Higher ed charts a course through solution-driven unionism

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When people talk about the "new normal"—whether it be in reference to Congress, the economy or local college campuses—"it makes me want to pound my head against the wall," railed Sandra Schroeder, president of AFT Washington, AFT vice president and chair of the higher ed leadership council.

Schroeder is not alone; a record number of AFT members turned out for the AFT's higher education conference this year on the topic "Confronting the 'New Normal'—Union-Driven Solutions for the Future of Higher Education." Presenters and attendees together challenged the assumptions behind that expression and used their heads to embrace solutions.

The conference took place in San Diego, home to the state that modeled one of the best solutions of all last fall, a democratic one. AFT affiliates working with labor, faith-based and community groups laid out the arguments for why Californians need to invest in their futures through education. Voters responded by passing Proposition 30, a tax measure that will pump $6 billion into public education.

"It's the most progressive tax measure in California history," said California Federation of Teachers president Joshua Pechthalt, who is an AFT vice president. At a workshop the next day, attendees learned the inside story about the methodical public opinion research polling and tireless coalition building that was behind the victory. It was one case study among many that illustrated solution-driven unionism to participants.

AFT President Randi WeingartenAFT president Randi Weingarten touts community engagement.

The conference's keynote speaker modeled another approach: civil disobedience. When she bounded on the stage, it had been less than 24 hours since AFT president Randi Weingarten was released after her arrest in Philadelphia along with 18 others protesting city officials' plans to close 23 public schools. (See related story.)

"When the powers that be refused to listen to the community, as they did in Philadelphia," she said, "that is when you engage in civil disobedience!"

We are living in a second gilded age—"this one on steroids," said Weingarten. "The rise in corporate profits and income inequality tracks with the decline of labor movement. How do we prevent higher education from becoming a luxury for the few? How do we ensure the community sees us as educators who are part of solutions? If community is not with us, we don't have leverage to do what we do for our society.

"Public schools, colleges and universities, and labor: These institutions are the gateways to the middle class, the centerpieces of a just society and a vibrant democracy."

Weingarten called on labor activists to fixate on three strategies: community engagement, member engagement and solution-driven unionism. "That's who we are," she said.

USAA LoftinUSSA president Tiffany Dena Loftin said student debt is everyone’s issue.

At more than 30 workshops, forums and plenary sessions, conference attendees explored those strategies in action. Topics covered included addressing education debt and state disinvestment in public higher education (a subject of multiple sessions at the conference), supporting immigration reform and the DREAM Act, engaging collaboratively with student activists, taking on the evolving role of accreditation in campus operations, the "completion agenda," and MOOCs (massive open online courses).

Practical sessions imparted skills: how to connect with members and community partners to create a community engagement plan around issues of common interest, for example, and how to prepare for the unexpected, be it weather or threats of violence on campus.

Attendees also explored how to get involved in other AFT initiatives—creating a positive work environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender faculty and staff; following through on the recommendations of the AFT Teacher Preparation Task Force; and ensuring that contingent faculty are not victimized by inept administrator interpretations of the Affordable Care Act.

Weingarten urged AFT activists to return to their states and take on the difficult conditions that progressives are tackling on the national stage. [Barbara McKenna/Photos Sandy Huffaker]

March 15, 2013