Some faculty members at Chatham University are exploring the option of unionizing, seeking “a seat at the table,” as one professor put it, with an administration that’s deciding how to patch a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

Ten faculty members, with and without tenure, have formed an organizing committee for the early-stage effort for full-time faculty. Through casual conversations and a few virtual information sessions, they’ve been trying to educate their colleagues on the process of unionizing and the benefits they believe representation could bring.

The committee has spoken to unions about potentially forming an affiliate and plans to share their preferred choice with faculty in mid-December. They could face an uphill battle: A decades-old decision from the U.S. Supreme Court has made unionization very difficult for tenured and tenure-track faculty at private universities. But the group is hopeful that a 2014 National Labor Relations Board ruling will work in their favor. 

The effort comes after Chatham, primarily located in Squirrel Hill North, reduced faculty benefits and cut some salaries this summer to trim its deficit, which the university says stands at $6 million. The university’s response to the budget hole renewed interest in unionizing that had simmered among some faculty for years, according to one professor.

“The budget crisis really underscored how powerless we are, how little transparency there is in decision-making that affects our future, and how much we really desire to have some stability and a voice in the process,” said Lou Martin, an associate professor, labor historian and organizer with the union effort.

Bill Campbell, a spokesperson for Chatham, said in a statement that the university has had positive working relationships with existing unions that represent some campus employees, including police, security and housekeeping.

“As an educational community, we encourage anyone to learn more about unions and collective bargaining and believe a comprehensive understanding of these aspects is essential to making well-informed decisions,” Campbell said.



Lou Martin, an associate professor and labor historian at Chatham University who is also working to organize faculty members, stands for a portrait along Fifth Avenue by the school, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

‘There is no shared power’

Campbell said Chatham’s deficit stood at $12 million in late June. That’s a sizable gap for a university that collected about $52 million in revenue in the 2022 fiscal year, according to audited financial statements. President Rhonda Phillips inherited the financial burden when she took the helm in July.

In the months that followed, Chatham implemented significant cuts. The university reduced its maximum retirement match for faculty and staff from 8% to 3% and implemented a 5% pay cut for faculty earning more than $100,000 a year. Beginning in January, spouses of employees will be ineligible for the university’s self-insured health plan if they have certain employer-provided coverage.

The university’s leadership team also saw their salaries cut by 10%.

“There's a lot of really positive ‘Rah, rah, we're getting out of this hole.’ And many of us feel like we're getting out of this hole on the backs of faculty and staff,” said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor and organizer of the union effort.

Supporters of the union effort want faculty to have a greater say in administrative decisions, with the teeth of a contract, Sweet-Cushman said. One way some faculty engage with administrators now is through appointment or election to a standing committee – but the committee doesn’t vote and can’t compel the administrators to act on matters that are discussed, according to one member.

“There is no shared power. There is no agreeing to things. Whatever the administration says, that's how it works. A lot of it just is theater,” said John Stakeley, a visiting assistant professor of business management who is involved in the union effort.

Campbell said that there are several other faculty committees at Chatham, and that the faculty has expressed interest in the creation of a senate. “President Phillips asked the faculty to provide a more formal proposal earlier this semester. To my knowledge, this has yet to be presented,” Campbell said.

Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor and organizer of the union effort among Chatham University faculty members, shows some of the outreach materials for the organizing group, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Some supporters said they would also like the administration to be more transparent with faculty about its austerity measures and other decisions. And though Sweet-Cushman said many faculty want to protect their salaries and benefits, she added that the union supporters are looking to reach a realistic agreement with Chatham and negotiate in good faith.

“It’s more like, OK, let’s make the decisions that the university has made [into] a floor for where we're at,” she said. “Can we be part of the plan to – and if it’s slowly, it’s slowly; we can be understanding about that – reinstate some of those things? How do we make sure that our retirement is prioritized as the university recovers?”

She added: “There doesn't need to be anything at all contentious about this. I think that's very much a myth about unions.”

Campbell said that no tenured or tenure-track faculty will be eliminated this academic year, and that faculty promotions are proceeding as usual.

