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Professional associations or unions? A comparative look.


Looking at the white collar working class, Mills (1951) explains that,

before the twentieth century, American life was characterized by a decentralized

economic life, directed predominately by the interests of private

ownership. The two primary economic forces which guided the capitalistic

system of the country by the end of the nineteenth century were the

independent farmer and the small businessman. At that time, in their

small isolated world, these two working groups of men were separate economic

entities struggling for survival and improvement of individual property.

With the coming of the twentieth century, society experienced a dramatic

change. Previously, small enterprises began merging into big corporations,

while government, faced with new tasks, became much more

elaborate and complex. The eventual result of this change was the removal

of the members of the old middle class from their isolated worlds

and into a bureaucratic and complex system in which occupation instead

of property became the main source of income. The American middle

class, composed now mainly of white-collar workers, found itself in a

centralized economic system in which people's interaction and interdependence

were central and brought a stronger awareness of each other (Mills,


According to Sherif and Sherif (1969), the presence of organized

groups is a consequence of interacting individuals "who possess a set of

values or norms of their own regulating their behavior, at least in matters

of consequence to the group" (p. 131). In the case of white-collar workers,

group organization often took the form of either professional associations

or unions, both of them representing the special interests and

objectives of this class of employees. Although both labor unions and

professional societies already existed in the nineteenth century, it was in

the last hundred years when both of them managed to successfully attract

a large number of individuals and legitimize themselves as a means to

pursue the interests of their membership.

According to Haug and Sussman (1973): "Unionization and

professionalization are two processes by which members of an occupation

seek to achieve collective upward mobility" (p. 89). This is analogous,

the authors explain, to an individual's striving to improve his pay,

working conditions, autonomy, and status, the only difference being that,

whereas individual efforts can be easily hindered, collective efforts are

often seen as a more effective way of dealing with similar issues. However,

although labor unions and professional associations offer an alternative

in improving a profession's status, they are often seen as antithetical

especially when it comes to their culture, motives for joined action,

and the particular values they ultimately promulgate.


According to Parsons (1969), associations join different social institutions

that would otherwise threaten the integrity of modem society if

each individual pursued his own self interest. Functionalism, the theory

Parsons subscribes to, holds that associations have the ability to bring

order by providing a consensual normative structure--i.e., agreed-upon

values--which direct the behavior of individuals according to what is defined

as proper, legal, or acceptable by the rest of the community. Referring

specifically to what they called occupational community, Van Maanen

and Barley (1984) described it as "a group of people who consider themselves

to be engaged in the same sort of work; whose identity is drawn

from the work; [and] who share with one another a set of values, norms

and perspectives" (p. 287).

Professional associations ascribe to a culture of consensual collective

efforts to preserve a profession's unified front. As Galaskiewicz (1985)

notes, "one of the latent functions of professional associations is to put

people together in committees, panels, task forces, and study groups who

might not otherwise be attracted to one another based on

their background characteristics alone" (p. 640). A consequence of such

interactions is the establishment of a unified culture for the profession,

the institutionalization of professional codes of contact, establishment of

educational and performance standards, and the diffusion and incorporation

of change and innovation within the profession. In the library

field, for example, professional associations have provided a shared sense

of professional identity just as an increasing number of subspecialties and

variety of work settings have emerged.

Although integration has been credited as one of the main characteristics

of the professional association's culture, labor unions have often

been charged with quite the opposite. The presence of union groups is

often treated as the result of conflict of interests between management

and workers. The charge has repeatedly been made that such organizations

split the profession, dissociating people and institutions.

Galaskiewicz (1985) explains that, particularly in times of uncertainty,

"professionals will seek out those with whom they can communicate easily,

even if this means that they systematically segregate themselves from a

subset of other actors in the group" (p. 646). White-collar labor unions

sprang up as a reaction to a search for occupational justice and improvement

of working conditions among the rank-and-file of a profession who

differentiated themselves from management even within the same occupation.

Moreover, interest groups such as unions do not only represent

the interests and values of their members, but they also make demands

against the status quo of the authorities and cultivate among their membership

a feeling of "us" against "them."

Despite charges that unions are the cause of segregation and hostility

in a profession, conflict of interests may be inevitable even within a

profession that tries hard to keep its unity. Although among professionals

the differentiation between management and rank-and-file is not quite

as clear as among blue-collar workers, it still exists despite similarities

in training and occupational identity. Managerial employees in professional

institutions are still the ones who control the allocation of resources such

as salaries, "but more important for work, differential resources to the

various units of the organization, resources of supporting staff, physical

space, equipment, and the like" (Freidson, 1987, p. 3). Rank-and-file

professionals may provide their input, but it is the administration that

ultimately makes allocation decisions and determines what work is to be

done and how it is to be done. This differentiation in power implies that

managerial employees may support interests and goals which could be

different from those of rank-and-file practitioners and, as a consequence,

it becomes a frequent cause of friction between these two classes of

professional employees (Freidson, 1986).

