An economic analysis of the causes of unionization of college faculty

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


The fraction of the total labor force which is unionized has remained fairly stable, at about 25 percent, for the past quarter century, while unionization in the public sector has increased rapidly over the last 15 years. One example of this growth has been the trend in unionization of college faculty. This particular group presents an interesting opportunity to study unionization, in that there are both private and public institutions of higher education; and there is a definite pattern of unionization in the public institutions, while few private institutions are unionized. Such differences allow for comparisons which help to identify the causes of unionization.

Unionization has been studied by economists and sociologists. Economists tend to emphasize aggregate analysis and relate unionization to environmental factors, such as the inflation rate and unemployment rate. Sociologists tend to relate prior socialization and attitudes to unionization. This dissertation applies the economic approach to human behavior to individual choice in the context of voting for or against unionization. That is, the benefits and costs of unionization are assumed to be the relevant factors in the choice calculus of voting faculty.

The primary source of benefits and costs come from the competitive market environment, which exists in the absence of a union, and the cartel power of a union. Because of the cartel power of a union, job satisfaction factors (compensation, working conditions, and job security) can be offered to faculty, provided they give up the conditions of the competitive market. That is, collective choice will replace individual choice under unionization. The power of a cartel of labor and the efficiency of labor markets vary among institutions of higher education, and these differences are shown to be consistent with the pattern of unionization of college faculty. These differences can be said to reveal the causes of unionization of college faculty.