Do Much More to Meet This Moment

As the ascendant far right attempts to assert its hegemony, it has identified universities and academics as important obstacles to its success. In this, the enemies of academic freedom and scholarly inquiry are correct. But it is not enough only to defend the institution from the intensifying siege: our divisions are magnified in defensive struggles, and the terms of debate, such as they are, are set by those who’d burn the libraries down if they could. It is only by going on the attack, and laying out a vision for a democratic university serving the common good, that we can unite the disparate and fractious forces of academic labor, along with the broader sectors of society to which they’re connected—students, first of all.

An interview with United Faculty for the Common Good

Protest sign at a campus
Photo via Flickr

In the promising early days of the Biden Administration, there occurred a moment—brief and soon forgotten—when it seemed like we might have a chance to repair the trainwreck of the higher-ed economy. During the debate on the omnibus social and domestic policy legislation called Build Back Better, Bernie Sanders and Pramila Jayapal introduced a new version of their “College for All” proposal. Initially co-sponsored by seven other senators and endorsed by a wide range of major unions and civil society organizations (the American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union, the NAACP, the Children’s Defense Fund), the measure proposed to plow billions in federal dollars annually into public colleges and universities: in particular, $10 billion in annual subsidies for underfunded institutions, and public support to bring tuition down to zero for students under the income threshold of $125,000.

Had it been enacted, College for All would have dramatically remade the higher education system, including its labor market. The proposal would have required that public colleges and universities, flush with new income, transition within five years to a 75 percent tenure-track and tenured instructional workforce, giving hiring preference to their current contingent faculty for transition to the tenure track. Anticipating that institutions might seek to comply by laying off contingent faculty and increasing the workload on tenure-line instructors, this measure also would have prohibited such a speedup. A significant sector of the academic labor movement organized around this dimension of the program in particular, joining a fight long led by the Debt Collective. Graduate student and faculty unions sought to link the crisis of tuition costs and debt to academic working conditions, setting up mass call-ins to congressional offices and incorporating the demand for College for All into their ongoing union recognition and contact struggles. For the first time in my lifetime, it seemed possible to imagine that we might reverse the generational collapse of academic work.

This campaign developed under the aegis of two new organizations: Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education (of which I’m a board member), which has worked to develop and represent a vision of academic renewal within the scholarly disciplines; and Higher Education Labor United (HELU), whose purpose is to stand in where, in another part of the economy, there might be an industrial union of which everyone is a part—a Union of College and University Workers. Unfortunately, our industry is a jurisdictional mess. Unionized academic workers are scattered between AFT, SEIU, the UAW, the Teamsters, the Steelworkers, UE, CWA, UNITE HERE, which is to say nothing of the fragmentation of non-academic staff. We’re also divided along craft occupational lines: there are many graduate-worker and contingent-faculty unions, and a few for undergraduate workers, postdocs, and tenure-line faculty. Athletes may be next. These groups share important common concerns, but some others may prove meaningfully divisive: contingent faculty and graduate workers are often in conflict with tenured faculty, for instance, over where scarce resources should go, and about whether the tenure system is recuperable. Additionally we’re divided between the private sector, which is governed by federal law (but subject to right-to-work in some states), and the public sector, which is governed by state law in all its variety: in some states (generally but not always liberal ones), academic workers have enforceable collective bargaining rights; elsewhere they don’t. Some public sector workers enjoy union security and have a legal right to strike, while others have to re-sign their members frequently or are forbidden from taking strike action. In terms of its economics, higher education works very differently across the public and private sectors, but both are stratified internally to an intense degree: it is not just that Harvard is far richer than everyone, but also that Berkeley and UCLA are far better funded than UC Merced or UC Santa Cruz—and those schools, in turn, are far better funded than the Cal State system.

