You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A graphic depicting 18 arms and fists, representing a variety of skin colors, pumped in the air in a gesture of solidarity.

santima suksawat from santima-studio

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., the civil rights leader was in town to lead a march in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers. The march and the protests leading up to it had been organized by a coalition of civil rights and labor leaders. Today, the labor and racial justice movements must remember that history as they come together again to defend the steps institutions of higher education have taken toward greater racial justice. 

In higher education today, the wisdom of marrying labor and racial justice movements is once again apparent. As conservative crusaders accelerate their attacks on higher education, labor has been at the forefront of defending the steps taken toward greater racial justice. There is much more to be done, but the colleges and universities of 2024 look racially different from those of 1968. The student bodies, faculties and curricula of today reflect U.S. society much better than they did in King’s time. For those who long for a country that resembles the 1960s United States—a country in which whiteness and wealth more reliably secured privilege—that is a problem.

Unions are fighting back. In states like Florida, Ohio and Texas, the higher education labor movement has mobilized to oppose rollbacks. Labor activists are writing op-eds in local media, testifying in statehouses and taking to the streets in demonstrations.

Where university administrators have been silent in the face of politicians’ efforts to shape curricula, unions are speaking out. Leaders and members of United Faculty of Florida joined lawsuits arguing the unconstitutionality of the Stop Woke Act—now law—which has tried to muzzle instructors teaching about race. Together, they have secured an injunction against the law’s enforcement in higher education institutions. UFF stands ready to aid individual faculty members who could be sanctioned if the law goes into effect.

Not coincidentally, the same politicians who are trying to dictate how educators teach about our country’s history are also trying to weaken tenure—or worse, end it completely. Tenure buttresses free speech, and contingent faculty who work without long-term contacts are more likely to bend to the will of politicians and administrators.

Unions are not just fighting back against attacks on higher education. They are also working proactively to advance racial equity. In their most recent contract, Rutgers AAUP-AFT won funding for fellowships, in the form of a course release, for faculty who mentor, advise and do outreach to underserved, first-generation and/or underrepresented students. The union also won $600,000 in initial funding for a Common Good Community Fund, which will primarily serve minority and low-income communities surrounding Rutgers’s campuses.

The California Faculty Association, which represents faculty at the 23 California State University campuses, was successful in lobbying for a systemwide ethnic studies requirement. It has held workshops on unconscious bias, one of the types of training Florida’s Stop Woke Act has tried to limit.

These proactive steps are especially important in Democratic-leaning states like Maryland, where I work and where more than 30 percent of the population is African American. The state has at least 10 minority-serving institutions, and the four historically Black colleges and universities in our public system recently won a $577 million settlement from a lawsuit against the state that recognized a history of underfunding HBCUs and of favoring public institutions serving white majorities.

The politicians who set state budgets and the leaders of public higher education institutions share a stated commitment to social justice and racial equity. But they keep our public colleges and universities on a starvation diet, eroding potent engines of social mobility for historically underrepresented groups. And they do so despite strong public support for higher education spending. Like legislators in the more conservative states to our south, they have failed to pass legislation granting academic workers in the state’s public four-year institutions the right to bargain collectively, while allowing our four-year institutions to erode the number of tenured faculty.

It’s easy to imagine that a state like Maryland would have made much larger strides toward racial justice if state legislators had allowed all faculty and graduate workers an effective, independent voice. It’s easy to imagine that academics can become an effective, collective voice for the changes our universities need. Maryland faculty and graduate workers want the kind of change that truly honors African American history—changes that advance labor rights and foreground racial equity. Politicians and university administrators should honor Black history by doing more than offering platitudes about struggles for racial justice. We call on them to join with academic workers. We call on them to honor Black history by supporting public employees, just as King did, by enabling us to organize, unionize and bargain collectively.

Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland College Park. She serves on the National Council of the American Association of University Professors and is president of her campus AAUP chapter.

Next Story

More from Views