PHILADELPHIA -- The fact that the American Federation of Teachers' annual meeting on higher education took place in a hotel here alongside the American Professional Wound Care Association was, to be sure, a quirk of scheduling. But the irony was not lost on several of those attending.
Organized labor has suffered punishing blows in recent days and weeks, in Wisconsin  and Ohio , with the promise of further attacks on collective bargaining to come in other states, such as Indiana, Michigan and Florida .
“This has been about the worst year that I could have ever imagined happening,” Ed Muir, AFT's deputy director of research and information services, said at the opening plenary session Friday. “Our enemies were given more political power than ever before.”
Muir said that newly elected Republican governors and state legislators had successfully cast public sector workers as greedy and their pay and benefits as significantly worsening the budget deficits hitting states. But budget problems are not the governors' real motive, he argued. “They're going after us because we try to challenge the balance of power,” said Muir. “It's about power and political gains; it's not about solutions.”
He derided what he called “gilded age budgeting” in state houses, which, he said, has favored tax cuts over public services and salaries. “It's horrifying. It is disgusting. They know no bounds,” he said before running through a litany of budgets proposed in states by Republican governors whose names provoked hissing from the audience.
New Jersey's budget would provide $2.5 billion in tax cuts for businesses (though also for larger property tax rebates) in exchange for concessions from public employees. Michigan's spending plan would replace the existing business tax with a flat corporate income tax of 6 percent, while cutting aid to higher education by 15 percent (unless the colleges curb tuition increases), ending the earned income tax credit and taxing pensions. Pennsylvania's budget would not impose taxes on industries that will begin extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, but would cut in half the state's support  for four-year institutions of higher education.
Education has to live with a new normal, said Muir -- one in which that sector is expected to adapt to lower levels of support while “the rich need our love and care.”
“The word for this, I believe, is evil,” said Muir.
Against that dire backdrop for labor, it was all the more surprising that several speakers during Friday's plenary session cast a positive light on some of its most stinging setbacks.
In Madison, Wis., tens of thousands of protesters flooded the Capitol building in February, and police, firefighters, health care workers and students demonstrated to show support for collective bargaining rights that are to be stripped under a proposal by Governor Scott Walker. “It was almost a festival for labor -- a coming out party,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York, vice president of the AFT and associate professor of English at Queens College.
“There was a real solidarity, a real celebration of being together,” said Bowen. “There was a kind of magic.” Despite that magic -- and the efforts of Wisconsin's Democratic senators to halt the proposal by fleeing the state  -- unions nonetheless saw their collective bargaining rights stripped  (though a Dane County judge has issued an order barring the law from being enacted as she considers a lawsuit alleging that the measure was passed without sufficient public notice).
But even if Wisconsin's law is eventually upheld, that victory will prove to be Pyrrhic, argued Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT. “Walker and [Governor John] Kasich [of Ohio] have so overreached,” she said. “We call Walker the mobilizer-in-chief. People are looking at our movement again and looking at who we are and what we represent.”
Faculty members throughout the UW system, which had won the right to collectively bargain in 2009, have continued organizing with strong support  from their members, even though the new law takes that right away. Opinion polls  have shown comparatively more support for collective bargaining rights than for plans to strip those rights from workers, she and others noted.
Still, Weingarten implored the approximately 400 faculty union leaders gathered here to “take a moment and make it into a movement.” This week, organized labor is conducting teach-ins , rallies and other events  in hundreds of venues across the country. The events start today and are timed to coincide with the 43rd anniversary of the assassination in Memphis, Tenn., of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had traveled there to lead a march in support of striking sanitation workers.
“If you can't move our members right now, we will never move to the next step,” said Weingarten. “I know it's hard out there. I know we have a landscape the likes of which we've never had.”
She closed by saying that unions are the only institution that has power both at the ballot box and at the bargaining table (a dual power that many of their opponents also cite as problematic). “That's why they came after us. We can't let them have it. It's our movement,” she said, to a standing ovation.
Despite such moments, and the presence of stickers declaring “We Are All Wisconsin” and T-shirts bearing the words, “We Are One,” several sessions focused on the underlying problems facing those who work at colleges in a time of budget cuts -- problems that existed well before the unions began facing extinction in some states this year.
A workshop before the plenary session focused on how to cope with furloughs and layoffs. Speakers and audience members expressed deep frustration -- not with their governors or assembly members, but with the administrators at their institutions.
“There comes a point where my staff can't do it anymore,” said Jacqueline Staley, president of the AFT Yakima Professional Staff Local 6390 and an academic support worker at Yakima Valley Community College, in Washington State. She described how rounds of staff cuts over the years had left her members' departments depleted and the staffers working longer hours. “I'm on -- even on my days off,” she said, adding that the day her mother died, she dealt with a phone call from a panicked faculty member.
Recent talk of furloughs has been especially galling. “The work doesn't go away; they just spread it out,” she said. But, if her members accept the furloughs, she wants all of the staff to take them on the same day, in order to send a message to administrators. “They need to see that the professional staff are the backbone of a community college.”
Karen Siefring, president of AFT local 2373 at Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J., and assistant to the dean for advisement at the Rohrer College of Business there, acknowledged budget pressures, but added that “it's a matter of how you manage it.”
When she has been placed on furlough, she said she has included messages on her e-mail and voice mail letting people know that they should re-send their requests once she returns to work. “People try to guilt our membership by saying 'think of our poor students,' ” she said, adding that she and her members are trying to demonstrate that workers need to be respected. “ 'No work, no pay' needs to be the message,” she continued. “It's a management decision that students get hurt.”
David Carpenter, vice president of University Professionals of Illinois, AFT Local 4100, and a professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, described how union leaders' only real recourse has been to file grievances or unfair labor practices when staff members lose their jobs or are reassigned to lower-paid jobs. Though such efforts often prove successful, they take a long time and exact a toll. “What do we do for our employees who are laid off and have mortgages to pay?” Carpenter asked. “We're doing our best, but we have to work through the legal system. That's profoundly frustrating.”
Frustration of another sort surfaced in a workshop later in the day that focused on the job security of adjunct faculty. “The issues that we're facing regarding part-time faculty are the ones we've always faced, but they're more urgent because of the frontal assault we're all facing,” said Vincent Tirelli, a founder of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor and an adjunct in the political science department at Brooklyn College.
The challenge, he said, is to find common cause with full-time faculty members, whose interests diverge from those of adjuncts -- such as when they advocate for adjuncts to be laid off before tenured faculty members can be placed at risk, or push for raises to be awarded across the board, even if it widens the salary gap between the two groups. Adjuncts are "exploited. They're the academic proletariat,” said Tirelli. Fissures between adjuncts and the full-time faculty who essentially serve as their supervisors have played out in other areas  of the country, as well.
In a sense, the tensions that Tirelli and others described in their session illustrated a larger point about how some labor leaders had erred, according to comments that Bowen said she'd heard while at rallies in Wisconsin. The interests of one group of workers too often had trumped considerations of others. “We're in this position because labor didn't fight hard enough for a broad enough spectrum of people,” she said during the opening plenary. “That's the challenge of labor -- to go beyond one magical moment.... We would never have been in this position if we had looked past ourselves.”