To speak of academic labor as something singular and united, as HELU does, is thus to describe a project rather than an existing situation. Still, there are real experiences and traditions to draw on. Graduate-worker unions have broken through decades of impasse and rapidly organized much of the legally eligible parts of the sector, now regularly clearing 90 percent in elections; undergraduate workers have followed in growing numbers. Strike activity has ticked up across the board. Drawing in particular on the experience of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT local, which has successfully organized academic workers of all descriptions and ranks, HELU represents a wager that the enormous upsurge of militancy in the industry in recent years can be channeled and concentrated on federal and state policymakers, with academic workers speaking as one despite all the fissures dividing them. Forty-four academic unions nationwide are now affiliated with this project.

The legislative effort in 2021 got further than has generally been recognized—and had Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema not sunk the entire program, some diluted version might well have passed. As more senators signed on to the bill, one could see the trace of the academic labor movement’s gains in the past decade: legislators who’ve felt compelled to write letters in support of graduate worker unions, or appeared at rallies, now also felt compelled to engage with the structural crisis of higher ed. In whatever form a compromise measure might have appeared, it would’ve begun draining the morass of despair into which academic labor sinks further every day. For a full generation now we’ve seen only decline and deepening crisis. Winning any major policy change, even a compromised one, would have established that workers’ struggle in the industry was adding up to something greater than the sum of its many parts. In this sense, it was an experience of some optimism: one could imagine a scenario not very different from the one that played out, in which the program succeeded in some version.

But the trajectory of College for All also threw the limits of our movement into relief. Biden himself had not supported the Sanders-Jayapal proposal, pushing instead for a more limited intervention targeted at community colleges. And when the diminished ghost of BBB was reincarnated as the Inflation Reduction Act, the higher ed measures were gone. Thanks to decades of organizing, a larger number of Democratic policymakers now understand that academic labor is a significant part of the movement, with real concerns that can’t be ignored. But that doesn’t make us a top priority.

For this reason, organizers coming out of this experience have thrown themselves further into the project of building sectoral unity. One important part of this program is the effort to get the American Association of University Professors, by far the most pedigreed and respectable arm of the academic labor movement, into fighting shape. The AAUP is multiple things at once: a union for the purposes of collective bargaining (and an affiliate of AFT); an individual membership organization (about one fourth of its 42,000 members, including me, aren’t covered by or even eligible for collective bargaining); and a professional advocacy organization. In this last capacity, it is the preeminent voice of the liberal ideals of the university of the 20th century—its reports, for example, are often cited by courts in decisions related to academic freedom. But although the organization knows that labor and capital are in a struggle over the fate of higher ed—with billionaire donors leading the attack on academic freedom and the politicians they’ve bought implementing privatization and austerity—it has yet to shift itself onto a militant, organizing, mass-participatory footing. Only such a footing—one that somewhat dissolves the distinction between professional advocacy and workplace struggle—would allow it to play the role it needs to play in the struggle ahead.

As the ascendant far right attempts to assert its hegemony, it has identified universities and academics as important obstacles to its success. In this, the enemies of academic freedom and scholarly inquiry are correct. But it is not enough only to defend the institution from the intensifying siege: our divisions are magnified in defensive struggles, and the terms of debate, such as they are, are set by those who’d burn the libraries down if they could. It is only by going on the attack, and laying out a vision for a democratic university serving the common good, that we can unite the disparate and fractious forces of academic labor, along with the broader sectors of society to which they’re connected—students, first of all. For this reason, a group of scholar-organizers formed in the labor struggles of recent years—and centrally involved in the founding of HELU—has moved to capture the leadership of AAUP. In April, I conducted an interview in n+1 with Jorge Coronado and Bethany Letiecq, with whom I was running for office in AAUP Local 6741 (the catch-all local for individual members not represented by collective bargaining) on the United Faculty for the Common Good slate. We swept every office.

This month, AAUP is holding its national convention, where there is another United Faculty for the Common Good slate in contention, led by Todd Wolfson and Rotua Lumbantobing. This time, they are seeking control of the entire organization, which would elevate the efforts of recent years to a new plane of possibilities at the national level. Todd is an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers, where he has served as president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT. Rotua is an associate professor of economics at Western Connecticut State University, where she was elected president of the chapter (of Connecticut State University AAUP) in 2020. Below is an interview I conducted with Todd and Rotua on their vision and program. —Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant: What made you decide to run for AAUP president and vice president?

