Unions Need to End Pay Inequality Within Their Ranks

One of the pressing issues of our time has been the growing inequality between the rich and everyone else.  It is accompanied by social ills including mass poverty, homelessness, hunger and a lack of decent healthcare.  In a country as wealthy as the United States, these conditions should be viewed as crimes against humanity especially when many, including children, have to endure depravity at a time others live excessively opulent lifestyles.

Labor unions are vital to preventing greater inequality. They are under attack because, as is obvious to the wealthy and their enforcers, unions can be a major obstacle to the ability of the rich to accumulate greater wealth.  With unions, workers are more likely to receive higher rates of pay and better benefits, be less dominated, have greater job security, and work under better conditions resulting in less of the wealth created by workers ending up in the pockets of the rich.

One would hope that “alternative” institutions critical to the achievement of social justice that include labor unions would not embody characteristics of gross inequality.  Unfortunately, while far less egregious than the divide between the super-rich and everyone else, many labor unions do.  There are highly paid union leaders and bureaucrats making large six figure incomes whose dues paying members often have extreme difficulties making ends meet.

The Example of Part-Time Teachers in Higher Education

An increasing number of faculty members in higher education work as job-insecure part-timers who are often guaranteed work for only one term at a time.  Part-timers make up over 70% of the instructional workforce in higher education teaching more than half the undergraduate classes in public institutions.[i]

Most receive minimal, if any, benefits.  Additionally, they are generally significantly underpaid compared to their full-time tenured “colleagues.”  A third of them make less than $2,000 per class taught .[ii]

Many live in conditions of poverty  and rely on public assistance.[iii] In her 2015 Atlantic article, There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts, Caroline Frederickson pointed out,

“Based on data from the American Community Survey, 31 percent of part-time faculty are living near or below the federal poverty line.  And, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, one in four families of part-time faculty are enrolled in at least one public assistance program like food stamps and Medicaid or qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit.”[iv]

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) can be seen as a “progressive” union that is liberally-minded and a champion of social justice and equality. Yet, it embodies unacceptable levels of inequality.

AFT union leaders and negotiators will claim that they favor equal pay for equal work, but, too often, they fail to seriously press the issue in negotiations.  They will accept two tier contracts that result in lower levels of pay for part-timers for the same work done by full-timers even when the part-timers have equal or higher qualifications.  They will even declare a contract achieved in negotiations that increases the level of inequality among their members a victory.[v]

Exacerbating these problems of inequality is how union dues are assessed.  They are often a fixed percent of one’s gross income.  Part-timers pay less in dues than their full-time colleagues, but their ability to pay can be a hardship.  Members of my own local union at City College of San Francisco, AFT 2121, pay 1.5% of their gross pay to cover their dues.  One who makes $20,000 a year pays $300 while a full-timer making $100,000 pays $1,500.  The $300 on a $20,000 income is a much greater burden than paying $1,500 on $100,000 in income.

Much of the dues paid by those who belong to an AFT local union are shipped off to the state and national union.  In the case of my own local, in 2014, over $1 million was collected in dues. Significant amounts were sent to the California Federation of Teachers (over $500,000) and to the national American Federation of Teachers (over $225,000.)[vi]

From the 2016 tax return, one learns that national American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten salary package was for over $510,000 and that four other officials made in excess of $300,000.  According to the California Federation of Teachers 2015 tax return, six state officials had salary packages of more than $270,000.[vii]

Financially struggling part-time faculty are paying dues to enable union officers to receive what, for most people, are lavish salaries—small compared to that received by some corporate CEOs, movie stars and professional athletes, but significantly greater than even members of Congress who in 2018 were paid $174,000!

Possible Reforms

This inequality between union officials and many of their members is not right.  It alienates workers from their own unions.  This could result in public unions having trouble keeping the workers they represent as members thanks to the Janus decision that allows public employees to opt out of paying dues to unions that will continue to represent them and negotiate contracts on their behalf.

Reforms could and should be put in place.  They could include a requirement that no union leader or staff member working full-time has a level of pay with comparable benefits that is more than the average pay and benefits of a represented full-time worker; or that they receive a similar salary package at a level they would have been paid had they remained at the job instead of becoming a union official. Certainly, this could be modified for those leaders living in expensive regions whose workers may have been recently organized or have a level of pay less than $25/hour or $50,000 a year.

The continuation of the current level of inequality between union officials and the people they represent is unacceptable and contrary to social justice.  Reforming this situation in ways suggested, and fighting for equal pay for equal work are important and necessary  steps in an effort to end what is today’s widespread gross levels of inequality.


[i] California Federation of Teachers, Adjunct Faculty Facts found under a google search:

Plan your local campaign now for Campus Equity Week

[ii] ibid.  At my college, City College of San Francisco, part-timers are among the highest paid in the country.  A newly hired part-timer teaching one 3 unit course makes over $5,200 while one who has taught at the college for over twenty years can make more than $8,000.

At City University of New York, which is also represented by the AFT, starting pay of adjuncts is $3,200 for a 3 unit course with the average pay of part-timers being $3,500.  See


[iii] Gee, Alastair, Facing Poverty, Academics Turn to Sex Work and Sleeping in Cars, Guardian 9/28/2017  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/28/adjunct-professors-homeless-sex-work-academia-poverty?CMP=share_btn_fb

[iv] Frederickson, Caroline, There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts, September 15, 2015 The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/higher-education-college-adjunct-professor-salary/404461/

[v] Spelling out the details of this growing inequality between full-time and part-time faculty is beyond the scope of this article.  One could start by looking-up the pay scale of my own local at http://www.aft2121.org/pay-salaries/   and compare the changes from 2017-18 to 2018-19 especially for those at the top of the pay-scale when a new contract was accepted.

A contract negotiated with an across the board percentage pay increase results in greater inequality between full-time and part-time faculty.  For example, a 5% across the board pay increase for a part-timer making $20,000/year results in pay being $21,000.  For a full-timer making $80,000/ year, the 5% increase would result in a salary of $84,000 increasing the gap in pay between these two workers from $60,000 to $63,000.

[vi] See tax returns at:  https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/941737942   page 18 of the 2013 tax return, the last year available and   pg 17 of 2009 return

Some money sent to the state and national affiliate may be sent back to the local. In 2013, my local had a related organizations revenue amount of over $360,000. In 2008, when dues collected were $1.189 million, the related organizations amount was $163,834 and the amounts sent to the AFT were $239,464 and to the CFT $536,971.

[vii] For CFT start at:  https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/510188170 click 2015 tax return see page 26  and for  AFT

http://990s.foundationcenter.org/990_pdf_archive/360/360725240/360725240_201706_990O.pdf page 36

More articles by:

Rick Baum teaches Political Science at City College of San Francisco. He is a member of AFT 2121.

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