Summit Draws Hundreds of Higher Ed Workers for Discussion of New Strategies
Leaders of unions representing more than 300,000 faculty, adjunct instructors, staff, and graduate workers at colleges and universities around the country are meeting this week for a two-day summit to unite around a strategy for transforming higher education. Summit organizers will hold a briefing for legislators and the press on the summit’s second day, Friday, July 9, at 5:30 p.m. EDT (click here to register; please indicate that you are attending as media and identify your outlets in the final three form fields).
More than 250 members and staff from some 75 union locals and labor organizations across a dozen national and international unions attended the first day of the Higher Ed Labor Summit: Building a Movement to Transform US Higher Education on Wednesday. The unions span the different ranks of higher ed, representing non-instructional staff, full-time faculty, adjunct faculty, postdoctoral associates, and graduate and undergraduate student workers.
Summit attendees are planning to adopt a joint platform that sets out a vision of what higher education should look like in the 21st century and action steps for how to achieve it. The ratified platform will be distributed at the Friday media and legislative briefing.
“This summit comes at an urgent turning point for higher education,” said Frederick Kowal, president of United University Professions, the country’s largest higher education union, representing faculty and professional staff in the State University of New York system. “As we emerge from a devastating crisis, higher education unions across the country must work together on the changes that will strengthen us into the future.”
“The shutdown of colleges and universities in 2020 highlighted what our members need: more worker protection, better access to child care, an end to the gross exploitation of contingent labor, and a voice in the shift to remote learning,” Kowal continued. ”Now, more than ever, higher education should be a national priority, and we are asking Congress and the Biden administration to support public higher education.”
Proposed legislation that could radically impact higher education is being discussed by Congress and the Biden administration. Summit attendees hope to shape the final bill, advocating for key provisions of the College for All Act sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). The legislation must include support for both two-year and four-year institutions and labor provisions to ensure full and fair employment for all workers at higher ed institutions, they say.
“Colleges and universities are the crucibles of critical thinking and innovation, but years of disinvestment and crushing rates of student debt and debt-servicing by the universities themselves are impeding educational access and educational quality,” said James Davis, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty and professional staff in the City University of New York system. “We need to fight for an affordable, just, and equitable higher education future. Advocates must prioritize collective bargaining rights for all workers in this sector and demand more full-time faculty lines, and higher pay and secure appointments for adjunct faculty.”
Colena Sesanker, political director of the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges, which represents 4,000 higher ed workers across the state, said that the summit will gather those who are “most familiar with the unjust status quo’s felt effects and inner workings—those who are most connected to those we serve as educators. College for All takes a holistic view, aligning the interests of students and workers in higher ed. Money alone won’t fix the structural problems, and addressing community colleges in isolation from four-year colleges risks creating distinctly different pathways and opportunities for people of different backgrounds. We are all in this together, and we are building for all of us to thrive together.”
That “in this together” message was a central motivation for summit organizers, said Todd Wolfson, General Vice President of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents full-time faculty, grad workers, and postdoctoral associates at New Jersey’s state university. “We’re bringing higher ed labor together from all parts of the country to give our local unions a national voice,” Wolfson said. “But we also want to build unity at the campus level across the different ranks of higher ed labor.”
“The challenges we face in transforming our colleges and universities are too great to overcome one campus at a time or one union at a time,” Wolfson said. “The movement we need and the actions we organize have to embrace faculty, students at all levels, staff in all ranks, and the wider community we all depend on and that depends on us.”
Documentary filmmaker and author Astra Taylor, one of the speakers at the summit, likewise stressed the importance of a broad vision of change in higher ed.
“Everyone knows higher education is broken in this country,” said Taylor, a co-founder of the Debt Collective, which is organizing for the cancelation of debt, including student debt. “What we don’t talk enough about is that the crisis of higher education is also a crisis of democracy. Vital institutions of research and learning are underfunded and under attack, faculty and staff are under-resourced and underpaid, and students and families are drowning in debt, with students of color and women the most burdened. The solution to this problem is robustly funded free public education for all, and we need a visionary labor movement working in alliance with debtors, community members, and concerned citizens to make that vision a reality.”
Summit organizer Rafael Jaime, Executive Board President of United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents more than 19,000 graduate and undergraduate workers across the University of California, said the summit would end with a discussion of next steps for achieving that vision.
“Organized academic workers have shown that they can make real, lasting progress, even on the most entrenched problems,” Jaime said. “By coming together through this summit, dozens of higher ed unions will lay out a clear, decisive plan for taking on the crises impacting higher education and unite in our collective power to demand a bold reinvestment in higher ed that will increase equity and affordability.”
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