Dahrendorf's (1959) theory of conflict explains that authority relations,

independent of the personality of people involved, are the cause of

potential clashes of interest between those with decision-making power

and those who are subject to it. Under certain conditions, these clashes

generate the formation of interest groups, such as unions, which attempt

to modify the characteristics of this relationship and improve the status

of their membership. Specifically, the transformation of a collectivity of

individuals to an interest group is, for Dahrendorf, possible only under

certain conditions: (1) "technical conditions," such as the presence of

leadership as well as ideology for the articulation of the group's interest;

(2) "political conditions," or the political permissibility for group

organization (in the case of unions, this implies, for instance' state laws

allowing collective bargaining); and (3) "social conditions," that is, the

degree of communication between the members of a potential interest group.

The ultimate function of conflict is change and, as Dahrendorf (1959)

believes, integration. As he explains, "we cannot conceive of society, unless

we realize the dialectics of stability and change, integration and conflict,

function and motive force, consensus and coercion" (p. 163). Taking

this perspective, one may argue that the labor movement provides an

alternative approach to integration within a profession, one which recognizes

differences based on power relations and incorporates changes by

recognizing the special interests of rank-and-file and their need to improve

their status. Despite the fact that conflict is often perceived as

harmful to a relationship, it may actually stabilize it by providing an

opportunity for negotiations. As Simmel (1955) argues: "Conflict is designed to

resolve divergent dualisms; it is a way of achieving some kind of unity....

[and resolve] the tension between contrasts" (p. 13).

Research has provided support that the fears about the effect of unionization

on the employees' loyalty to management are not substantiated.

According to Dean (1954), some people believe that, because of the conflict

of interest between rank-and-file and management, unionized workers

tend to identify less with the employing organization. These ideas

have been challenged repeatedly by research evidence which supports

that "dual allegiance" to the union and management is indeed possible

(for example, see Rose, 1952; Dean. 1954; Stagner, 1954; Purcell, 1960;

Fukami & Larson, 1982; Angle & Perry, 1986; Martin, 1981; Gallagher,

1984; Hovekamp, 1994a). A recent study among unionized librarians in

research institutions revealed that, although union presence had a statistically

significant negative relation to overall organizational loyalty,

union commitment was positively related to organizational commitment. This

finding suggested that professionals who view unions as a positive presence

to their welfare may also use them as an outlet to resolve their negative

feelings and, as a result, strengthen their ties with management

(Hovekamp, 1994a).(1)

Both professional associations and unions have the ability to help a

profession communicate and stay cohesive by recognizing both commonalities

and differences. Whereas associations bring the profession outside

the arena of individual institutions and work environments and unite

it on the basis of common knowledge and expertise, unionization acknowledges

distinctions in power and interests as these are determined

by the position each professional occupies in his work organization.

Consequently, one may approach these two interest groups as an opportunity

for integration in a professional community which can take advantage of

both its similarities and differences to promote internal unity.


According to popular opinion, the reasons why professionals choose

to join professional associations are different from those for joining a

union. On the one hand, the goals of professional associations presumably

reflect an emphasis on public goods. In the library field, these are

represented by issues such as access to information, intellectual freedom,

copyright rights, literacy, and technology awareness and advancement.

Professional issues, such as the improvement of the occupation's standards

and expertise, are also central concerns. Furthermore, as Alexander

(1980) notes, "the professional association lays claim first and foremost

to autonomy and independence on the job" (p. 477). Unions, on the

other hand, are assumed to be mainly interested in the membership's

private benefits, mainly economic, and perpetuate an impression for professional

employees as dependent workers with limited control over their


In his classic book The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olson (1965)

was among the first sociologists to argue that the pursuit of the public

good is not a strong enough motivator to draw an individual to an interest

group. By public good, Olson meant benefits that are available to

everyone, regardless of their membership in an interest group. Private

and material benefits, on the other hand, he said, are essential in attracting

members and keeping their commitment to their group organization.

