Two Powerful Unions Have Come Together to Fight the Right’s Attack on Higher Ed

According to “America’s Censored Classrooms,” a report released in August by the nonprofit human rights group PEN America, 39 percent of the 137 educational gag orders introduced in state legislatures so far this year have targeted colleges and universities. Most of them focus on race and LGBTQIA+ issues and seek to suppress discussion of topics the right wing deems “divisive.”

This, PEN concludes, is an about-face for the right: “Just four or five years ago, Republican lawmakers were touting so-called Campus Free Speech Acts purportedly designed to protect intellectual diversity and free expression. Now many are targeting higher education with some of the most censorious language to date.”

Indeed, bills to restrict the freedom to teach and learn have sparked outrage — and organizing — on campuses throughout the country. Campus workers are mobilizing across the country to push for changes in safety and health, as well as a rise in contingent laborers low-paid. New Deal for Higher Education. The initiative is being led American Federation of Teachers(AFT) & the American Association of University Professors(AAUP), two organizations that entered into a permanent affiliation deal that became effective on August 1.

The agreement consolidates more than a decade’s worth of collaboration in support of intellectual liberty, but allows the 50,000 members of the AAUP to keep their independence and autonomy.

In promoting the New Deal for Higher Education campaign, both the 1.7 million-member AFT and the AAUP say they are elevating the “common good,” advancing a platform that defends academic freedom, and promoting shared governance between administrators and faculty. They are also mobilizing members to push Congress to reinvest higher education, opposecensorship, cancel all student loans, and protect part-time workers from arbitrary firings.

The stakes are never higher.

“People see that democracy is under assault,” AFT President Randi Weingarten told Truthout. “We now need to protect knowledge and critical thinking and go beyond bread-and-butter issues to redefine union activity. We have to fight authoritarianism as we work to make a difference in people’s lives and communities.”

Paul Davis, national vice-president of the AAUP and emeritus professor at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College agrees and sees the affiliation providing enhanced organizing opportunities. “This country and its people are changing,” Davis says. “OK, so let’s adjust and not throw our hands up in the air in despair. When the economy changes, we have to be able to react; we have to change, too.”

He adds that the pace of change has increased. He says that COVID-19 caused campuses to close down and both the AAUP & the AFT started receiving requests for assistance in forming bargaining groups. “We began to hear primarily from adjuncts, in every part of the country, who were being treated horribly. They were mobilizing for respect, job security and better pay,” he says.

But it was not just adjuncts who were fed up — and riled up. Cathy Wagner, a professor of Creative Writing at Miami University of Ohio, started working with the Faculty Alliance of Miami (Family Alliance of Miami) in the spring 2020. This was after 150 full- and part-time faculty were laid off in March 2020.

“The cuts meant that everyone’s workload was going to go up,” Wagner explains. “Worse, it meant that we would not be able to work with students in the way that we wanted to. It was a scary time, but we talked to a lot of people who’d formed academic unions at their schools. Faculty and administrators met in these places to discuss budget projections. At Miami University, this did not happen. Our administrators refused to come to the table and discuss anything with us.”

During the subsequent 18 months, Wagner says Miami’s full-time faculty and librarians worked to organize the campus and got enough union cards signed to demand an election. Wagner explains that the Ohio law bans part-time public employees (adjuncts) from collective bargaining. The full-timers won.

But, Wagner says, the union still has not been recognized by Miami University’s administration.

“They are dragging their feet to slow down the process, quibbling over the composition of the bargaining unit,” she explains. “They want to keep librarians, visiting professors and non-tenure-track faculty out. We say ‘no,’ and are hoping the State Employee Relations Board will force them to stop stonewalling.” Wagner says the Faculty Alliance of Miami, in tandem with the AAUP and the AFT, is pushing the State Employee Relations Board to issue a decision on the make-up of the bargaining unit; since 9 of 10 public university faculty unions in Ohio include non-tenured faculty, “we believe that precedent is on our side,” she says.

