Four-Day Conference Will Bring Together Unions from Across the Country
Faculty, staff, and student workers from around the country will gather for four afternoons of online plenaries, panel discussions, and workshops at the Higher Education Labor United (HELU) Winter Summit on February 23–27.
HELU is a coalition of higher ed unions and allied organizations founded in the summer of 2021 to advance a national agenda for transforming U.S. colleges and universities. Since then, it has grown to include more than 110 local unions and allied organizations, representing more than 530,000 workers, including students, staff, postdoctoral associates, and adjunct, contingent, and tenured faculty.
The summit will gather campus workers to advocate, organize, and fight for a more just labor landscape, an end to driving costs downward onto departments and students, and better conditions for all workers across the sector. Among the featured speakers and sessions at the summit are:
- Wednesday, February 23, 3:50 p.m. EST: HELU’s Vision, the Current Crisis, and Possibilities, featuring Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson and union organizer and author Jane McAlevey
- Thursday, February 24, 5:15 p.m. EST: Anti-Racism and Social Justice in Our Movement, featuring Jobs With Justice Executive Director Erica Smiley
- Saturday, February 26, 5:15 p.m. EST: Alliance Building, featuring Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates
- Sunday, February 27, 5:15 pm. EST: Action Steps, Moving Forward, featuring renowned author, filmmaker, and social justice activist Naomi Klein
The summit will focus on three core tasks: coordinating the surge of higher education worker organizing across the country, developing federal policy proposals to reverse the trends that have damaged higher education over the last several decades, and engaging in the political process by educating politicians and candidates on these issues and working to support those who will advance a program of democratizing higher education.
Danielle Aubert, president of Wayne State AAUP-AFT Local 6075, explained why the format and focus of the Summit is so important at this moment.
“Our public institutions are major employers in the communities we live in. But for too long we’ve faced budget cuts while tuition goes up. Our institutions are in debt, our students are in debt, and we, the faculty and staff, are in debt,” Aubert said. “We need major structural change, and for that we need labor unions to come together across higher ed.”
Joe Ramsey, a professor at UMass Boston and member of the Faculty Staff Union affiliated with the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), encouraged union members to attend.
“So often our individual unions are too busy with local matters to have a chance to learn from what other unions are doing elsewhere,” Ramsey said. “The HELU Winter Summit will give us a great chance to share grassroots lessons from ongoing and recent contract bargaining campaigns, so we can build on the most successful ideas out there and help others navigate obstacles we’ve faced ourselves.”
HELU emerged from a two-day summit in July 2021. Union and organization endorsers of the Vision Platform adopted after that first summit became the initial organizing members of HELU. The groups launched a concerted effort to build a national movement for all higher ed workers, from community colleges to professional schools to state colleges to research universities.
Since the July summit, HELU organizers have been meeting to strategize and participate in national debates about federal legislation like College for All, the American Families Plan, and Build Back Better. Through these efforts to promote pro-worker policies for higher education, HELU learned that the movement has what it takes to reimagine higher education employment, policy, and funding.
Todd Wolfson, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University and general vice president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, said he sees the summit as a crucial step to engaging the power of higher ed workers.
“In order to build the power necessary to fight back against a neoliberal, corporate university, we need to organize ourselves across all higher ed workers, from dining staff and full-time faculty to healthcare workers, professional staff, adjunct faculty, and grad workers,” Wolfson said. “And we need to do this at the local, state, and national level. This is the path toward transforming public higher education.”
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