Although the primacy of the public good and the service ideal are

focal points in motivating professionals to pool their resources, professional

associations often have to appeal to the individual's interest in

private benefits by providing exclusive services ranging from placement services

to dissemination of information through journals, newsletters, or

conferences. A recent study among university librarians in California

provided empirical evidence that indeed personal interests are a strong

motivator for joining professional associations. Based on the results of a

survey, it was found that a large number of respondents indicated that

some of the most important reasons for joining and participating in professional

associations included networking with others in the profession,

subscription to journals which accompany membership, having an opportunity

for personal input in setting the goals of the profession, and

also the fact that membership can play an important role in job reappointment

and promotion (Anderson et al., 1992).

The rhetoric of "service" and "standards" that professional associations

use to attract their members has also been under attack as "potentially

elitist," compelling the professional to identify more with a "community

of one's peers" rather than the client and his actual concerns (Haug

& Sussman, 1973, pp. 91-92). Referring specifically to library professionals,

Estabrook (1981) commented: "The more we seek to establish our

expertise, the more we become resistant to community control" (p. 126).

Alexander (1980) adds to these charges by characterizing the language

of service and public good as pretentious and as obscuring the professionals'

desire for higher economic gain:

At an ideal level, professionals stress the primacy of the public good,

whereas unions stress the primacy of private benefit. However, by

definition, professionals are not as immune to financial lure as their

rhetoric of service might imply. In fact, financial success and high

prestige are inevitable and necessary requisites of full-fledged

professional status. Though generally masked in professional rhetoric,

substantial financial gain is indispensable to assure professional status.

(p. 477)

Unions are indeed quite open in pursuing the private financial concerns

of their membership. One of the main forces in union activity is

improving salaries, benefits, hours, and working conditions, and for that

unions are continuously engaged in "an open dialogue of rights, demands,

grievances, needs, and privileges" (Haug & Sussman, 1973, p. 97). However,

professional associations also strive for their membership's upward

mobility and economic rewards; instead of presenting this as a clear agenda

item, they try to accomplish their goal indirectly by attempting to improve

the image of the profession and persuade the public of how valuable

and indispensable are the knowledge and special skills of the practitioners.

In other words, whereas unions tend to be more specific and

immediate in the pursuit of the members' private goals, a professional

association "deals more at the level of broad public relations" (Alexander,

1980, p. 478).

The opportunity to network and have free access to information in a

community of colleagues has attracted a lot of membership to professional

associations. As Galaskiewicz (1985) notes, approaching professional

groups as networks "is appealing, because professionals supposedly

have considerable work autonomy and are well insulated from bureaucratic

controls" (p. 639). Despite a profession's desire to see itself

depending on professional networks rather than on bureaucratic organizations,

however, there is quite strong evidence that the professional

worker is not as autonomous as he would wish to be. In reality a majority

of professions have already lost their independence, and instead they have

to operate within the constraints of large or small organizations. Haug

and Sussman (1973) note:

Private practice as a style of professional work is rapidly disappearing,

while many new and emergent professions have never practiced

in anything except a bureaucratic setting. Under these circumstances,

it is a particular bureaucratic structure, not some vague public

or segment of public, which must be dealt with, and from which

money, autonomy, and other perquisites must be extracted. (p. 92)

The disappearance of the "free professional" has troubled the sociological

literature for quite a while. One extreme reaction to this concern

was reflected in the claim of proletarianization theorists that all workers,

including professionals, eventually lose control over their work and find

themselves at the mercy of an administration which works for the interest

of capital. The same theorists believe that the ultimate consequences of

this transformation are the identification of the professional with the

blue-collar worker and the formation of one social class of proletarians with

shared views and interests (Greenwald, 1978).

Although proletarianization theorists carried their argument to the

extreme, work autonomy among professionals should not be taken for

granted. In his book Professional Powers, Eliot Freidson (1986) argues

that professionals have considerable "technical autonomy," that is, latitude

in using discretion and judgment for the performance of their day-to-day

work without being constantly supervised and under immediate

direction by others. They also have an important influence in policy

making, and they may even be responsible for organizing, coordinating,

or supervising others in their unit. In addition, those employed in the

service sector have gatekeeping power and the power to provide or withhold

services or goods to clients on behalf of the employing institution.

These tasks are not managerial tasks but tasks which characterize discretionary

work. Management, on the other hand, holds the exclusive control

of resource allocation, the budgetary power to decide who gets hired

and for how much pay, what work is to be done, what programs are supported,

or what efforts are re-warded in an organization (McGee, 1971).

In turn, as Freidson (1986) argues, "that power to allocate resources determines

the particular kind of work that can be done and limits the way

work can be done. 181en the generic power of the manager is specified,

the autonomy of the special position of the professional employee seems

to vanish" (p. 154).

