Campus Unionism at Twenty Five

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

Milton Fisk

WHEN I BECAME the first president of American Federation of Teachers Local 2254 at Indiana University (IU) in 1973, my leftist friends laughed at me: “What do you want to get involved with the petty bourgeoisie for? Don’t you know that it’s the productive working class that’s going to make the revolution?”

I was prepared for this; the latest idea from France was that there was a new working class, so it was easy to reply, “The technical/professional layer will play a major role in the coming revolution, so why go out of my way to ignore my own colleagues?”

Academic unionism had already put a quarter million American faculty under collective bargaining contracts by 1973, and it was only five years old. In the next decade the growth was still brisk—with 425,000 under contract by 1980—yet surely didn’t usher in a revolution, so I had to find a new motivation.

By the time I became a campus union president for the fourth time, in June of this year, even my liberal friends were laughing at me: ‘Why do you think anything good is going to come from faculty? They’ve all become Republicans and are trying to beat the stock market. One has to look to administrators to defend a progressive position these days.” My reply wasn’t so automatic; after all this is a period of rethinking everything, including the motives for what one does.

My answer sounds like desperation, but that is only because these are desperate times: “It is just when you think everyone has sold their soul that some totally unsuspecting campus groups become outraged enough to make a convincing call for resistance. The issues are there, even if the emergence of such groups is only a hope—though one based on enough surprises in the past to make standing fast mean something.”

The Reagan/Bush years had suppressed that outrage, and the statistics show it. After 1980 the growth in campus unionism came to a halt, rising very slowly in the mid-1980s and then slightly declining after 1988. This leaves seventy percent of the faculty in the industry without contracts Campus unions with bargaining exist in only thirty-one states, and only twenty-six states have enacted enabling legislation for collective bargaining covering faculty in public colleges and universities.

It is all well and good to talk about striking and getting an agreement with the administration in the absence of such a law. But with rare exceptions, the mood on campuses today would not support striking. There have been very few victories for unionism even where there is a law that sets conditions under which an administration must go along with a vote for union representation. The University of New Hampshire, at Durham, was a welcome recent victory, where a recalcitrant administration was the catalyst for the union.

No Bargain

After two decades my own local still doesn’t bargain with the administration of Indiana University It was hoped that with a Democratic governor, Evan Bayh, public employee collective bargaining legislation, which in an acceptable form had never come close to passage under a string of Republican governors, might have been easy to get. Our local had taken the initiative that brought unions organizing public employees together to draft a comprehensive public employee collective bargaining bill.

But as a neoliberal, Bayh actively opposed enabling legislation for both college campuses and municipalities, supporting it—without success it turned out—only for his own employees, the state workers. Despite his poor record on this and other labor issues, Bayh remains the Indiana AFL-CIO’s unquestioned choice for governor for a second term.

Nonacademic staffs, as well as faculty, are still without collective bargaining legislation in Indiana and many other states. The Communication Workers of America are currently trying, in a very imaginative drive, to organize clerical workers at IU. And the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees won recognition—through a strike, not legislation in 1967—as exclusive representative of IU maintenance and technical workers for purposes of discussing economic matters with the administration. Associate instructors and professional nonacademic staff are, though, included in our struggling AFT local.

Ideally, all segments of the campus work force should be in one union. But AFSCME keeps to itself as the only recognized representative of Iii employees, and the clericals sharply rebuffed, a decade ago, efforts by the AFT local to include them. As a victim myself of this segregated structure, my remarks reflect primarily the faculty experience of campus unionism.

All indications are that even with collective bargaining there is little campus unions can do to avoid cuts during a recession like the present one. According to the Association of State Budget Officers, twenty-eight states had revenue shortfalls, in relation to appropriations, by the end of 1990—totaling $9.5 billion.

In New York state the AFT, which represents 35.000 faculty and staff at the State University of New York and the City University of New York, has been looking for ways to help Governor Mario Cuomo make cuts. The union negotiated a five-day pay lag, to be reimbursed when the employee leaves the payroll, and it also supported a $150 per semester tuition hike at SUNY and a $100 hike at CUNY. These concessions were designed to avert layoffs, but faculty will be among the 18,000 public employees Cuomo will sack between January 1991 and June 1992.

One doesn’t hear faculty union leaders speaking out against this kind of cannibalization. So far they have gone along with the neoliberal policy of governors like Cuomo and Bayh that makes raising taxes impossible. In many states taxes are so regressive that a call for raising taxes without a redistribution of the tax burden would be an assault on lower income groups. The absence of any tax policy as an alternative to cuts is a reflection of the degree to which the free-enterprise mentality of the Reagan/Thatcher era has captured the campus unions and the faculties themselves.

The unions at SUNY and CUNY have just begun to talk about raising corporate taxes, but when the governor’s office gets to them with its tradeoffs, they will come out talking about the need for all sides to cooperate in making higher education more efficient.

Campus unionism was a product of the left movement of the 1960s. The instincts of faculty radicalized in the 1960s were favorable to it. It is ironic, then, that today there is not a single articulate campus union leader who isn’t a practitioner of business unionism. There are no lances being broken for social causes. Instead of open admissions, union leaders are supporting higher tuition to save their members’ skins.

Part of the problem has been lack of support Left-leaning faculty have from the start tended to regard campus unionism as something to be left to those who are satisfied puttering around with fringe benefits and grievances. Their revolution was always somewhere they weren’t. The few leftists who were willing to take responsibility for day-to-day union work felt deserted by the rest of the left and thus made their peace with other faculty and with national and state union officials.

