Labor Day 2017: Taking Back Power and Transforming Higher Education

Labor Day 2017: Taking Back Power and Transforming Higher Education

Labor Day 2017: Taking Back Power and Transforming Higher Education

There are so many ways that my experience in Washington D.C. attending the August 10-11, 2017 Faculty Forward Conference, “New Thinking for New Times,” changed my life in extraordinary ways. For two very full days I attended presentations, panels, workshops, and lectures. It was exhausting, but thrilling to have so many different faculty organizers in one room plotting and scheming all the ways we can improve working conditions for precarious faculty, graduate students, and campus and student workers from universities across the nation.

During the course of the conference we were able to hear several fellows from Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.  Stephen Lerner described his hope and his desperation with our current political landscape but also described the work he has been doing with the Hedge Clippers campaign and the Bargaining for Common Good Campaign, which unite labor and community groups in efforts to challenge the role of Wall Street in the financialization of the economy and higher education. Stephen Taliadoros described how the Just Employment Policy was developed and how it can be an effective tool in organizing and improving working conditions for contingent faculty. Troy Neves, the coordinator of United Students Against Sweatshops, addressed the need to build a coalition of students and faculty to improve working conditions of precarious faculty by building support for campus workers and student workers in the fight against outsourcing and privatization. Barmak Nassirian, the Director of Federal Relations and Policy Analysis from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), described in detail the current struggle on major higher education issues in the House and Senate education committees. Lindsey Berger, the Executive Director of the UnKoch My Campus national campaign, described how to disrupt the Koch Brother’s political success by intervening at the root of their strategy: the nation’s universities. By building a broad coalition of students, faculty, as well as alumni and community groups this campaign is effectively working to keep Koch influence out of American universities.

To be completely honest it was the more intimate panels and workshops that opened my mind in ways I didn’t expect. It was empowering to hear from adjuncts organizing from such diverse areas and universities and to see the tremendous work that has been done so recently and with such remarkable results. Malini Cadambi Daniel, Director for Higher Education at Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was able to both make us feel empowered as teachers but more importantly to realize the core mission of our advocacy and organizing:

This is an opportunity to get the big picture and pull back and shine a spotlight on instruction. It’s very important how we teach future generations. It is the core mission of the university. Union organizing shows that the work matters that by honoring the workers, instruction needs to be prioritized. Every little step that you take is making the national movement stronger. This is what a union looks like: it’s downward facing dog.

During a Plenary session with SEIU Racial Justice Center, Liz Gres asked us to walk through images placed on the walls around the room with statements about racism and explore what new thinking it sparked for our work by bringing a racial justice lens to these issues. At the end of the gallery walk and during the group discussion one brave adjunct stood up and said what I was thinking: “This experience has led me to look deeper than ever into my own bias and racism. I unquestioningly approach my students with an attitude of knowing and understanding racism, but after this experience I know I do not and I have a lot of work to do.” We were gathering in D.C. as white nationalists organized a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that erupted in violence and ended in tragedy, with Heather Heyer’s brutal death. That afternoon we discussed the pervasive impact of white supremacy and more importantly what does it mean for us as a union as we stand up for racial justice? How do we take the lens and correct the defects of vision of a society that is inherently inequitable but more importantly systemically toxic to people and communities of color? Why is it so essential that there can only be economic justice if there is racial justice?

The panel: “Bargaining Strategies” included Lilian Taiz from the California Faculty Association. Lilian was our rock star that afternoon, you could have heard a pin drop when she spoke about organizing in California in the early 1990s:

Because we are academics we believed that bargaining was a rational process. You don’t need power to win, what you need is evidence, compelling things to say and a rational discussion. If we are going to win for ourselves and our students we have to build power … You build your power by taking direct action. In the center is the goal: quality education, racial justice, and everything around that is about making that happen. (Paraphrase from my notes)

“The Art of Organizing: Using Creative Tactics to Build a Vibrant Union” panel was the highlight of the day for me Saturday. Jessica Issacharoff, graduate student at Duke University, described how they decided to address the healthcare issues by purposefully focusing on something they could win—greater gym access. Their slogan was: “Exercise Your Rights.” They tabled, advertised public gym classes, and practiced Yoga on the lawn during Blue Devil Days when admitted students came to tour the campus. They won the battle, too.

On Saturday, the Faculty Congress took a group photo at DuPont Circle. We held a banner that read: DEBT FREE COLLEGE FOR ALL. So much happened in those two full days, I am still trying to go back and rethink what was said and how to address these issues in my own union and university here in Chicago. The group photo is a powerful image that reminds me we are stronger together.

seiu-faculty-forward-congressThis Labor Day we need to stand out and fight for our unions and make ourselves visible in every way we can. We need to stand up and declare to our communities the importance of instruction in the classroom and how working conditions affect our ability to survive economically, but also teach effectively. For me this conference brought to light how we may be able to save higher education after all. I’m sticking to the union because by fighting together and creating broad coalitions we will take our power back and transform higher education.  Join the Faculty Forward Network and you can help to build the solidarity necessary to make this happen.

Lydia Snow is an Adjunct Instructor in Music Education at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) and a Faculty Forward Network member.

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