What Academic Labor Wants

Summit of dozens of leaders of faculty and staff in higher education develops an ambitious agenda. They want “the common good over profit and prestige.”

July 12, 2021
(Daniel Villeneuve/Getty Images)

Organized labor in higher education -- representing faculty members on the tenure track and adjuncts, graduate students and other employees -- came together last week for the first Higher Ed Labor Summit: Building a Movement to Transform U.S. Higher Education.

And on Friday evening, those in attendance issued a platform for consideration by the individual unions represented at the conference. More than 75 union locals were present at the meeting, and they represent more than 300,000 people in academe. Those in attendance back the document, union leaders said.

"We envision institutions of higher education that prioritize people and the common good over profit and prestige," says the introduction to the platform. "We envision institutions that redress systemic oppression and pursue equity along lines of race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, indigeneity, age, (dis)ability and immigration status for students and higher ed workers across all job categories. We envision institutions that honor the right of all workers to organize a union and collectively bargain."

Frederick Kowal, president of United University Professions, the country’s largest higher education union, representing faculty and professional staff in the State University of New York system, acknowledged that the fight for what the platform calls for would be difficult. But he said that it "is vitally important we create the means" to succeed.

He said that if unions only focus on internal issues or marginal change, they will fail. Unions need "a grander scope," he said.

The tone of the press conference, which came immediately after the closing session of the meeting, was of achieving the goals set out. There was no mention of politically partisan obstacles such as Republicans in the U.S. Senate or in control of many state legislatures, who traditionally oppose unions and have been more willing to limit higher education funding in recent decades.

The platform speaks to some of these challenges.

"For decades, our state systems and their institutions, working conditions and learning environments have been compromised by public disinvestment, financialization, corporatization and a transition to debt financing," the platform says. "Higher education has been underfunded."

"The majority of faculty (at least 70 percent) are in adjunct or contingent appointments. Their precarity presents a threat to job stability, educational engagement with students, long-term student outcomes and academic freedom."

The platform calls for four "commitments" to solve these problems:

  • Federal intervention. Specifically, "the right to a quality, debtless, universally accessible, and secure higher education for students, workers and communities, with intentional mandates to increase access and retention for people historically or presently excluded." In addition, a federal law "to guarantee the right for all higher education workers to organize a union and bargain collectively in every state."
  • A national campaign to "realign our campuses." Some of the measures called for are "collaborative shared governance" for higher education; "align[ing] campus and state budgets with educational priorities" and "reduc[ing] the average ratio of upper-administrator compensation to faculty and staff compensation to an equitable standard." In addition, "improv[ing] the immediate working conditions for all contingent faculty and staff via employment standards that include job security, pay equity, health care and retirement benefits."
  • A national campaign to organize for the first two commitments. Key parts of the campaign include support for the College for All Act, proposed legislation that would make most public colleges and universities tuition-free and reduce student debt, and "organiz[ing] to win federal legislation to attach labor provisions to existing mechanisms of federal funding (e.g. the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Pell Grants, etc.) to ensure that institutions honor workers' right to organize a union and bargain collectively in good faith."
  • Unity. "We commit to work and build solidarity together to fight in our communities and across the country and its territories as a true coordinated higher education labor movement to transform our systems and our lives."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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