The Chicago Teachers Union is arguably one of the most striking examples over the past decade of the good that can come from organizing a union that links social issues to workers’ concerns. Their 2012 strike set an example for unions nationwide to move beyond better wages and benefits, using collective bargaining to build movements for economic and racial justice. Rather than thinking in terms of individual survival, argued Stacy Davis Gates, Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), education workers should ask themselves: “How can we fight back as communitynot only to preserve, but to secure, imagine, dream what does not yet exist?
“How do we have the power?” Davis Gates asked hundreds of academics on Zoom in January. The answer, she explained, was “to broaden the definition of labor and unionto engage members of the communities in which Chicago Public Schools are located, building coalitions to amplify demands and build a movement for equity and justice – an approach called “negotiating for the common good.”
Davis Gates shared the strategy and insight behind CTU’s approach as a keynote speaker at the Higher Ed Labor United (HELU), a group representing more than half a million university workers across the country dedicated to reforming and rebuilding America’s higher education system. The coalition, made up of workers of all ranks – including full professors, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, academic staff, casual faculty and other types of academic workers – formed in July 2021, a year after devastating cuts to higher education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Higher education workers are not only ready to push back against their individual institutions, but to build themselves into a national force. “We are here to organize a higher education labor movement from coast to coast,” Director Ian Gavigan said in his opening remarks on the first day of the summit, “who can, like our platform, form of vision establishes to transform higher education into a public good operated in the public interest.
Higher education is facing a large-scale disinvestment crisis in the sector that has lasted for decades, including the contingency and replenishment of educators, downsizing and consolidation of departments, cuts in the operating budgets of universities, inflation in administrative salaries and a growing student debt crisis. Without renewed investment and governance changes, says HELU’s vision platform, these crises will worsen. And the only way to fix the problem, in Gavigan’s words, is to “build the power to overcome it.”
This year’s HELU Summit pursued this ambitious goal of transforming higher education by thinking big. The program featured star speakers from the labor movement, including a seasoned writer and organizer. Jane MacaleveyPresident of the National Union of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) Sarah Nelsonand critically acclaimed author and climate justice advocate Naomi Klein— alongside dozens of leading researchers, activist trade unionists and dedicated organizers from coalition partners such as Jobs with Justice and The debt collective.
The summit took place over four days and provided an opportunity to learn, discuss and strategize in three main areas: coordinated national organizing, policy development and advocacy, and political empowerment. Speakers and strategy groups analyzed crises in the sector and how higher education dilemmas have resonated in wider civil society.
The HELU vision platform clearly lays out the urgency of the current crises caused by divestment and their necessary solutions. But the fundamental message of the summit was, as Davis Gates and all the other speakers pointed out, to situate university workers in relation to the larger communities in which they exist. “Look at a worker when he or she strikes the clock,” Jane Macalevey said, “and actually understand that each of us has a bunch of complicated, tethered, textured relationships where we live, not just where we work. “
In this spirit of organizing for the common good, the coalition clearly sets out its four commitments to achieve change in higher education. You can read the full vision statement here; these commitments are summarized as follows:
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Commitment One: National Action for Federal Response
In order to address the national crisis, HELU is advocating for coordinated national action to push the federal government to establish universal higher education, end the student debt crisis through debt cancellation, enshrine protections for students and workers from historically excluded backgrounds, enact legislation regulating employment, rectify the placement of faculty, and ensure safe working conditions and decent wages for all. The coalition is also calling for an end to the right to work for higher education workers across the country in order to grow the labor movement in the 28 states where union security—the ability of unions to require membership as a condition of employment—is prohibited by state law, weakening union power. Finally, coalition members are calling for massive reinvestments in the sector, including federal funds for physical and research infrastructure and public funding for tuition-free college.
Second Commitment: National Action to Realign Campuses
The crisis in higher education is fueled by a democratic governance crisis. Over the past fifty years, and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, university administrators and boards of trustees have taken liberties to move universities towards a model of financialization and have undermined accountability mechanisms in order to ‘reach this goal. To rectify this rule by decree, HELU proposes that the higher education sector assert the principles of shared governance, granting decision-making capacity, institutional leadership and democratic control to faculty senates, student organizations and unions, and striving to involve local communities in participatory processes. It will also mean aligning budgets with educational missions geared towards students and workers rather than administrative salaries and investment portfolios.
Financial transparency issues are fundamentally linked to employment concerns. As a coalition of university unions and other groups, HELU supports unionization of graduates, ending casual work, and imposing employment standards such as health care and course load limits for all university workers. Another route to job security in the sector would be to set broader standards for tenuretransitioning current contingent faculty to this broader tenure path and providing real and solid benefits to all faculty and academic staff.
Third commitment: organize to win
To address these daunting changes, HELU is proposing bold legislative action, including organizing to pass the College for All Act proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Premila Jayapal, which includes making college affordable through free tuition, doubling and expanding Pell grants, increasing funding for HBCUs, and other measures to make university a right for all. The coalition will push for federal legislation imposing labor protections on employees of federal funding sources – such as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) – to ensure that these institutions honor union and collective bargaining agreements. HELU also plans to advocate for rules within the Ministries of Labor and Education that would link minimum working standards to accreditation status, recalibrating prestige as a marker of how institutions treat people who work for them.
HELU’s campaign legislative goals also include racial and environmental justice in higher education. Cancellation of student debt, reinvest in public universities, and returning control of land and community to groups dispossessed through theft or gentrification are all part of a larger movement to remake universities along more equitable lines. The group argues that campuses themselves should also reform internal policies to address historical oppression. Such reforms would include cutting budgets for campus policing. The HELU coalition also plans to organize campus legislation and policies that deprive university endowments of fossil fuels and invest in green infrastructure and renewable energy in their communities.
Commitment Four: A Unified National Movement
The HELU movement is an exercise in large-scale thinking, as it comes up with bold policies and plans to address the crises that threaten to overwhelm the sector. “We pledge to work and build solidarity together to struggle in our communities and across the country and its territories,” concludes its vision platform, “as a truly coordinated labor movement of higher education to transform our systems and our lives. The coalition advocates for a higher education system run by the people who learn, work and live in the institutions that make it up, not by the administrators or wealthy politicians who fund it. Fundamentally, as Naomi Williams, labor historian at Rutgers and lead organizer of HELU, has said, the fight to remake higher education is a fight to save democracy.
HELU represents the rise of a strong labor movement in higher education, a movement that will build mass coalitions among workers of all job categories, academic status and geographic regions. Transforming public and private colleges and universities into institutions that “put people and the common good first over profit and prestige,” as HELU’s vision so lucidly states, necessarily begins with bringing people together to learn. past struggles and develop ambitious plans for transformation. Their victory would mean changing the landscape of higher education as we know it – for the greater good.