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Last year brought about historic levels of employee activism and work stoppages throughout the country – hitting a 20-year peak according to Bloomberg Law. Higher education was no exception to this trend, contract negotiations on college and university campuses throughout the nation resulted in numerous strikes. And the trend appears to be continuing into 2023.

In California, the longest and largest higher education strike in American history occurred in 2022. The groundbreaking strike, made up of 36,000 graduate student workers and 12,000 other academic employees, ended after approximately six weeks. Similarly, in New York, a strike by part-time faculty brought a local university's activities to a halt for approximately three weeks because 90 percent of all faculty is untenured. The involved parties ended the strikes after negotiating more favorable terms for workers, including increased salaries and better healthcare coverage.

The increase in strikes at colleges and universities are driven by employment conditions, with a focus on wages and benefits. So far this year, a number of unions have set dates for potential walkouts and some already have. In January, union members in Chicago went on strike demanding higher pay and more job security. The strike ended days later, after the union representing 1,500 workers, won pay raises and stronger job protections in its new contract.

A strike originally planned for January has been called off after the union representing non-tenure-track faculty and adjunct professors at another New York City institution reached a tentative agreement, which provides for increased wages and potential health benefits. On the contrary, in Pennsylvania, a union representing 750 graduate student teaching and research assistants called a strike effective Tuesday, January 31. The union is demanding higher pay, dependent healthcare, and increased paid parental leave.

These strikes come as workers in higher education around the country have been demanding better pay and terms of employment and are willing to resort to work stoppage and other tactics to negotiate more favorable terms. Thus, it is critical that higher education institutions prepare a plan of action to respond to potential work stoppages during contract negotiations. As employee demands and expectations remain high, employers must prepare a strike contingency plan and set reasonable benchmarks for negotiations – with the objective to avoid any disruption to day-to-day operations.

Therefore, colleges and universities, must remain competitive by becoming more vigilant of wages and benefit packages offered by similarly situated institutions. 

Buchanan’s cross-disciplinary team of education law attorneys stand ready to advise educational institutions on labor and employment related matters, including compensation and benefits.