Striking not an option for university faculty

Striking, a tactic often used to resolve collective bargaining disagreements, does not appear to be an option for university faculty.


After more than 120 days, university faculty remain without a contract as collective bargaining between the university’s chapter of the American Association of Union Professors (AAUP) and administration continues.

Various disagreements between the two parties, particularly surrounding a two-tiered retirement benefit system proposed by the administration, have stalled the bargaining process with few recent indications of progress.

The collective bargaining at the university comes at a time of widespread union action and contract negotiations in American higher education. The faculty at 14 Pennsylvania universities recently went on strike, cancelling classes for nearly three days and finalizing a contract for thousands of educators. The strike ended last week.

The Pennsylvania strike occurred after over a year without agreeing on a contract, while University of Delaware contract negotiations approach their ninth month. In the Pennsylvania situation and others across the nation, decreased state financial contributions to universities have caused many of the complications in contract negotiations.

Similar financial difficulties do not appear to be a factor at the university, with recent annual surpluses exceeding $100,000,000.

Unlike the Pennsylvania universities, state law prevents University of Delaware faculty from striking. Historically, striking is a major strategy in American union organizing, and in the Pennsylvania case striking worked to catalyze cooperation between the union and the administration. Without the ability to strike, the type of union action that took place in Pennsylvania cannot legally occur at the university.

Some regard the illegalization of striking as a way of subverting union action and the right to organize. However, according to Thomas Powers, philosophy professor and director of the university’s Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy, the ability to strike is not fundamental to unionization and collective bargaining — especially at colleges and universities.

“When you look at the specific provisions of collective bargaining agreements in education, fire and police departments, etcetera, it’s not the case that striking is seen as a necessary part of collective bargaining,” Powers said. “I think that the fact that striking is removed as a possibility in our case is an indication that, as bad as things might get in negotiating, we can’t let that affect students and the classroom experience. It’s a recognition of the larger good.”

Powers said unionization in higher education is distinct from other forms of unionizing. This distinction is due to concept of shared governance between faculty and administration. He said that faculty and administration work towards the same goal — to act in the best interests of the university — which often leads to a better understanding of motives on each side and smoother negotiations.

Powers added that the everyday operations of a university contribute to these peaceful relations, as the duties of both faculty and administration often overlap.

This shared sense of purpose between faculty and administration has been less apparent in recent university history. A statement from the AAUP released last month voiced discontent with the administration’s two-tiered retirement benefit proposal as part of the ongoing contract negotiations. Additionally, a survey conducted by the AAUP last spring revealed weak faculty workplace morale.

While striking has never occurred at the university, history professor Lawrence Duggan cited a situation that took place during the contract negotiations of 1990 as the university transitioned into the presidency of David Roselle. Duggan said that this instance marked the only time in his experience that striking became a legitimate subject of conversation for faculty.

“We were picketing,” Duggan said. “I put on my academic gown and went out to the football game.”

According to Duggan, the situation warranted this kind of mobilization, but the inability to strike did not reduce the union’s effectiveness.

Duggan also noted that the current state of faculty morale has no precedent in his time at the university, dating back to 1970. He attributed low faculty morale to the distrust and hostility that divided faculty and administration under the Harker administration, as well as to the now eight-month-long contract negotiations and the administration’s insistence on reducing contributions to faculty retirement plans.

The AAUP has not yet implemented any forms of protest. If the union does decide to mobilize, striking will not be an option. In addition to legal restrictions that prevent university faculty from striking, the university’s chapter of the AAUP does not condone the method.

Article VII of the AAUP’s collective bargaining agreement states that neither members of the chapter nor the chapter itself will participate in or support any form of work refusal or lockout.

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