Todd Wolfson: When I was in graduate school at University of Pennsylvania in the early 2000s, I helped organize my fellow graduate workers. We all felt exploited, underappreciated, and even attacked at times by UPenn’s leaders. We were making the university run—UPenn would have ceased operating without our labor research and teaching—but they paid us near-poverty wages despite the university’s considerable wealth. Hundreds of us came together to form the Graduate Employees Together – University of Pennsylvania (GET-UP) and spent years organizing. It was tough work—work that we had to do on top of all our normal research and teaching duties. But we did it because we were fed up and something had to change. Within a few years we even made it to a unionization vote.

This story didn’t end well in the short term. George W. Bush came to power and our votes were impounded by Bush’s NLRB, which overturned graduate workers’ right to unionize. But in the long run there is a happy ending: last month the graduate workers at UPenn finally won their union.

This long road to justice at UPenn began with some graduate students who dared to invest their time and energy in what seemed at that time (Bush’s America!) and in that context (a private Ivy League school) to be almost impossible. There were defeats along the way. But UPenn grads prevailed in the end because over the past two decades they stayed committed to grassroots organizing and diligently built GET-UP into a fighting organization that acted like a union, even though it was not officially one.

This is where I began—where I got my first labor education. Since then, I have become a scholar of social movements and led Rutgers’ AAUP-AFT through tough contract negotiations and a large strike, but I remain a scrappy GET-UP organizer at heart. This is how you win—by playing the long game. And this is why I am running to be the president of AAUP. Because I believe that what AAUP needs now is not just a president to manage it but an organizer-in-chief—if you can forgive the hyperbole!—who knows how to build it into a fighting union and a stronger and more democratic organization. This is the only way we can hope to realize our vision of higher education as the bedrock of democracy and an engine of social progress and social mobility.

Rotua Lumbantobing: My journey to running for AAUP leadership is different, but it too emerges from the realization that another (type of) AAUP is possible.

When I got involved in union work as a young faculty member, I understood that an organizing, fighting union that centered racial justice and common good demands was the best vehicle by which we could win the sort of university that my colleagues, our students, and our community deserve. It wasn’t until I formally joined CSU-AAUP, however, that I understood that our local subscribed to the sort of unionism that, as is so often the case, prioritized bread-and-butter issues over building organization and coalitions. I quickly came to realize it was contributing to our decline rather than reversing it.

This led me to run for my chapter’s presidency. I ran on a different vision—one that empowered faculty members rather than feeding the culture of fear and secrecy that had prevailed at my university for years. The timing turned out to be auspicious—or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it—as I was first elected WCSU-AAUP chapter president just as the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

As is well known now, Covid presented extreme circumstances in which the very few grew their wealth—often at the expense of social goods like higher education—while leaving personal and professional devastation in its wake. University administrators, and their backers in the university’s governing body, also used the pandemic to escalate their attacks on shared governance and our academic freedom.

One of the most egregious examples of this was when the Chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system, through his underlings at WCSU, attempted to eliminate all social science programs at the university, including economics, sociology, and anthropology, as well as meteorology (at the only public university in New England that offered the latter). The administration had already eliminated physics just as I began my involvement in the union, but this was the boldest step yet to reduce the offerings available to our university’s mostly Black, brown, working-class, and nontraditional students—in other words, our state’s most vulnerable students.

We—and by “we” I mean my fellow faculty members, our students, other workers on campus, and the broader community—saw this for what it was: an attack rooted in racialized austerity that served no one but the ruling class and their minions at the university.

We fought back. Not by secret memorandums of agreement or other backroom deals, but by direct action. Our faculty members stood with students collectively and publicly, which also attracted the attention of local politicians and media. In short, we created a crisis that the administration could only resolve by giving in to our demands.

