Given past restrictions by rulings from the Supreme Court and the NLRB, union organizing in higher education simply has not been very effective. One of the primary hurdles for most unions in the education arena has been the managerial status of full-time faculty, which would exempt them from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act and the fact that the Supreme Court had exempted religious institutions from coverage under the Act. All that seems to be changing. For many months now unions (primarily SEIU) have been very effective in organizing adjunct instructors of various higher education institutions across the country. Indeed, most recently there was an organized effort for a National Adjunct Walk-Out Day, which thanks to social media received a lot of attention and seemed to make a significant impact in the world of higher education. What will likely result in significant motivation for unions to continue in their organizing efforts is the ruling in December of 2014 by the NLRB that adjuncts at Pacific Lutheran University could form an union based upon the Board’s determination that the adjuncts in question did not have managerial functions; nor did they perform religious duties that would prevent them from being part of the collective bargaining process. No doubt this will be subject to further review of the courts, but it has obviously given life to organizing on a variety of campuses across the country.
In addition, it also seems that organizing of graduate students is now being pushed. Historically, the NLRB has taken the position that graduate students are not employees, but students and therefore not covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Not surprisingly given the more liberal bent of the NLRB these days, unions are also pushing the envelope on this issue, in particular graduate students at Columbia University and New School are now requesting the NLRB to reverse its previous position on this issue to allow them to organize.
Regardless of the legal battles there is no question that pressures are being placed upon universities to address the concerns of adjuncts and graduate students. So far the momentum is definitely in favor of the unions, but like in any organizing situation such institutions could put a halt to such organizing in relative short order. The question is whether or not such higher education programs can be nimble enough to change their mode of operations to successfully defeat such organizing efforts going forward.