SILVER SPRING, MD. – Ethan is indeed a rare breed. Trotting through the administrative offices of the National Labor College on a recent Tuesday morning, the German Shepherd/Chinese Shar Pei mix is just about the only “worker” on campus who has yet to secure a contract with management.
“He works off of love and bones,” says Carol Rodgers, Ethan’s owner and the college’s associate provost for external relations.
Welcome to the National Labor College, where library visitors are greeted by a bronze sculpture of George Meany, the plumber turned A.F.L.-C.I.O. president who first envisioned the campus. But much has changed in the labor movement since Meany started building it up more than 50 years ago. Unions are at a crossroads, and many question how they will retool themselves for the 21st century. Membership fell to about 12 percent of the workforce in 2008, down from 20 percent in 1983 when comparable data first became available, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is with the challenges facing unions in mind that the Labor College seeks to transform and rebrand itself. Founded as a training center  for organizers in 1969, the college became accredited in 2004 and has placed renewed emphasis on awarding bachelor’s degrees and broadening its curriculum.
“Things are changing,” says William E. Scheuerman, the Labor College's president. “Muscle power isn’t where it’s at. It’s about brain power.”
Scheuerman became president two years ago, following 14 years as president of the United University Professions (UUP), the nation's largest public higher education union and an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
A key addition to the Labor College's curriculum is a newly required course called Labor and the Economy, which is designed to give students a broadened view of what Scheuerman describes as the global forces that influence the lives of workers. The course explores the economic and global dynamics that instructors say led to the current economic crisis, as well as Keynesian economic policies that were often cited by supporters of the stimulus package Congress passed in February.
Unions' Struggles Mirrored at College
In many ways the Labor College’s new programs – including a certificate for workers developing a green workplace – are intended to position graduates for success in a rapidly changing economic and political landscape. But any such effort would necessarily include an objective presentation of the challenges unions face in the 21st century. While about 20 percent of the college’s budget comes from the A.F.L.-C.I.O., Scheuerman says students aren't given a sugarcoated version of labor’s problems.
“We still make the distinction between preaching and teaching,” he says.
It’s also a misconception to suggest all unionized workers and labor leaders are of one mind about the movement’s future, Scheuerman adds. That dissension was manifest in 2005, when a coalition of powerful and populous labor unions split with the A.F.L.-C.I.O, citing intractable differences. But if there is a philosophical chasm between the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the more recently formed Change to Win Federation, which includes the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters, it hasn’t limited the pool of students coming to the Labor College, Scheuerman says. Students affiliated with Change to Win are welcome on the campus.
“That kind of street fighting doesn’t play here,” he says.
Some of the challenges facing the labor movement – notably efforts to improve diversity – are mirrored on the college’s own campus. Men have higher union membership than women, and about 80 percent of the roughly 200 degree-seeking students enrolled at the Labor College are male, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. White students make up nearly 80 percent of the student population.
“We’re doing very active outreach to increase diversity,” says Tom Kriger, the college’s provost.
Unions have also struggled to recruit young workers, and the average age of Labor College students is 47. That statistic makes Peter Kennedy an exception to the rule. Kennedy, a 25 year old arbitration staff assistant for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, is seeking a bachelor’s degree at the college. The Brotherhood, which is affiliated with the Teamsters, represents CSX Railroad workers.
Far from seeing any evasion of the challenges facing labor, Kennedy says they are “brought up in every class.” The auto industry’s problems, for instance, have been a fertile source of debate and discussion, he says.
“The majority of us agree that there’s got to be changes,” says Kennedy, who is majoring in the Political Economy of Labor and Union Administration and Leadership.
“Some old methods are obviously not working,” he adds. “[Professors] don’t try to promote how we’re supposed to change, but they give us suggestions and let us decide.”
Like many students at the college, Kennedy does much of his work online. A Chicago resident, Kennedy visits the campus once a semester for a week of residential study. The Brotherhood has supported his academic pursuits, giving Kennedy scholarships and time off to attend on-campus classes.
Students enrolling in the bachelor of arts program are required to enter the college with at least 56 credits, roughly the equivalent of an associate degree. They can accumulate up to one year’s worth of credits, however, by applying for Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) credits, which are awarded to students who demonstrate past experiences that meet the learning objectives of courses offered by the college. Kriger says the PLA application process is difficult, but he was unsure when asked what percentage of students applying for the credits are actually awarded them.
“When I talk to my colleagues (at other institutions), they say that’s lightweight,” he says. “It’s not. It’s rigorous.”
Practical Skills for Workers
While the college has made efforts to broaden the focus of its bachelor of arts degree program, there’s still plenty of time devoted to practical issues unionized employees are likely to face. Some of that instruction comes through the college's union skills courses, which are offered in addition to degree programs. But even within degree programs, students wrestle with issues they could potentially encounter back on the job. In a recent Employment Law class, for instance, students spent hours discussing how to collect evidence in an asbestos contamination case. The case was based on the real-life experience of one of the students, who says he lost his job working with a Philadelphia school when he complained about asbestos.
Instructing the course is Morty Simon, a longtime labor lawyer who directs the college’s Southwest Organizing School in Santa Fe, N.M. Wearing blue jeans and sneakers, the white haired and bearded adjunct professor says his goal is to get students thinking about public records and other tools they’ll need in arbitration.
“This is getting them to think more broadly, and to cast a wide net, as we say here,” Simon says.
Derek Willingham, a student in Simon’s class, says he’s been surprised at how rigorous the courses actually are.
“I thought it was going to be really easy,” says Willingham, a labor relations specialist with the American Federation of Government Employees, an A.F.L.-C.I.O.-affiliated union. “But they push you to do a lot of reading, a lot of writing.”
Harry C. Katz, dean of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says the Labor College has garnered a strong reputation for what it does.
“I think they are a very solid institution teaching labor studies,” Katz says. “They clearly have a strong pro union bent in how they teach it, but there aren’t many labor studies programs that don’t.”
But the work students and faculty do at the Labor College has a different focus than Cornell’s school, which features more traditional academic programs, Katz says. The Labor College’s students are mostly refining skills to be used in unions, and faculty are publishing “action research” that is often based on their own experiences in organization or arbitration. At Cornell, however, a significant number of students are taking labor courses because they plan to work in management careers and want to understand union tactics.
“We certainly have students taking [courses] whose goal in life is to be an attorney to help defeat unions,” Katz says.
Labor College students are more likely to be union members, in part because non-union members pay significantly higher tuition. An A.F.L.-C.I.O member pays $174 per credit hour, compared with $1,137 per credit hour for non-union members. The bachelor of arts and bachelor of technical/professional studies degrees both require 120 credits.
Despite the large concentration of unionized students at the college, Willingham says he’s seen classmates express critical views of labor.
“It’s not like you can’t come here and be a Republican and take the management side,” he says.
Part of the role of the college, however, is to bolster union membership. Unionized students pay less, but even non-unionized members can get a substantial discount if they agree to join Working America, an affiliate of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. that aims to form alliances between union and non-union employees. Working America membership is only $5, but students who go through the college are more likely to join a union after graduation if they haven’t already, Scheuerman says. In essence, the Labor College is drawing students from unions, and helping bring new members in as well, he says.
“That symbolizes the role we play in the labor movement,” Scheuerman says. “We feed off each other.”