At an institution where the faculty are unionized, I imagine that they could, in principle, go on strike. Presumably this would involve a halt to all teaching and service activities.

But what about research?

I see many potential problems here:

  • Many faculty have obligations to federal or other funding agencies that cannot be lightly set aside.
  • Some experiments may run for years and even a few days' interruption could be disastrous.
  • Grant deadlines could be missed, again potentially causing devastating interruptions in a research program.
  • How far would a prohibition on research go? Is sitting and reading papers in your living room considered to be crossing the picket lines?

I'm sure others can think of other problems.

Frankly, I don't want anyone telling me when or where I can work and if a faculty union is going to do that, I'd be very reluctant to participate. I would hate to be caught in the untenable position where I must either be a scab, or I must stop thinking about the work that is so central to my life's purpose. I'd be very interested in hearing any insights that those at unionized schools might have.

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    My impression is that strikes would normally be Teaching Strikes (or lesser: Marking Strikes). because this put greater pressure on the univeristy (/employer) as suddenly tens of thousands of students are being directly inconvenienced. Which draws more media and political attention than researchers inconveniencing themselves and holding back scientific/academic progress. I imagine that any purely research staff who are part of the striking union would simply let it be known that they support the strike. Oct 17 '15 at 4:33
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    If you continue to do research, you might be considered to be participating in a "partial strike", where the employee refuses some but not all of their duties. In some jurisdictions, partial strikes are not eligible for the same legal protections as traditional total strikes. Oct 17 '15 at 4:53
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    @CapeCode "union" nonsense [citation needed] Oct 17 '15 at 13:14
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    @CapeCode: Maybe as a first step, you can opt out of the raises in salary and increases in vacation days that the other staff are entitled to as a result of union-led negotiations. (Of course, if the respective unions do not manage to achieve any such successes in your experience, the scare quotes in your comment may be justified.) Oct 17 '15 at 13:17
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    @O.R.Mapper I was mostly joking about unhealthy faculty work culture, but it's also true that faculty at my institution don't have a certain number of vacation days the way that e.g. professional staff do. Rather, they simply are expected to fulfill their duties and the way in which they do this is up to them. Being a relatively competitive school (top 20), this means that most do it by working 7 days a week, 50-52 weeks a year. Sadly I count myself among this number.
    – Corvus
    Oct 17 '15 at 15:12

Consider the following FAQ from West Chester University discussing the possibility of a strike:

  1. Will the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education universities, includingWest Chester University close if a strike is called? No. The universities will remain open if a faculty strike is called. By law, individual faculty members have the right to decline to participate in a strike called by the union so individual classes could still be held.

and at University of Northern British Columbia:

I am doing research as part of my degree. Will I be able to continue during a strike? It depends. Some research may be allowed under the terms negotiated at the start of job action. Also, anyone may cross a picket line during a strike unless the Administration declares a lockout (in which case nobody is allowed in). You should discuss this with your supervisor.

How will a strike impact the delivery of supplies, reagents, enzymes, etc.? During the 72 hours prior to the start of job action, the parties negotiate “essential services,” that is those things that are deemed essential. In general, anything not declared an essential service would be impacted, which would probably include most deliveries. You should discuss this with your supervisor.

And a report about the University of Puerto Rico (admittedly, this is a student-led strike):

Since the University of Puerto Rico strike began, faculty and students have only had intermittent access to its labs. Even when they are allowed to enter, they are working with dwindling supplies of some chemicals and other research materials. Closed campuses mean new shipments cannot be delivered.

These suggest, in a formal capacity, some research might still be able to take place, either from crossing the picket line, or from negotiations for research that is time sensitive (for example, many biology experiments which must be monitored, changed at certain intervals, etc.) but that they may certainly suffer during long strikes.

Beyond that, one imagines that it's impossible to faculty not to do "research" in the more expansive sense of the word, as occasionally that involves idly musing on a subject, and there's no reason to suspect that faculty would stop thinking about their life's work during a strike. Rather, it's far more likely to impact classes.


