Making connections, making noise at the AFT higher ed conference

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Faculty and staff unionists from universities and colleges all over the nation convened for the AFT’s Higher Education Leadership Conference Oct. 12-13, sharing ideas and laying out plans to defend not only campus workers’ rights but also the freedom of thought that is at the heart of academia.

Graduate workers share strategies about organizing a union and engaging membership.Graduate workers share strategies about organizing a union and engaging membership.

“It’s no longer sufficient just to be professors, even great professors,” said Mark Richard, counsel to AFT President Randi Weingarten. “We have to remember that the academy has no defense, no voice, no amplification but for the professoriate, and how does the professoriate organize its voice? I believe it’s the union.”

“The most important currency we have is our people,” said Weingarten, who joined the meeting by Skype. She laid out a proactive agenda, including a campaign for a welcoming and safe work and school environment, free from gun violence and hate; sufficient funding for high-quality public higher education, so that a third of our contingent faculty are not living in poverty (as a recent AFT survey indicates); academic freedom, and the freedom to teach and have a voice in the workplace—to say, for example, that money should be spent on courses and a living wage rather than new stadiums and other nonacademic expenses; and the ability to live on one job’s wages instead of cobbling together a living with multiple jobs, as so many contingent faculty do.

Weingarten stressed that engagement and community among unionists and progressives are key as the elections approach. “If people don’t feel empowered, if people don’t feel heard, if people don’t feel that they’re part of something, it’s very easy for a demagogue to say, ‘Be part of us,’” she said. That’s especially dangerous when the demagogue—President Trump—takes discontent among the people and “uses it to polarize and divide.”

From left, Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, an Philippe Abraham, secretary-treasurer of the New York State United Teachers, show solidarity for the Chicago Teachers Union. Both are also AFT vice presidents.From left, Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, and Philippe Abraham, secretary-treasurer of the New York State United Teachers, show solidarity for the Chicago Teachers Union. Both are also AFT vice presidents.

But faculty and staff are coming together on a wide array of platforms, and the conference workshops allowed them to discuss successes and challenges in each. In Fund Our Future workshops, members described how they’ve pushed for better pay and benefits for adjunct faculty, increased funding for important student support programs and more money for broader access to a college education. Participants learned about how to build union-community coalitions, including students, alumni, and even university presidents and regents, and how to use social media to advance their cause.

Several sessions addressed the precarious state of contingent faculty, who work with little job security and less pay. A recent AFT survey shows that one-third of contingent faculty—part-time lecturers, adjunct professors, graduate employees and others without the protection of tenure or tenure-track work—live below the poverty line, and about a quarter have applied for public assistance. Contracts like the one the Lecturers’ Employee Organization at the University of Michigan won recently are beginning to address these deep-seated problems with significant salary increases and better job security, and the “$7K” campaign run by the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York—that is, $7,000 per course for adjuncts—aims to make pay more equitable.

When funding is low, privatization gains a foothold. Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions, State University of New York, described her local’s vigilance as SUNY increases its online education programming. Among UUP’s concerns: the potential decline in course quality, the danger of privatization and a profit-first approach, and the importance of maintaining faculty voice and power in academia.

Other workshops addressed climate change; dual enrollment; graduate employee organizing, including through AFT Academics, a national local for higher education workers; white supremacy on campus through hate speech disguised as academic freedom; student loan debt; and elections.

Many members picked up new ideas and inspiration from stories of successful activism—like PSC’s relentless presence at board meetings and their rallies, complete with lighted protest signs; inclusion of students during rallies and actions at Rutgers, CUNY and elsewhere; and hiring researchers to show that universities are hiding funding they could use for faculty and academics. They heard about specific strategies to build membership engagement and a strong, strike-ready union—like open bargaining, constituency-specific priorities, a strong steward structure and issues-based organizing. They also participated in real-time solidarity actions, taking photos of themselves with signs showing support for University of New Mexico faculty, who are voting for the union Oct. 16 and 17, and for the Chicago Teachers Union, which may go on strike Oct. 17.

The conference closed with U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who laid out the case for fighting for justice and truth—in academia and in the public square—by impeaching Trump. Raskin, who has been pressing for impeachment based on the emoluments clause https://www.britannica.com/story/what-is-the-emoluments-clause (the constitutional prohibition against a president receiving payments from a foreign state), reminded attendees, “It’s a great time to teach about the Constitution.” He pointed out that the country was founded on the basic principle of “We the people,” the opening phrase of the Constitution. Power flows from the people up, he said. Elected representatives, including Raskin himself, “are nothing but the servants of the people. The moment that we start acting like we are the masters of the people, that is the moment to evict ... and impeach us from office.”

Raskin closed with a quote from Frederick Douglass, one that Weingarten frequently uses to rally union engagement. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” he said. Then he quoted Thomas Paine, with slight modification: “These are the times that try men’s and women’s souls,” he said. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. … Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

[Virginia Myers]