The Southern ran a balanced or even pro-union story on membership this morning, under the headline "SIUC Unions: Support is Strong". One could readily imagine the story being spun the other way, as membership levels reported are all at or below 33%. But probably Codell Rodriguez didn't find anyone to spin it that way on the record, so he played it straight. While it is entirely possible that an administration source gave him the numbers (which aren't a state secret, by the way, so this would just be normal story seeding, not anything unethical), no administration source was apparently available to opine that membership levels showed weak support for the unions. So the story consists largely of union presidents saying their unions are strong (though Anita Stoner is a bit more balanced in her analysis of things regarding the NTT). Despite their rabidly anti-union editorial stance, the Southern's reporting is fairly even handed, for which they deserve credit.
The comparison Randy Hughes made to cultural organizations--who enjoy the informal and non-financial support of many but financial and time contributions from few--helps explain low membership. Union membership drives are a bit like NPR pledge drives. The problem is that everyone benefits from the union, whether or not they pay dues. And union dues are rather higher than my NPR membership. My own ramblings on the overall impact of the membership issue, likely to infuriate many readers (as if there were many readers out there to infuriate), after the break.
I find this membership issue rather curious. The union always asks for "Fair Share" in bargaining, which would require all faculty to pay dues. Though they wouldn't be officially forced to join the union, they would have to pay almost as much as members (enough to pay their 'fair share' to support union activities on their behalf), so presumably most would join, as joining would give them a vote on union matters. The administration says no, arguing that faculty are professionals who shouldn't be forced to join a labor union. Presumably the administration believes that it also benefits from the status quo, as it can, say, suggest that the Southern run a story on union membership numbers; and the FA presumably believes that the status quo hurts it, for the same reason.
My guess is that the status quo doesn't help one side or the other so much as it helps to polarize things. It is obvious a source of tension in itself. Union members resent their colleagues who fail to join, especially when those colleagues seem sympathetic but are unwilling to declare themselves or pay dues; we have a classic free-rider problem here. Non-members no doubt have similar resentments; in units where union membership is strong, they likely feel pressure to join, and in the current set up joining the union is tantamount to supporting the union's positions.
Yet the status quo is, in one sense, a boon for hard-core union folks, as they can have a disproportionate impact on union votes. It's also good for hard-core opponents of the union, who would like the union to be abolished, as they can point to low membership--and of course they also don't have to pay dues. It enables them to consider themselves the silent majority. If all faculty--or all but a few conscientious objectors who chose to opt out--belonged to the FA, it could be a rather different organization, and could have a rather different relationship with the administration, I think. The FA leadership might well be more cautious, and the administration couldn't just try to act as if the union didn't exist (as they did by imposing terms).
I don't want to exaggerate: I don't think the current union leadership has been too radical, probably because they are responsible enough to regard themselves as representing the interests of all faculty, whether or not those faculty are members. And Fair Share wouldn't necessarily lead to a radically improved campus climates. But it might well improve things. And things could certainly stand to be improved around here.