The past several years have seen a significant increase in union organizing activity on college and university campuses across the county. This effort has been primarily directed at part-time, non-tenure track teachers such as adjuncts. Unions such as the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) have created specific action plans to recruit and organize adjunct faculty and other campus employees. Using this action plan, the SEIU has successfully organized part-time faculty at several private colleges and universities. In light of these efforts, colleges and universities should consider taking steps to minimize the likelihood of a union organizing campaign and successfully navigate such an effort if it occurs.

Union organizing campaigns, elections, and negotiations for private-sector employers are governed by the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), which imposes specific requirements about how employers and unions must act during a union organizing campaign. Public employers, while generally not subject to the NLRA, may have state law statutes that similarly regulate union organization.

Generally speaking, employers and unions may not interfere with  employees’ exercise of their rights to form, join, or assist a labor organization for collective bargaining, or with employees working together to improve terms and conditions of employment. Interference includes things like the following:

  • Discriminating against employees because of suspected union activity,
  • Threatening employees to discourage them from exercising their rights,
  • Interrogating employees regarding their support for unionization,
  • Making promises to discourage union activity, and/or
  • Inappropriately spying on employees to determine their union sympathies.

Within these restrictions, however, there is room for your institution to develop a successful, positive employee relations plan of action that can help your institution meet its goals with respect to potential unionization. In our experience, most successful unionization efforts are driven by employee discontent. Accordingly, if your institution desires to remain union-free, you should focus on creating a positive management/employee relations plan. In short, good management equals satisfied employees, which generally encourages unions to look elsewhere for an easier target. Such a plan would include effective communication, responsiveness to employee concerns, fairness in employment decisions, teamwork, and competitive compensation.

In communicating with employees about unionization, your institution can express its opposition to, or support of, unionization. If your institution opposes unionization, employees can be told that the institution prefers to deal with its employees individually, personally, and directly rather than through outsiders. You can remind employees that unions cannot guarantee anything, including higher wages or more benefits. In general, campus administrators can make statements regarding the institution’s position as long as the statements are factual, truthful, and not coercive. These statements may include facts, opinions, and personal examples or experiences.  Institutions can be held liable if individual supervisors cross the line into interference in their communication, even if they do so by mistake. Therefore, administrators should receive specific training on these issues prior to implementing any communication plan.

What this means to you

Colleges and universities should decide their position on unionizing efforts now. In particular, those wanting  to remain union-free should start now by developing a plan of action and training appropriate personnel. Waiting until the union organizers arrive on campus will often be too late.