The upshot is that WCSU-AAUP embraced a new sort of unionism, with a broader focus and much, much more power than the service model that preceded it. To be sure, much work remains to be done, but saving social sciences through organizing, transparency, and activism, in lockstep with students and the campus community, was a deliberate and successful attempt to change our union’s culture and the quality of our university for workers and students.

I decided to join the UFCG slate and run for AAUP VP because we need a similar change at AAUP. We need AAUP to become a transparent, democratic, and participatory union that wins the institutions that we, our students, and our communities deserve.

GW: You are running together as part of a slate, the United Faculty for the Common Good (UFCG), to take over leadership of the national organization of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). What is UFCG? When was it formed and what role do you see it playing in AAUP?

TW: UFCG is an organic outgrowth of the current surge of grassroots, rank-and-file organizing within the labor movement more broadly. In the past decade, groups like Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) have risen up to challenge the traditional business unionism or union-as-member-service model of their respective unions and, as a result, they have won astonishing gains for their members and communities in the short time they have been in power. As members of the UFCG slates, we very much see ourselves as a part of this broader grassroots labor movement, which is seeking to transform unions across America into genuine fighting unions. We are all tired of watching our CEO-style university presidents, unelected boards of trustees, politicians, and donors try to remake our universities into corporations with all this entails, from the suppression of our wages and precaritization of the professoriate to the recent attacks on intellectual freedom and free speech around issues of DEI, critical race theory, Palestine, and climate change. These forces attacking higher ed are powerful. UFCG believes AAUP needs to do much more to meet this moment.

RL: We are all proud members of AAUP. Many of us on the UFCG slates have helped build and lead different local AAUP chapters or joint AAUP-AFT locals over the past decade or more. We care deeply about AAUP as an organization. But it became increasingly clear to many of us in recent years that if AAUP National is going to meet this increasingly challenging moment, more needs to be done at the national level. So in the AAUP national elections in 2022 we ran a slate of candidates for the open AAUP National Council seats (the body that heads the AAUP National organization). We elected four new members, which gave us a strong footing on the council. We followed this up by putting forward a UFCG slate to contest leadership for the new national AAUP Advocacy Local 6741 of AFT last month, and we swept those elections. We harbor absolutely no personal animosity toward current AAUP National leadership. But we do think AAUP needs to change direction, and these recent election results suggest that most AAUP members agree that a fundamental change is needed at the national level.

GW: It has become a cliche, but undoubtedly true, to say that higher education is in profound crisis. The most obvious face of this crisis right now is the ongoing brazen assault on free speech across US campuses aimed at suppressing pro-Palestine activism. This has received a lot of attention from the media, politicians, and many faculty who previously may not have been that involved in faculty organizing. But these crackdowns on faculty and student free speech are in many ways just the latest symptom of much deeper issues that have plagued higher ed for decades. What do you see as the foundational issues facing higher ed right now?

RL: You are right to point to the longer history of the present crisis. We certainly need to fight hard against these current assaults on faculty and student free speech and intellectual freedom. We should add the implicit attack on faculty shared governance to this list because if faculty were genuinely consulted and listened to over the past several months, many of the worst violations of free speech and academic freedom would never have happened.

But we need to be careful not to misread the current moment. Because what is happening now at universities across the country is just another symptom—as you said, Gabe—of a long-term illness afflicting higher ed. We need to make sure our responses to this crisis help treat an underlying illness that makes it possible for university presidents to take such shocking actions with little to no repercussions.

To be more concrete, we are not going to be able to effectively stop the erosion of free speech, academic freedom, and shared governance by issuing reports and statements and censuring offending universities. We have to contextualize this recent assault on the principles of academic freedom as part of a much longer attack on the university. This began between fifty and sixty years ago with the racialized and gendered disinvestment in universities and their gradual neoliberalization—a complex set of anti-worker and anti-intellectual transformations of the university’s institutional structure, labor arrangements, and financial and education priorities. Our responses to this current crisis need to address these root issues and, in doing so, fight back against these attacks.