An extremely difficult – but changing – legal landscape

Private universities can acquiesce to unionization, but that hasn’t been the history at Chatham.

In June 2016, the United Steelworkers canceled a planned election for part-time faculty only – after more than a year of organizing – and blamed the Chatham administration for disseminating “confusing, misleading and inaccurate information” to faculty.

The number of faculty collective bargaining units at private universities in the U.S. has grown in recent years, but very few have included tenured and tenure-track faculty, as the Chatham effort would. Chatham employed 139 full-time instructional faculty as of fall 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

There were 65 new bargaining units certified or recognized at private nonprofit universities between 2013 and 2019, but only three represented tenured and tenure-track faculty, according to a 2020 report from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. One such unit is at Point Park University, in downtown Pittsburgh.

People walk through Chatham University’s Squirrel Hill campus on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

A 1980 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court has played a major role in limiting successful faculty organizing at private universities.

In the case, the court determined that full-time faculty members at the private Yeshiva University were managerial employees because they effectively determined its course offerings and made recommendations about faculty hiring, among other roles. As such, the university was not required to collectively bargain with the faculty under the National Labor Relations Act, which protects most private-sector employees. 



“If a petition is filed at Chatham University, it will be up to the university to decide whether they want to raise a Yeshiva defense to the petition, or whether they just want to allow for the faculty to decide for themselves whether they want a union,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the national center.

The ruling has been used to deny tenured and tenure-track faculty at private universities the right to unionize “in most cases,” said Timothy Cain, a professor at the University of Georgia who has researched unionization in higher education.

During the last effort at Chatham, the administration argued that full-time faculty were managerial employees, and the United Steelworkers pursued — but then canceled — an election only for part-time faculty.

The legal ground on this issue shifted slightly in 2014, when a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board offered standards for determining whether faculty are managerial employees. The board ruled that faculty’s control over academic programs and finances should be considered, among other areas. Still, most of the subsequent petitions involving tenured and tenure-track faculty – of which there have been few – have been dismissed, Herbert wrote in an email.

Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor and organizer of the union effort among Chatham University faculty members, stands for a portrait along Fifth Avenue by the school, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Squirrel Hill. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

This year’s group is optimistic, though. Sweet-Cushman wrote in an email that “While it is possible that some of the faculty might meet a [management] threshold, and thus be removed from the bargaining unit, we don't believe we are all engaged anywhere near enough in the operation of the university to fit this definition.”

“If anything, we are being less and less involved in managerial decision making,” she added.

They’re also encouraged by the union victory at Point Park. Full-time faculty at the private university reached their first tentative agreement on a union contract in 2017. The win came more than a decade after faculty voted to unionize and about two years after Point Park dropped a longstanding legal challenge to the effort.

At the time it dropped the challenge, Point Park told the university community that “The current administration at Point Park does not wish to spend any resources on a potentially costly legal battle with its full-time faculty.”

How are faculty responding?

Several organizers said they believe the union effort has garnered support from a lot of faculty. But the organizing committee has also sought to correct misunderstandings and try to dispel concerns that some faculty have had.

“Chatham Faculty United” reads the button on Lou Martin’s shirt, as he stands for a portrait along Fifth Avenue by the school, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Squirrel Hill. Martin is an associate professor and labor historian at Chatham University who is also working to organize faculty members. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Some faculty have believed that unions are only for the trades. Some have thought that unions are third parties and would not be made up of the faculty. And some have expressed concern over striking – which Sweet-Cushman agreed would be undesirable and said would likely occur only in a last-ditch effort that the union votes to authorize.

Sweet-Cushman said she knows of only a handful who are concretely opposed. Others, she said, haven’t engaged with the effort yet.

“We really would like to hear what their concerns are, because this is us making this,” she said. “We also have the power to make it so it is something that best suits the needs of the faculty, and we're very interested in doing that.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at Rtvsrece, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@rtvsrece.com.

This story was fact-checked by Erin Yudt.

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Emma is a higher education reporter for Rtvsrece. In her role, she collaborates with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on strengthening higher education coverage in local communities. Emma...