Vicarious embarrassment—it’s the feeling you get when you watch someone else in an awkward situation. It’s the best description of how I feel when I hear my colleagues at the University of Missouri-St. Louis explain why faculty members should unionize. Squirming, stomach churning . . . you get the idea. 

It’s not that I’m anti-union—I’m simply anti–bad ideas.

I grew up in a union household.  My dad was a union carpenter until the day he retired.  The union helped secure a good income for him, along with great benefits and a healthy pension. It also provided many wonderful memories for me. I can vividly recall the union picnics where the RC Cola flowed like wine and my brother and I cleaned up at all of the games. 

It wasn’t until later that I realized what a union was or why unions were formed. For my dad and other laborers working on rooftops, in factories, or in situations where working conditions were hazardous, unions provided a means for increasing safety and improving working conditions.  As I sit in my air-conditioned office, I see little in common between my father’s work environment and mine.  Moreover, I see little reason to believe unionization could cure any of the ills we see at UMSL.

It is no secret that times have been rough on our north St. Louis County campus.  Student enrollment is down and state appropriations for operating expenses have yet to rebound to pre-recession levels. These circumstances helped to create a multi-million-dollar budget shortfall that forced university officials to lay off dozens of staff and adjunct faculty members.

My colleagues who wish to organize point to this and a host of other issues as reasons for unionization. They argue that salaries for adjunct instructors are too low, salaries for non–tenure track professors are too low (and such professors don’t get tenure), faculty salaries are too low, and we haven’t been able to hire new faculty for two years because of a hiring freeze.  Regardless of whether these things are true, unionization is hardly the answer. 

Unionization doubles-down on rigid policies that will not work, and it stifles the type of creativity we need.  It would create more bureaucracy through collective-bargaining processes and stifle the entrepreneurial spirit by locking individuals into rigid pay structures. This system will not help us, because faculty members and adjuncts are not widgets; we are not interchangeable.  The various members who make up the faculty and adjunct ranks at the university are unique professionals with varying skill sets.  We are professionals and our individual interests can hardly be represented by a single bargaining entity.

Don’t get me wrong: we do need to rally together as faculty—we need to rally in support of innovation. We need to organize in favor of creativity and efficiency.  The problems we face at UMSL are not unique.  Throughout the country institutions of higher learning are experiencing the same crisis.  While we complain about our salaries, college tuition costs continue to rise faster than costs for medical care. Meanwhile, technology is creating competitors we never dreamed of.  We cannot continue to do business the same way and expect the same—let alone better—results. 

Despite the challenges we face, many great things are happening at UMSL.  The campus itself is being rejuvenated with new buildings at every corner. The new Recreation and Wellness Center is top notch.  The Science Learning Building and Anheuser-Bush Hall will provide wonderful learning opportunities, and the new Optometry Patient Care Center will allow us to serve our community better than ever before. 

All of this construction has brought new life to campus. Our challenge is to do the same thing for our programs.  Unionization can’t do that, but we can. 

James V. Shuls, Ph.D.

About the Author

James Shuls
James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.