The State of Collective Bargaining in the Pandemic


We continue to be confronted (inter)nationally with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and related recession, including in academe. Some effects have been profound while others, such as decreased submissions to academic journals are far less so. As noted in vol. 12 (see Rhoades, 2021), higher education has experienced significant disruption due to financial uncertainty, and accompanying historic highs in layoffs. And as with the pandemic itself ,and as in society more broadly, these developments have amplified ongoing patterns of inequity, disproportionately hitting the most vulnerable and demographically diverse staff, student, and contingent faculty employees (Bauman, 2020; Douglas-Gabriel & Fowers, 2021; Long, Van Dam, Fowers, & Shapiro, 2020).

Such patterns underscore the challenge of What Universities [and higher education more broadly] Owe Democracy, in working towards fulfilling its promise of being the great equalizer, in which citizens from all walks of life can transcend the circumstances of their birth through the acquisition and advancement of knowledge.1 We would do well to reconsider, amidst the restructuring of academic institutions and systems, and the extensive assaults on academic freedom Henry Kissinger’s observation that “university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” For indeed, the stakes are not small; they are foundational to the development of a citizenry capable of meaningfully engaged in advancing and perpetuating a vibrant and just democratic society, an engagement that has arguably never been more important in the face of significant assaults on democracy itself.

In the context of this Journal, we can and should ask the questions: how and to what extent collective bargaining in the academy contributes to the evolution of higher education’s responsibility to advance liberal democracy; or in what ways and to what extent does the focus of the negotiations between management and labor embody a sort of disaster academic capitalism focused on colleges and universities as individual firms, with reduced focus on their larger public, social responsibilities (Rhoades, 2021)? In doing so, it is worth looking back to last year’s issue of JCBA to consider whether Castagnera’s (2021) plea for creative thinking is being realized, whether Scott and Kezar’s (2021) suggestions for overcoming the gig academy are being pursued, whether Picciano’s (2021) possibilities for online learning are being negotiated, and in Rhoades’ (2021) terms whether a new progressive normal is being explored or an old disaster academic capitalism normal is playing out.

In this issue Daniel J. Julius opines about what institutional responses to the pandemic reveal about crisis management, decision making, and shared governance. Contrary to managerial and policy discourse and critique about higher education’s inability to act responsively in a crisis, Julius posits that colleges and universities have responded effectively as organization despite their reputation for decision-making environments, including collective bargaining, that are slow, politicized, and often driven by personal or constituent agendas. Yet, their effectiveness remains centered on their relatively narrow purposes as independent firms.

In their descriptive study of force majeure, financial exigency, and retrenchment clauses in Ohio public university AAUP chapter collective bargaining agreements, Dominic D. Wells and Trey Peters chart and discuss problems with these clauses and what triggers their implementation in a heightened example of management capitalizing on the crisis. The impetus for the study was the COVID-19 pandemic-related implementation of the force majeure clause in the faculty contract at the University of Akron thereby bypassing negotiated retrenchment procedures. The analysis has clear implications about the effects of particular contract language.

Having recently successfully concluded renegotiation of the faculty contract at Wayne State University during the pandemic, Margaret E. Winters’ practitioner perspective identifies and evaluates multiple imbalances between administrative and union sides during the academic collective bargaining process. Also included is a note on asymmetric imbalances in collective bargaining involving administration and graduate student unions and how they differ from faculty contract negotiations. Such asymmetries show too little evidence of orienting academic collective bargaining to larger democratic purposes and too much evidence of ongoing imbalances of power that do little to advance those purposes, either in the institutions or in the broader society.

As you read these pieces, and as you engage in advocacy, policy making, and collective bargaining in your own institutional and local contexts (including in those 31 states and the District of Columbia with varying sorts of enabling legislation), we encourage you to consider how academic collective bargaining can, at its best, constitute a foundational element of academe’s fulfillment of various public purposes and its advancement of and contribution to liberal democracy.


1Daniels, R.J. (2021). What Universities Owe Democracy. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore.



Practitioner Perspective