditions (external and/or internal to the university) fall sufficiently far below those requisite to sustain a true academic community (when those who fund, control, and administer higher educational institutions lack sufficient understanding of the essential nature of such communities), academic unions become extremely important as a corrective force within a democratic environment.  Unions like UFF can act to counterbalance the forces which would destroy the special character of the academic community.   In his "Why I Am A Member of the Teachers Union" [11/18/1927], John Dewey, maintained that:  

there is a need for a working, aggressive organization that represents all of the interests that teachers have in common, and which, in representing them, represents also the protection of the children, and the youth in the schools against all of the outside interests, economic and political and others that would exploit the schools for their own ends, and in doing so, reduce the teaching body to a condition of intellectual vassalage.2

A second reason for the importance of a faculty union--and for joining UFF--is what I will call the pragmatic argument: academic unions like UFF provide faculty members with clear-cut collectively bargained contracts, benefits, contract enforcement, job protection, and a strong voice in the political processes which so greatly impact our academic institution and community.  If it is not clear to you that those exercising political power in the state of Florida wish to exploit schools and universities for their own ends, and thereby reduce the academic community to vassalage, then I suspect there is nothing I can say to you that will convince you of this.  One need not be a trained political scientist to read the political tea leaves here however.  If you don't recognize such legislative initiatives as the law which forbids State Universities from facilitating faculty and student travel to "terrorist states" (whether using state, federal or private funding) as intrusions, you might want to pay attention to Steven Uhlfelder's "Reform Tenure Now: Addressing Florida's Failed System,"3 which was "number 001" a policy series sponsored, among others, former Governor Jeb Bush, and the fact that in 2011 the Florida Legislature considered a bill to eliminate tenure for the State College System.  The collegial governance system in Florida is unable to deal with such political forces on its own, but an effective and strong academic union offers much hope of meliorating the effects of these external forces.

I willingly concede that UFF is not as strong a political voice as is necessary, but I believe the blame for this lies neither with the union leadership nor with its members.  This, however, takes me to my third, and final reason for the importance joining UFF at FIU--the "free-riders and morality" argument: if you don't belong, and do your fair bit; you take unfair advantage of the good works of others.  Here, again, Dewey is relevant:  

now, the very existence of teacher's unions does a great deal more than protect and aid those who are members of it; and that by the way, is one reason the Teachers Union is not larger.  It is because there are so many teachers outside of it who rely and depend upon the protection and support which the existence and the activities of the union give them, that they are willing to shelter behind the organization without coming forward and taking an active part in it.4

Here let me address myself to the free-riders, many of whom, over the years have asked me for advice, assistance, and action on their behalf while I was active in the union (and in the collegial governance system): I have a strong sense of justice, and believe that the union must both defend the contract and take up the causes of those who are wronged (whether they be members or not); but I take umbrage at your selfishness and disregard for the general good.  Yes, the union is far, far too weak, but the reason that this is so is because you make it thus.  Those who don't join are like those who don't vote--they weaken the democracy (and they are generally amongst its loudest critics).  I also recognize that some don't join because they believe the union stands for things they don't value.  I recommend that they join, and then work from within to change it.  That's what I did.  Finally, of course, some don't join because of the expense.  It is, of course, your money, but I think you are being penny-wise and pound-foolish!

There is a final reason for joining--the economic advantage one.  Union membership comes with some significant benefits which may be difficult to secure otherwise: first, membership in UFF activates a $1,00,000 professional liability policy; second membership entitles you to UFF representation in any grievance alleging violation of your contractual rights (while everyone is covered by the UFF contract, if you are not a member, the UFF will not enforce that contract for you--and hiring an attorney for this this can easily cost much more than membership); third membership qualifies you for discounted NEA [National Education Association] insurance policies; and finally, by continuing one's membership upon retirement (at a very minimal yearly cost) one is eligible to purchase NEA Medicare Health Insurances (for Parts B, C, and D) as well as retiree dental insurance, as well as discounted auto, homeowners, etc.  Having retired to another state and having looked carefully at Medicare supplemental insurance costs, I was pleased to learn that by continuing my membership ($81/ year, $400 lifetime) I could purchase coverage at about half the price it would have cost to continue my State of Florida health insurance plan as a retiree (the savings would have been considerably less if we had remained in Florida however).  As a member of UFF I supported the union as it fought for significant benefits for all faculty members, benefited through several grievances won regarding summer pay, purchased dental insurance at a reduced rate, and am now enjoying reduced cost Medicare supplemental insurance as well as drug and dental insurance.  I have found that membership actually pays! 

Now if you live in the same imperfect world that I live in, and you don't want a strong academic union to serve as a counterbalance to the sorts of forces I mentioned above, then my advice to you is: don't join.  But if, in the midst of the crises and turmoils which seem the perennial condition in Florida, you are worried about the forces arrayed against the academy then join: it is in your advantage, it is in our advantage, moreover, it is an FIU tradition, and it is the right thing to do!  I personally invite you to join UFF at FIU, and I would be pleased to answer any questions you might have about union membership.  

Notes: (click on the note number to return to the text for the note)

1 See  My View of the Relation of Academic Administration and Collegial Governance for my arguments regarding the importance of collegial governance to academic institutions and my view of the relationships between collegial governance and academic administrations.  

2 John Dewey, "Why I Am A Member of the Teachers Union," in Dewey's The Later Works v. 3 (1927-1928) edited by JoAnn Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 269-275, p. 271.  Dewey's paper was an address delivered at the Membership Meeting of the Teachers Union of the City of New York, Local No. 5, American Federation of Teachers, on November 18, 1927. 

3 Steven Uhlfelder, "Reform Tenure Now: Addressing Florida's Failed System," Outside the Lines: Educational Policy Series Number 001 [Coral Gables: Foundation for Florida's Future, 1995].  The Foundation's address is P.O. Box 144155, 3399 Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Coral Gables, Florida  33134.  

4 John Dewey, "Why I am A Member of The Teachers Union," op. cit., pp. 271-272.  

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Last revised: 11/10/15.