This important differentiation in power is often the main cause of

conflict between rank-and-file professionals and managers, regardless of

the professional qualifications of the latter. Professionals often have

their own priorities based on what they think is important for their work and

organization, whereas management tends to place an emphasis on cost

efficiency and quantity. Union organizing is one solution in dealing with

this disparity of power, which openly acknowledges the professional

practitioners' restricted discretionary powers. Taken from that perspective,

unions may also be seen as a means of protecting or even expanding

work autonomy and securing a role for the rank-and-file in the determination

of resource allocation. Once again, while professional associations

try to protect the profession's status, interests, and job independence

on a broad level by promoting its public image and exclusiveness

to expertise, unions have a more direct involvement in protecting these

aspects on behalf of practitioners.


The issue of compatibility of unions to professional values has been

much discussed while opinions are still split. Among the opponents of

labor movement for professionals are those who believe that unions are a

blue-collar movement; on the other hand, union proponents are convinced

that collective bargaining can improve not only economic but also

professional interests.

Historically, the labor movement has placed an emphasis on demands

for better pay, benefits, or for job security, which are considered

"traditional" issues on the bargaining table. Some have even accused the union

leadership of, contrary to the membership's wish, placing a higher priority

on these issues, sacrificing concerns of more intrinsic value (Sheppard

& Herrick, 1972). The implication is that unions tend to cultivate among

rank-and-file a higher value on bread-and-butter issues to the detriment

of an appreciation of other types of rewards.

Research, mainly among nonprofessional groups, confirms that both

union officials and union membership rank traditional bargaining issues

higher than quality-of-work issues (Giles & Holley, 1978; Kochan et al.,

1974). But is the concern over salaries and benefits really unprofessional.

Salary and benefits often reflect the quality of professional work in an

institution since good wages and benefits help employers attract and retain

better professional employees (Rabban, 1991). Referring specifically

to library employees, Lewis (1989) argues that decent salaries are

necessary in order to be able to move beyond bread-and-butter concerns.

She explains:

Salaries often are not a function of individual merit or skill, but are

established by historic measures of worth and influence. Salaries

are political. The historic wage gap between female jobs and male

jobs is well documented. Librarians are the lowest-paid professionals

for the years of education required and length of service in the

work force. (p. 20)

Besides arguments for the importance of bread-and-butter issues, a

recent study of professional librarians in academic research library

institutions found that librarians in both unionized and nonunionized campuses

tended to place similar importance on bread and butter, professional

growth, or work environment issues. In an analysis of just the union

group of respondents, the research found that registered union members

tended to place a higher degree of importance on professional growth

issues than did nonregistered members. Moreover, union commitment

was found statistically significant and positively related to the degree of

value placed on the same issues. In other words, those librarians most

committed to their union tended to place a higher value on professional

issues (Hovekamp, 1994b).

The distinctive characteristics of professional work have brought new

challenges for collective bargaining and raised many questions on the

transferability of the industrial model of negotiations. The peculiar nature

of professional goals has been recognized even legally by the U.S.

Congress in the Taft-Hartley Amendments, allowing professionals to establish

their own separate bargaining unit. Simultaneously, there are

those who believe that any inconsistencies between unions and professional

values are the result of attempts to apply collective bargaining

practices of the industrial sector to the unique setting of professional work

(Rabban, 1987).

In recent years, unions, in recognition of the special interests of

professional workers, have expanded the scope of negotiations beyond the

federally mandatory topics of wages, benefits, and work conditions.

Organizations such as the National Education Association (NEA) and the

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have been involved in educational

reform, school restructuring, and other measures designed to enhance

teaching and learning (Bascia, 1994). In the library field, similar

examples indicate that unions have managed to secure organizational

support for professional development, travel, participation in conferences,

and continuing education opportunities. Other issues addressed on some

academic campuses include tenure and promotion, especially in relation

to everyday work load versus scholarly demands that concern librarians

(Anderson et al., 1992).

In a study of 100 collective bargaining contracts for professional

rank-and-file, Rabban (1991) found that professional issues frequently addressed

in collective bargaining agreements fall under the following categories:

(1) establishment of professional standards, (2) provision of

mechanisms for the professionals' participation in decision-making,

(3) regulation of professional work, (4) provisions on training and professional

development, (5) allocation of institutional resources to professional

goals, and (6) defining the criteria for personnel decisions and the

role of the professionals in making them. Within these categories, Rabban

discovered a wide variation in the way these professional concerns were

contractually treated with some provisions supporting traditional professional

values and some not. Despite mixed results, the main conclusion of the research

was that "the existence of substantial, unambiguous support for professional

values in many agreements suggests, at a minimum, that unionization and

professionalism are not inherently incompatible" (Rabban, 1991, p. 110). In

other words, the presence of unions does not come with fixed results. Factors

such as the type and quality of the employing organization, differences among

unions, and the characteristics of the profession itself affect the degree

of support of professional values as these may be reflected in collective

bargaining agreements.