That would depend on local conventions. It is always physically possible to work despite a strike, but in Norway a few years ago there was a strike and a number of faculty took the position that that meant that their research activities must stop. Here is one report (search for the statement "I'd be a scab and would suffer consequences...").

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    This paragraph is devastating: "When striking, professors with research time can't do any research activity. They can't correspond with international colleagues, can't finish long-overdue journal reviews and can't keep working on grant applications. The job of a professor is to think, to read, to write. If I were to fail to turn those things off when the union is paying my salary, I'd be a scab and would suffer consequences." If this is what a union requires, how can unionization be compatible with academic freedom?
    – Corvus
    Oct 17 '15 at 6:45
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    @Corvus The paragraph you quoted might make sense in Norway, but it seems quite disconnected from the reality I know in the U.S. "The job of a professor is to think, to read, and to write" --- really? If I decide (without first applying for a sabbatical or other leave) to continue thinking, reading, and writing but to shirk other activities like teaching my classes and showing up for committee meetings, my university will not say that I am doing my job. Oct 17 '15 at 8:15
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    @AndreasBlass, I think you're taking the quote out of context. He's not saying that research is the only job of a Norwegian professor, it is just one of their jobs. Since it is part of the job, that means, when you're on strike and if you believe in observing the strike, then you should not do the research aspect of your job either.
    – user6726
    Oct 17 '15 at 16:05

Everything depends on the local laws and conventions. In general, research is possible during a strike, but you may suffer the consequences, if you're a union member.

In many countries, employers often respond to a strike with a lockout in order to save money and to increase the pressure on the union. During a lockout, nobody has access to the university and nobody gets paid, regardless of whether they're on strike or not. The use of university-provided resources, such as email account, laptop, or access to articles behind a paywall, is obviously forbidden during a lockout.

Strikes and lockout may cause individual researchers to miss deadlines or make them unable to meet their obligations to third parties. All important contracts should have force majeure clauses for dealing with such situations.

There may also be direct harm to individual researchers or to the university as a result of the strike/lockout, but that's actually the point. If there is no agreement, both parties will lose. That's the most fundamental negotiation tactic there is. A strike just aims to shift the balance so that the employer will lose more than the employees, while a lockout aims for the opposite.

  • This is an extremely helpful answer -- thank you. I suppose I should be ashamed of my ignorance, but I hadn't properly grasped the strike/lockout distinction.
    – Corvus
    Oct 17 '15 at 16:56

In Brazil, the other employees of the university go on strike almost every year. Professors, every 10 years or so, but, afaik, only for teaching duties, research goes on (a bit harder actually, since they are not teaching at the period). Some professors still give courses during strike... Tbh, it happens so often, nobody really cares, and, for most people, it is like a surprise vacation...


I think you cannot avoid taking a side here, because inaction is also a statement.

To me it seems that you see yourself not as part of the university, but merely attached to it -- as long as they provide resources and no better offer comes along, you will continue to work there, but you don't want to get involved any further than that.

This is not a healthy relationship with an employer, though -- it means that there is no communication about working conditions. That others saw the need for a strike is a clear sign that this communication has broken down university-wide.

This strike is going to determine your working environment for years to come, which is going to affect your research far more than a few skipped days.

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    You're making a lot of unjustified assumptions about me in your answer. I was trying to avoid providing unnecessary detail, but since it seems to be causing confusion: I work at a university at which the faculty are not even unionized, let alone considering a strike. I simply wanted to understand the ramifications of unionization.
    – Corvus
    Oct 17 '15 at 15:06
  • Unionization is usually a response to an environment where communication between workers and management does not work properly, and workers feel a need to address their management collectively. If that is the case, then individual workers are usually better off participating in union activity. Once the initial crisis is over, it becomes harder to justify the need for a union, except that it is easier to leave it active than to re-form it in the next crisis. Oct 17 '15 at 16:48

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