Solution-driven Unionism: Higher Education

A PERFECT STORM of reduced revenue and spending cuts is threatening both the quality and efficacy of public higher education in the United States. These cuts already have resulted in overcrowded classrooms, fewer full-time faculty positions, less time for student mentoring, and more use of underpaid, under-resourced adjuncts (see cover story on page 4). At the same time, student loan debt is soaring to $1 trillion this year, surpassing credit card debt in our country.

Unlike most storms, this is not one we can wait out. Going to college and acquiring some kind of postsecondary degree has never been more important. Higher education cannot become a luxury for a few—it must be affordable and accessible to all. We must find ways to ensure our professional staff and graduate employees have the time, tools and trust they need to be successful.

The challenges we face in public higher education demand an entirely different approach to unionism. They demand an approach that is relevant and appropriate to the 21st century, that is creative and visionary, and that unifies the members of our union with those we serve. I call this approach “solution-driven unionism.”
Solution-driven unionism doesn’t mean we will give up our traditional strengths.

Demonstrating for our goals and beliefs, speaking truth to power, organizing, lobbying, being heard at the bargaining table—these are the things we’ve always done. Solution-driven unionism means that we are also making a choice not simply to call out what doesn’t work, but to build on what does.

Solution-driven unionism is rooted in solving problems, not winning arguments, and many AFT affiliates are pursuing this approach with great results. It is our compass at the national union, as well. We know that this tough climate is no excuse for not having a proactive agenda; to the contrary, it demands it.

The AFT’s partnership with the United States Student Association, the nation’s largest student association, is one example of unifying the members of our union with those we serve and raising awareness about issues of shared concern. We teamed up with USSA to address issues such as mounting student debt and onerous voter suppression—issues that disproportionately affect students. In March, I addressed a USSA rally outside the Sallie Mae offices in Washington, D.C., where students who were attempting to meet with Sallie Mae officials were arrested.

The United Professions AFT Vermont’s partnership with the Vermont Workers’ Center is another example. The partnership organized a massive rally pushing for adequate funding for higher education, healthcare and early childhood education, and they are organizing around a “people’s budget” that includes higher education as a prominent plank. By working with community, UPV assured that the push for funding public services will include adequate funding for higher education.

Facing the prospects of performance-based funding in higher education, the University Professionals of Illinois worked collaboratively for several months with college presidents, state officials and others to ensure that the state developed more-detailed and sensible metrics for measuring student success. UPI’s efforts helped ensure that institutions will not be unfairly penalized by a system in which funding is based on poorly conceived metrics for student success.

Solution-driven unionism takes many forms. At its core, it unites our members with their students and communities and, in so doing, ensures that we don’t merely survive, but that we succeed. Our success also rests upon electing leaders who support this concept, which is based on collaboration as opposed to conflict, and on problem-solving as opposed to finger-pointing. We are experiencing some of the toughest times I’ve seen, and the November elections can shape whether times get even tougher or give way to a climate of seeking solutions for the common good.

On Campus, September/October 2012