Economic concerns have been addressed by professional associations to

Varying degrees among different occupations. In the library field, the American

Library Association (ALA) holds a rather lukewarm attitude toward the

establishment of salary standards, simply publishing results of periodic salary

surveys it conducts or minimum starting salaries based on recommendations by

state library associations. As Harris (1992) notes, "the library associations

tend to be library-centered rather than employee-centered with respect to such

issues as salary and working conditions" (p. 105). As a consequence, library

associations, in particular ALA, have been accused of siding with employers and

sympathizing with their interests rather than with the employees. Harris

believes that one of the main reasons why library associations refuse

to assume any responsibility over identifying or resolving salary

inequities is the mixed composition of their membership by rank-and-file,

managers, and employers, an uncommon characteristic among professional


The example of library professional associations is not however followed

by other professional groups such as teachers or nurses, who have espoused a

more active role for their associations in terms of salaries, benefits, or other

working conditions. The AFT, NEA, AAUP (American Association of University

Professors), and ANA (American Nurses Association) actively participate in the

setting of both economic and professional standards for the occupations they

represent. Although opinions are still split as to the effects of collective

bargaining responsibilities that these associations assumed, the fact that they

still represent these dual interests of professionals since the 1960s or 1970s

attest to a history of some success and to the ability of a professional

association to openly acknowledge the economic aspirations of a profession.


The above discussion points to the fact that professional associations

and professional unions are not necessarily antithetical. They both can

keep a profession cohesive by acknowledging both commonalities and

differences, secure greater work autonomy, respond to the membership's

concerns for private benefits, and support both professional and economic

values. Overall, they both can provide opportunities for a profession to

apply stronger collective pressure for upward mobility than a single individual

could. But where are they different?

One may argue that it is the profession itself that determines the

differences. Some occupations, such as teachers or nurses, have allowed the

joining of the two forms of organization into a new form that combines the

functions of both a professional association and a union. Others have

decided to keep the two separate.

In the library field, the separation between professional associations and

unions has been quite distinct, particularly in terms of the role and

tactics these organizations have assumed. This distinction seems to be clear in

the minds of library professionals. For instance, in a recent survey among

unionized librarians, respondents indicated that they view the two as "mutually

exclusive" (Anderson et al., 1992, p. 338). On the one hand, unions tend to help

library professionals deal with specific work-related issues or rights, taking

on an active role in their day-to-day work life. Having the legal right to

negotiate on behalf of the employees, they use more aggressive tactics through

collective bargaining to protect and advance the professionals' work interests.

Library professional associations, on the other hand, address the profession's

issues on a broad scale, beyond institutional confines, taking more of an

advisory or educational role. The tactics they use seek to enhance the status of

the profession by dissemination of information, establishment of standards, and

improvement of public relations through publications and lobbying. Because of

this differentiation in role and tactics--i.e., openly advocating the interests

of the profession versus indirectly striving for them--unions are often seen as

a more effective way of coping with issues of importance in the employees' work

life. For example, in their study, Anderson et al. (1992) found that the

majority of surveyed librarians would rather drop their professional membership

than leave the union in which they belonged.

An issue that has often been raised is whether a professional association,

such as ALA, should take a more active and aggressive role in the work

lives of professionals by assuming collective bargaining responsibilities. ALA

is still far from such a resolution, and that might either reflect the wish of

the membership or the fact that the professional rank-and-file still have not

made their case strong and clear.

For the time being, a combination of professional association and union

representation may help in achieving the goals of the library profession on

a broad scale and on an institution-specific level. We simply need to

recognize that these are two sides of one coin, both of them compatible with the

special nature of the profession, and both with the potential to affect the

occupation's status and welfare.


(1) The same study found that librarians were not very accepting toward their

union. Some participants commented that unions were "aggressive," "irrelevant,"

"more concerned with the problems of the teaching faculty," or even that "Most

employees stayed away from [them] because they feared for their jobs; (Hovekamp,

1994a, p. 305).


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Tina M. Hovekamp, Library & Instructional Media Services, Central Oregon

Community College, 2600 NW College, Bend, OR 97701
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Title Annotation:The Role of Professional Associations
Author:Hovekamp, Tina Maragou
Publication:Library Trends
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Previous Article:Introduction.
Next Article:Library association staff: roles, responsibilities, relationships.

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