TW: Exactly. We are in the situation we are in because we have failed to stop over sixty years of a slow-moving takeover of higher ed. The dramatic assaults on free speech and academic freedom that are now in the news—and I would add the attacks on DEI initiatives in places like Florida and Texas and the shock doctrine–like closure of whole programs in West Virginia to this list, too—are only possible because we, as professors, are for the most part not organized in our workplaces, nor in our local and national political arenas, to fight back. There are some exceptions to this generalization: academic unions in Florida and Ohio, for example, valiantly fought off the worst of the political attacks on higher ed in their states this past year. But if we are going to transform higher ed, we need professors to be much more densely organized across the country. We need them to be ready to fight. In places where this has happened, workers have been able to not only fight back against their employers’ attacks on their rights and livelihoods, but also achieve remarkable gains for their communities. Just look at the incredible victories of the Chicago Teachers Union over the preceding decade or UAW and the Teamsters this past year. They won concessions from their employers that no one thought were possible. But they made the impossible possible because their new leadership has transformed them into fighting unions that refused to accept what their bosses and the political class told them was “realistic.”

GW: This gets right at my next question. What should AAUP National be doing differently right now to meet this moment? Or let me put this question more pointedly: if you are elected president and vice president of AAUP tomorrow, what will be some of the first things you seek to do differently?

TW: There are “no shortcuts,” as Jane McAlevey says in her book by that name. We have to build workplace and political power through good old-fashioned organizing. We cannot take on the considerable forces of money and political power now concentrated in the hands of bought-off politicians, unelected boards of trustees, donors, and the leaders they place in control of our universities without this. This has to be our guiding ethos, and this means we need a fundamental change in the culture and organizational orientation of AAUP. We cannot exist primarily to write reports and statements and conduct research on higher ed, as Rotua said. These are important, but they must be used as tools toward the goal of aggressively organizing academic workers of all types across the country. AAUP needs to be transformed into an organizing powerhouse that can bring together the entire sector around a new vision for higher ed. We know how to do this. There are great models out there for it.

RL: I think a key part of this reorientation of AAUP must also be our adoption of the principles of bargaining for the common good. We need to be intentional about building coalitions with students, other campus workers—forging coalitions across unions, job categories, and other lines of difference—and the community groups that surround our campuses to create real political power. The corporate university harms us all in different ways—and unevenly to be sure—but we share a common goal: to make a better and more just university. We believe we can best achieve all of our diverse goals by allying together. Forging these coalitions does take time, organizational commitment, and resources, but history has shown us that it helps us all achieve more in the end.

GW: Todd, you were one of the founding members of Higher Education Labor United (HELU), which just had its founding convention the other week. The rise of HELU has been inspirational to many of us who have longed to see a more radical, fighting labor movement in higher ed. Did your work with HELU inspire you to run for the presidency of AAUP? What do you see as the relationship between the work you (and many others) have done in HELU and the work you hope—if elected—to do in AAUP?

TW: We started HELU several years ago with the goal of bringing together all labor unions in higher ed—those of faculty, staff, student workers, health-care providers alike—to build democratic power for all workers in this sector. HELU was born out of the acute awareness, as Rotua mentioned above, that the crisis of higher ed is rooted in the decades-long neoliberal processes of public disinvestment, corporatization, and profiteering of higher ed and that our response to this fundamentally political project of neoliberalizing the modern university must also be a political one. That is, we have to build political power through bringing workers together to transform state and national policy around higher ed. HELU’s goal is to help catalyze this movement by bringing together the unions involved in higher ed—which often do not coordinate political action well with one another due to traditional union rivalries—around a new bargaining-for-the-common-good-type political program to reform higher ed.

I should be clear that I am not running for AAUP president as a representative of HELU. But I do think it is safe to say that the main principles of HELU’s Vision Platform inspire the UFCG slates. And I do think that AAUP needs to invest much more in advancing efforts, such as Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education, that explicitly seek to change the whole higher ed sector through the intervention of governmental policy. Those seeking to further corporatize our universities and attack free speech and academic freedom on our campuses have successfully engaged their political allies in Congress and statehouses in their efforts for decades. We cannot cede this ground to them. We must get involved in this arena as well to advance our vision for a higher ed for the common good.

