On the Tulane University campus, everything seemed in motion this week: leaves sprouting on big live-oak trees, students in green Tulane t-shirts milling around on the big grassy lawn.

Meanwhile, some of the historic university’s instructors were restless in a different way.

On Thursday afternoon, a few hundred non-tenured-track Tulane faculty members began sending individual union-authorization cards to a Workers United labor organizer, who uploaded them directly to the National Labor Relations Board.

It’s time, they said. 

In a Tuesday letter to Tulane president Michael A. Fitts, union members explained: They teach classes, support students’ intellectual, professional, and emotional growth; elevate the university’s research profile and support extracurricular activities. “Yet our treatment at Tulane often does not match the value we bring to the university — an discrepancy that catalyzed the formation of our organization, the Tulane Workers United.” 

“Today marks a historic milestone for Tulane University as we announce the formation of Tulane Workers United,” said Richard Minter, vice president and the director of organizing for Workers United, a national affiliate of SEIU, through which Tulane Workers United is organizing. 

“Moving forward, we are eager to engage in constructive dialogue with university leadership,” Minter said, calling the union’s formation “a momentous step towards securing the rights and recognition this faculty deserves.”

This week was when it all came together.

On Tuesday, union members sent a letter to Tulane’s president, Michael Fitts, asking him to voluntarily recognize them as Tulane Workers United and for the opportunity to begin collectively bargaining a contract.

In the letter to Fitts, the union’s members also summarized their work: teaching classes; supporting students’ intellectual, professional, and emotional growth; elevating the university’s research profile; and supporting extracurricular activities. “Yet our treatment at Tulane often does not match the value we bring to the university — a discrepancy that catalyzed the formation of our organization, the Tulane Workers United.” 

They sent the letter to Fitts. Then they waited 48 hours for recognition. 

When they got no recognition, they began filing union-authorization cards, to start the process of setting an election through the NLRB, said Christopher Oliver, who has spent a decade on the Tulane faculty, as a senior professor of practice working jointly with the sociology and environmental-studies departments.

The cards filed with NLRB will trigger an on-campus election, likely in early May, with a date set by NLRB officials, who will reach out to the university and to organizers. To win an on-campus union, of those within the bargaining unit – of non-tenured track employees  – at least 50% + 1 must vote yes.

Organizers are confident that a supermajority of non-tenured track faculty are backing the union.

It’s unclear how the university will respond. It’s rare for a college or university to voluntarily recognize a union, though it does happen. A Tulane spokesman reached in early evening on Thursday said that he had no immediate comment.

“We ask Tulane University to maintain a neutral stance toward the efforts of the Tulane Workers United,” said Justin Wolfe, associate professor of history and president of the Tulane chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which “seeks to promote the economic security of all faculty at every rank, stage, and role at Tulane University.”

Non-tenure track faculty from Tulane University’s Uptown campus sent a letter on Tuesday, asking the university to recognize its union. Above, Tulane’s campus, from St. Charles Avenue. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber)

The roots of the union began several months ago, as individual Tulane faculty members connected with labor organizers. Fertile conversations ensued. Soon, there was a meeting. People began talking about “huge pay disparities” between faculty, about the need for better benefits, more transparency around promotion and hiring. They talked about their hopes for greater job security, and for equal representation in the operation of their departments and the university.

Along with inevitable complaints and gripes came optimism that the union could bring new vitality to the school to which they had devoted years, even careers. “We love Tulane and are coming together to make it a better place for students, faculty, and staff,” said Casey Beck, professor of practice and director of Digital Media Practices. 

Tulane’s interest in unionizing is part of a growing trend, one that the magazine Inside Higher Ed described last month as “a boom time for higher-education organizing.”   Last year alone, the magazine reported, 26 new bargaining units earned voluntary recognition or certification – that represents more than 40,000 researchers, post-doctoral workers and graduate-student workers on higher-ed campuses. A developing organization, Higher Ed Labor United, or HELU, is also trying to forge a national coalition of higher-ed workers, those in a union and not.

Oliver, who helped organize graduate employees when he worked at Michigan State University, has watched the unions spread, with a nod. “I believe in labor organizing, especially in education,” he said.

For Tulane members, union recognition would give non-tenured-track faculty the opportunity to collectively bargain over salary and related benefits, teaching loads, and contract details, as well as provide a process for filing grievances, at a university where many faculty lack sufficient job security or contractual protections.

“Our students deserve creative, engaged professors,” said Cheree Franco, a visiting assistant professor in the communications department. “When we have job security and aren’t struggling to balance side gigs with teaching, just to pay bills, the entire university benefits.”