Anti-academia in Wisconsin
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has slashed $250 million from the state’s higher education budget, dropping faculty and staff positions and stretching resources at public colleges and universities. As if that wasn’t enough, he has used the budget to squelch academic freedom as well.
Arguing that hiring and firing flexibility could relieve financial pressure, Walker’s budget allows tenure to be revoked for reasons beyond dire financial emergency and just cause. Without tenure, controversial research—on subjects such as climate change—could be threatened if donors or others in power disagree with its conclusions. Walker has also limited self-governance among faculty.
The changes “pose a direct threat to academic freedom” and jeopardize the university’s stellar reputation, says a coalition of 21 esteemed scholarly associations, including the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association and the American Society of Comparative Law. At the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, union members attended a board of regents meeting with duct tape over their mouths to symbolize the danger of these policies, and to pressure the regents to defend tenure even if the state refuses. At UW–Green Bay, hundreds of faculty, staff and students signed a petition, and their chancellor declared support for shared governance.
“People have been demoralized, and everyone recognizes the new challenges,” says Jon Shelton, a professor at UW–Green Bay and the chair of the Green Bay local’s organizing committee. “But it has galvanized a lot of people to become active in the union.”
Advantage: women in unions
A new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that women represented by labor unions earn an average of $212, or 30.9 percent, more per week than women in nonunion jobs. This wage advantage extends to women across racial and ethnic groups and is especially dramatic among unionized Hispanic women, who have median weekly earnings 42.1 percent higher than those without union representation.
“Research shows that labor unions tend to raise wages and improve benefits for all represented workers, especially those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution, who are disproportionately women,” the report says. It also shows that unions minimize pay secrecy, making it easier for workers to find out if they are paid fairly. “Nonunion workers in the private sector are more than twice as likely as union workers to say that they are discouraged or prohibited from discussing their pay.”
“This report makes clear what we in the labor movement know in our bones: Being in a union helps women access the American dream and raise their own and their families’ standard of living,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “We’ll continue to organize more women (and men) to bring the union advantage to more workers, and we’ll continue to work in our communities for fairness and opportunity for all.”
The AFT launched a 30-member Racial Equity Task Force this summer, drilling down on a number of fronts to address the devastating impact of structural racism on the lives of black men and boys.
A diverse group of more than 30 AFT member leaders representing locals throughout the nation is examining racism in three key areas: America’s educational, economic and criminal justice systems.
“Structural racism is the 400-year-old foundation that props up today’s barriers to equitable opportunities for black men and boys,” says AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, who chairs the task force. “I am so proud of the way AFT members brought their sledgehammers to [the first task force meeting in] Baltimore and started swinging away to dismantle it. Human beings constructed racism. Human beings can tear it down. ... Our goal must be to put a sledgehammer of awareness, commitment and action into every hand that wants to swing one.”
“If we can move our unions toward a social justice frame, not only will it help make the world a better place, it will also make our union stronger,” said task force member Katie Zaman, a member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Task force recommendations are expected in October.
A boost toward college
Students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to attend college got a big boost in New Jersey in July when the state increased its Educational Opportunity Fund by $1 million. AFT New Jersey, which fought hard for the funding, says the victory is even sweeter since the program was initially threatened by a $1.6 million cut proposed by Gov. Chris Christie. The Educational Opportunity Fund reaches nearly 18,000 low-income students each year with mentoring programs and financial assistance, and this year it will be funded at a total of $41.4 million.
“The Legislature recognized that our students, who are from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, need the opportunity to attend our colleges and universities and [need] additional academic support to succeed there,” says Shornna Berkeley, a counselor at Rutgers University and a member of the Rutgers Council of AAUP Chapters. The fund is supported by faculty and staff—members of AFT New Jersey and its affiliates, Rutgers AAUP-AFT and the Council of New Jersey State College Locals—who provide counseling, tutoring and developmental coursework, and create a support network that helps get these students into school and stay there until they graduate.
“Educational Opportunity Fund students have tremendously high retention and graduation rates,” says Tim Haresign, president of the Council of New Jersey State College Locals and a biology professor at Richard Stockton College. “The program has a long-proven record for promoting student success.”
From first books to college
Children in South Philly were thrilled to get hundreds of new books to take home with them this August at a First Book giveaway event organized by faculty and staff members of AFT Local 2026. Members, who teach and work at the Community College of Philadelphia, partnered with Casa Monarca, a nonprofit that supports Latino culture and education, to distribute books written in both Spanish and English. “We’re here to fulfill a need,” says Steve Jones, president of the local. “A lot of kids aren’t getting the basics. As a labor organization and an education-oriented organization, we believe that it’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and meet some of the needs that society is not meeting.” The event included bookmark-making and impromptu read-aloud moments with selections like Viva Frida, a book about Frida Kahlo. Volunteer Angela Miles called the event “wonderful”: “I love how their eyes lit up when they got their books.”
Friedrichs and freedom
This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, an important case that could affect the future of unions, when it reconvenes in the fall. The case is driven by a group of educators backed by a right-wing pressure group; they are asking the court to decide whether public sector unions may continue to charge nonmembers a fee equal to the cost of representing them to their employer.
The fee is called “agency fee” or “fair share,” and in states where there is no fair share, the union must sign up everyone as a member—not merely a fair share payer—to keep the union strong. If the court rules against agency fee, then the union’s efforts to support working families and reclaim the promise of higher education, public education and public services will become harder to fund.
Union leaders are determined to make this moment a movement, mobilizing members to rally in support. Locals are canvassing their constituents to be sure everyone is signed up for membership, and rosters are beginning to swell. The reason? More union power brings more resources for public services, including public colleges and universities.
Organize for America
Teach for America alumni in Detroit’s University Prep charter schools have created a hotbed of union activism since Detroit 90/90, the charter schools’ manager, moved to challenge their professional status. Detroit 90/90 claimed that since the teachers were under the standard TFA two-year commitment, they were not teachers but substitute teachers, and had no voting eligibility. When the teachers protested, the National Labor Relations Board set the record straight: It ruled July 31 that teachers, whether they come from TFA or elsewhere, are indeed professionals and cannot be denied their right to participate in bargaining unit elections.
“It was such an obvious attempt to divide and conquer,” says Alex Moore, a Teach for America teacher and unabashed union supporter. The charter managers “loved us when we were cheap, docile workers, but when we spoke up and organized, they wanted to sweep us under the rug.”
The workers fell short by just a few votes in the election that would have united them in a union. The NLRB is still considering several unfair labor practice charges filed against Detroit 90/90 that could invalidate the election and pave the way for a new one.
Adjunct faculty at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania voted overwhelmingly in July to join the AFT. The final vote among the adjuncts was 294-64. Their full-time faculty colleagues have been AFT members for more than 40 years.
The new local, Community College of Allegheny County Adjuncts United, will begin with a survey about adjunct priorities, but some are already clear from testimonials circulated during the voting process.
“I would love to have more time to plan better lessons and spend with my students,” says math adjunct Natalie Ahwesh. “I teach the same classes as full-time professors but receive far less pay. I keep this job because I love my students, but they are the ones who suffer because I must teach at four different schools just to make ends meet.”
“Speaking with one voice will allow us to negotiate better working conditions—such as sustainable pay, access to benefits, and job stability—that would be impossible to achieve on an individual basis,” says Jennie Snyder, a professor in the art department. “Shared voice in governance will foster a sense of community within not only the adjunct unit, but the teaching population as a whole.”