What Kind of Unionism?

When I talk about social unionism here, I am not talking about taking on the world’s problems. Rather, I am talking about taking on problems that—although they go beyond my relation to my individual employer—can or do still have a direct impact on that relationship. Looking for solutions to such problems calls for uniting with others, and thus for a social outlook.

Fighting for a progressive tax structure or for changing the inefficient system of multiple health insurance companies goes beyond my individual relationship to my employer Such changes would also affect others and must be designed with a consideration of what would be good for the whole. Still other issues—like child care—can either be negotiated through individual contracts or demanded for the society as a whole. When I say that campus union leaders operate as business unionists, what I’m complaining about is a perspective that rarely sees beyond relationship to the immediate employer.

For example, the recent attack on political correctness has not been rebutted by campus unions. Yet this attack needs to be taken on by those interested in enhancing education. Instead, the most right wing of the national faculty unions, the AFT, has actually joined the attack on political correctness, as a way of insuring that faculty focus on the relation to the employer rather than “impose” experiments in social thinking on their colleagues. The net effect is to insure that nothing changes.

Things are changing anyway, and not because of cultural czars on campuses or pressures from outside by privileged groups. Where struggles by culturally dominated groups for overcoming their domination have persisted, time-honored curricula can now be made more diverse as a result of the tolerance of gender, race, and class diversity that has made its way into the thinking of administrators and faculty alike.

No one is for putting Plato’s Republic on the index of forbidden books because of its elitist concept of governance. Yet the AFT thinks it can find favor with traditionalists who suppose the final list of the world’s great books is to be selected by a norm agreeable to themselves.

Moreover, the AFT has for years drawn its members into the right-wing foreign policy of its president, Albert Shanker. It just made voting financial support for the National Endowment for Democracy, notorious for funding efforts to overthrow regimes Washington opposes, one of its legislative tests of political correctness in the 101st Congress.

No Power

But if the recession has blocked campus union economic demands—and if a passive faculty and a right-wing leadership has blocked a social thrust—then one would have thought that campus unions would have made some headway on at least the matter of campus governance. As a young instructor, I was told that in the old days the faculty ran the university. But it was evident that, if it had ever been the case, this had changed by the time I had started union organizing.

The council of professors had lost its power to a disciplined bureaucracy of administrators. Even the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which had long championed councils of professors as a sufficient basis for campus governance, admitted defeat and turned to collective bargaining. Still the idea remained, both within the AFT and the AAUP that faculty governance could be redeemed through collective bargaining, and that higher education could someday become a bastion of worker control.

Toward A Dream Renewed

It has been a disappointment to all that this dream has been frustrated. Yet it was not surprising, for the traditional respect for a sharp distinction between management and employee rights has guided all campus contract negotiations. (In contrast, a number of innovative contracts, initiated by AFL in K-12 settings have included a sharing of management rights.) Campus unions have not, for example, pressed for more control over the allocation of budgeted resources to the various units within a campus or system of campuses. Nor have they pressed for control over the highly visible athletic programs. They haven’t even insured a voice for themselves in appointing new faculty and their own chairpersons.

In pursuit of the old dream, my local has proposed changes in the university constitution that would have the effect of weakening certain management prerogatives. Of course, blurring the line between management and employees makes it easier for the courts to say that, since faculty act as management, they shouldn’t have union rights.

On this basis the Supreme Court in NLRB v. Yeshiva University in 1980 undercut unionism at some private campuses, where the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) applies. The notorious president of Boston University, John Silber, used the Yeshiva decision to rid his campus of a faculty union.

But a long-term strategy of greater worker control must not be sacrificed to avoid running afoul of Yeshiva. Better to build a movement that will eventually make the NLRA an anachronism! Until this is done the old councils of professors will continue to act as if they govern, when in fact they are both manipulated by—and ignored by—the powerful administrative bureaucracies. They function now something like the work teams in the new team-based labor relations in the productive sector, and thus not as organs of genuine worker control.

The issue of health care and health insurance holds great potential for positive developments in unionism generally and in campus unionism in particular. Unionists can ill afford to limit their efforts to helping their employers figure out how best to cut items out of insurance plans, to raise deductibles and to increase co-payments. In addition, unionists can win support of faculty by helping build a coalition for a national health insurance program with a single payer.

The Canadians have demonstrated that such a program is the best means for containing costs, and it is the current system’s inability to contain costs that is at the root of the crisis. This is a social issue that has an impact on relations with the employer. It is the kind of issue we can use to build a new social unionism.

It is through tying problems faculty have with their employers to broader social issues that they can make a difference in achieving a socialist society. Cultural diversity, workers’ control and health insurance are issues faculty face now, and each points toward important social changes.

Emphasizing cultural diversity is a challenge to the ideological establishment that unites the media, the state and education. Workers’ control is not just a challenge, in the private sector, to property rights; it is also a challenge, in the public sector, to the state, which defends property rights. And having a single tax-supported payer for health care would be a challenge to the immense private insurance industry that has inflated health costs in the pursuit of profit.

The potential exists on the campuses for lighting a fire under these and other issues of enormous social importance. This is what gives meaning now to standing fast as a campus unionist. And yes, it figures somehow into that revolution that seemed so much closer in 1973 than in 1991. Perhaps, then, both answers to my critical friends had some truth in them.

November-December 1991, ATC 35