GW: Todd, your emphasis on the need for faculty and higher ed union engagement in politics makes me think of the action you organized in DC when the president of Rutgers, along with the presidents of UCLA and Northwestern, were hauled before the Congressional Committee on Education and the Workforce. You gave a powerful speech there that beautifully combined a strong rebuke of the current political assaults on free speech and academic freedom and the longer-term issue of the defunding of higher ed.

TW: We, Rutgers AAUP-AFT, organized that action in DC at the end of May with our fellow higher ed unionists from the University of California system, UAW and AFT locals, to show Congress and the American people that the narrative many in power are trying to fabricate about the student protests is not only inaccurate, but that it is being used as a weapon to further the broader anti-intellectual, neoliberal assault on higher ed that we discussed before. To fight back effectively, we have to be clear that these different political attacks are connected, and we have to engage them head on. Higher ed does not exist in a bubble, despite what some may think or wish. We cannot shy away from political involvement. We have to get in the game and actively shape the political discourse and policy agenda around higher ed, even if this doesn’t feel natural to us.

RL: I think the way you concluded that speech, Todd, pithily sums up the UFCG slate’s vision: “Hands off our students, hands off our faculty and our workers, hands off our campuses, and you better fully fund higher education.” We must defend our students and campuses. We need to take back control of our campuses. But we have to do more than be on the defensive. We have to go on the offensive and advocate for a new vision of higher ed too—one in which all universities are fully funded so they can pay all campus workers fair wages and not burden students with decades of crushing debt. All of that requires organization, of course, so I hope it’s clear that our political fights and our workplace fights are interconnected. 

GW: Before we wrap up, let me come back to AAUP. As you know, I was part of the UFCG slate that won election for leadership of the AAUP Advocacy Local 6741 of AFT. One thing we have heard loudly and clearly from our fellow advocacy chapter members in our short time in office is that they are incredibly frustrated with what they perceive as an utter lack of attention and resourcing from AAUP National. They feel that AAUP National focuses primarily on the fully unionized, collective bargaining chapters and does not really seem to have a plan to develop and support advocacy chapters. What role do you see for advocacy chapters in AAUP and, if elected, how will you engage with and support them?

RL: This is a perfect concrete example of how our UFCG slate wants to reorient AAUP. AAUP needs to go on the organizing offensive, and this means committing real material resources to advocacy chapters, who, after all, are on the front lines organizing faculty at non-union campuses. While it is true that organizing always needs to happen at all campuses—even collective bargaining AAUP locals need to be continually organized and activated to achieve real gains in contract negotiations—no one can say that they are serious about organizing if they have neglected the very groups that are most in need of organizing support. Budgets and resource allocations show organizational priorities.

TW: And let me just add that AAUP advocacy chapters are quite diverse. Some are moving quickly to transform themselves into fully unionized, collective bargaining locals. Others are not ready to move that direction yet or cannot because of difficult legal environments (which we should try to change!). We first need to open better and more consistent lines of communication with advocacy chapters. AAUP National currently barely communicates with them. We need to listen to them and understand their individual needs. Then we need to work with them to make a plan for organizing at their campuses and commit meaningful resources to it, as Rotua said. This does not mean that we need to drive all advocacy locals towards formal unionization. There are other organizing models out there that can help chapters who are not ready to move towards unionization yet. For example, the pre-majority unionism models practiced by groups such as the United Campus Workers (UCW) and the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC) do this well. They have successfully helped workers organize, build power, and achieve meaningful gains even when not engaging in contract negotiations. And in the end, that is what is most important: that we find ways to organize to build power on our campuses and in the local and national political arenas. It won’t be easy or quick. But it is the only way we can transform higher ed into a system that serves the broader social good. The rest is little more than moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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