New Coalition Unites Public College and University Workers across All Ranks
A new national coalition of higher ed unions and organizations is beginning a “Fall of Action” this week to build support for ambitious higher education legislation under consideration in Congress and to advance an agenda for transforming public colleges and universities.
Founded at a two-day summit meeting in July, Higher Ed Labor United (HELU) has brought together 81 local unions and organizations representing more than 460,000 workers across all jobs in higher education: student workers, postdocs, staff, and adjunct, contingent, and tenured faculty. Summit attendees developed a “Vision Platform” that was endorsed by the coalition unions and has guided organizing for the Fall of Action.
Union leaders who convened the summit said they were inspired by the potential to win significant reforms and funding increases for higher education in the budget reconciliation legislation being drafted in Congress. Members of the coalition are planning a range of actions on their campuses in the coming weeks to draw attention to this opportunity—and build pressure on members of Congress to include higher ed provisions that will truly transform public colleges and universities.
Todd Wolfson, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey and general vice president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents more than 5,000 full-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates, and others, said he sees the coalition’s efforts as the first step in building a national movement to transform higher education.
“We’re urging members of Congress to build on the proposals of the Biden White House to advance our goals for free access to two- and four-year institutions and labor protections for all higher ed workers,” Wolfson said. “We know that the crisis in higher ed won’t be solved with one bill, no matter how ambitious. Our actions this fall will also strengthen a network of unions and organizations that unites higher ed labor across job classifications, across regions, across parent unions.”
Public higher education has endured decades of funding cuts, and campus workers have borne the brunt of the belt-tightening measures inflicted by administrators, said Nicola Walters, a lecturer at Humboldt State University and the membership and organizing chair for the California Faculty Association, which represents 29,000 faculty members in the California State University system.
“Across the country, our experiences are the same: we’re overworked, underpaid, disrespected, demoralized, and denied dignity,” Walters said. “Drawing from our frontline experiences, we formed Higher Ed Labor United around a vision of education with support, access, security, and equality for all. We are working together to build this future by demanding a transformation of higher education.”
Tracy Berger, a communications specialist at the University of Colorado and vice president of United Campus Workers Colorado (CWA-UCW 7799), which represents faculty, staff, and student workers at the University of Colorado, emphasized the importance of HELU spanning job classifications and roles across universities.
“It’s such a unique coalition,” Berger said. “Where else would I, as a communications professional in Colorado, be able to work together with a grad student in Missouri or faculty in Oregon and New Jersey? All these people have a passion for public higher education. Getting their viewpoints together—listening to them, hearing them, and expressing them—is how we can build consensus and energy, and how we can eventually organize to make big changes.”
Joseph Ramsey, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Boston and member of the Faculty Staff Union (FSU/MTA/NEA), said the higher ed legislation that the coalition advocates needs to challenge the deep inequities and absurdities of a “tiered faculty system.”
“Politically, it’s clear that we need all of us to come together to achieve our common goals,” Ramsey said. “But we can’t truly transform our campuses for the better unless we address the long-standing needs of those at the bottom of the current academic labor system: the contingent faculty majority who now do the lion’s share of the teaching at most higher ed institutions. Closing the open sore of contingency is crucial to stopping the bleeding in higher ed in general.”
The plight of student workers is also central to HELU’s agenda for change, said Rafael Jaime, a PhD candidate in English at University of California Los Angeles and president of UAW Local 2865, the union of 19,000 student workers at University of California campuses.
“For far too long, low wages and poor working conditions for graduate students have made graduate school a space of the wealthy and the privileged,” Jaime said. “As long as graduate workers have no real protections from harassment and discrimination, as long as they must rely on family savings and loans to pursue their studies, graduate school will remain that way. Graduate workers are organizing at a level never seen before because higher ed needs a new direction, and only organized labor can lead the way.”
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