Another issue has also promoted increased activism — and made the Faculty Alliance increasingly visible on campus. “Turns out, Miami had higher enrollment numbers for the 2021-2022 academic year than the administration expected,” Wagner says. “The college also got CARES Act money so we ended up with a $262 million surplus. It makes my stomach hurt to even think about this.”

Despite the financial boondoggles, AFT/AAUP organizers state that faculty across the country agree to demand administrative transparency, staff input in decision-making, better paid, better pay, and the academic freedom of deciding what course materials and what content to include.

Ernesto Longa is president of United Academics at University of New Mexico. He says these concerns motivated faculty to organize at UNM in 2014. He credits the AFT and AAUP with helping him win union recognition in 2019. “We began negotiating our first contract at the beginning of 2020,” Longa told Truthout. “Then the pandemic hit and since we were dealing with a very anti-union administration it took us 18 months to hammer out the first three-year contract. Thankfully, the AFT provided some of the heavy lifters who helped us with table negotiations and research.” The successful result included a 7.12 percent raise in year one, with annual wage reopeners during each of the following two years covered by the contract.

Longa stated that while he and the negotiating group were pleased with the contract’s initial terms, everyone is aware that there are more things that can be done to ensure that adjuncts get decent pay and job security. “There are still adjuncts who make $2,500 for teaching a three-credit class,” he says. He also noted that United Academics still has much to learn about organizing, and negotiating. “We’re slowly finding out just how pro-employer the law is when it comes to contract interpretation,” he says. “We now know that our language has to be precise. A clause that declares UNM mayDo something instead of just being. We shall do something, allows UNM to sidestep the protections we thought we’d won.”

Another challenge, Longa continues, involves outreach to form a coalition between United Academics and members of unions that represent other staff at UNM — the college’s hospital employees, food service workers, graduate students, security staff and medical interns and residents belong to what he calls a “smorgasbord of unions” — to build solidarity.

“We want to do wall-to-wall organizing and coordinate our bargaining efforts,” he says.

Unlike the faculty at UMN, faculty at New Jersey’s Rutgers University have been organized for decades. They have been working for three months without a contract. Rebecca Kolins Givan (associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations) says that although faculty and students have just returned to campus, staff are already planning an array of escalating actions to ensure they get an equal contract.

“We’ve been in an ongoing and beneficial affiliation with the AFT and the AAUP since the early 2000s,” Givan told Truthout. “Right now, we’re seeing heightened awareness of the need for greater investment in public higher ed due to the outsourcing of staff roles and increased dependence on adjunct labor.” Additionally, she sees the need to defend academic freedom as a priority since 12 members of the Rutgers faculty are on the Professor WatchlistThis list was compiled by the right-wing Turning Point USA. All 12 have been the targets of hatemail, doxing, and smear campaigns due to their anti-racist work and pro-LGBTQIA+ activities.

Although the University Faculty Senate has condemned the list, Givan is concerned that some faculty might self-censor to avoid negative publicity.

That said, Givan says she is proud that Rutgers’s bargaining unit continues to be a leader in academic unionism, promoting equal pay for equal work for adjuncts, supporting environmental justice initiatives on- and off-campus, and opposing overspending on athletics. Recent scandal in which the 50-plus football team was involved $450,000 in DoorDash bills — 19,745 orders between May 2021 and June 2022 — is a case in point.

This will be a difficult task. Several recent campus labor victories are worth mentioning. A five-day strike by AFT/AAUP members at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti ended in mid September after 500 faculty members had participated. walked off the job. Similar results were achieved by Rider College in Lawrenceville (New Jersey) by AFT/AAUP-organized faculty. a tentative agreement on a five-year contract, preventing a strike earlier in the month.

The AFT’s Randi Weingarten sees these victories as harbingers of future successes. “Every AAUP member is now an AFT member,” she says. “Together, we’re fighting for democracy and for academic freedom. Both are under attack. Precarity has become a common theme on campuses across the nation, but people are aware of the importance and necessity of organizing. They know that we’re working to make our communities better and make a positive difference in people’s lives.”