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How Business Unionism Got Us to Janus

Friday, November 10th, 2017

In September, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus vs. AFSCME, a case that has the potential to undermine public sector unions by curtailing unions’ right to charge non-members an “agency fee.” This fee covers the protection and services the union is obligated to provide all employees in the bargaining unit.

Many labor leaders and pundits have identified unions’ loss of revenue as the most dire consequence of an unfavorable ruling in the Janus case. Others have pointed out that the forces behind Janus don’t only aim to weaken public employee unions: they are seeking to destroy the public sector and public ownership of resources across the board.

However, the Right’s deeper, darker strategic purpose has been mostly ignored, even by unions: Janus fits in with a larger project, led by the State Policy Network—a network of right-wing think tanks—that aims not only to “defund and defang” unions but to “deliver the mortal blow to permanently break” the Left’s “stranglehold on our society.”

Anyone who cares about democracy and the social and economic well-being of workers has a stake in how unions will respond to the Court’s decision. And with Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch now sitting on the bench, it appears likely that the ruling will not go in labor’s favor.

The real crisis at hand

The tacit assumption of Janus supporters and foes alike is that, when faced with a choice between being a union member and paying dues or not, significant numbers of members will bolt, and non-members who have been paying “agency fees” will not join. Because unions understand the danger posed by Janus as largely financial, they have focused on saving money, cutting staff and pursuing mergers. Some have also determined that they must be proactive to stave off mass desertions and are reaching out to members to solidify their support as dues payers.

Belt-tightening and talking to members may temporarily fortify union apparatus, but this approach ignores the question Janus demands we ask: Why is labor predicting members will desert their unions and that agency-fee payers will refuse to join?

These assumptions labor holds around Janus exemplify the real crisis unions confront—one not often discussed, even behind closed doors. In defining their purpose primarily as protecting members’ narrowly conceived economic interests and shaping the organization to function like a business, unions construct a very limited role for the workers they represent. Under this status quo, members are generally considered passive, with limited authority and voice. Their sole “power” is to pay dues and cast votes in what are generally uncontested elections for officers.

The right-wing forces behind Janus have used their frighteningly vast financial resources to exploit this weakness. The Janus brief, filed by the National Right to Work Foundation on behalf of Illinois public employee Mark Janus, articulates anti-union arguments familiar to any union activist who has tried to recruit skeptical co-workers. The plaintiff’s claims interrogate AFSCME’s purposes, its presence as a political force and whether it serves as a collective voice for working people on the job and in the larger society.

The brief reads:

Janus objects to many of the public-policy positions that AFSCME advocates, including the positions that AFSCME advocates for in collective bargaining. For example, he does not agree with what he views as the union’s one-sided politicking for only its point of view. Janus also believes that AFSCME’s behavior in bargaining does not appreciate the current fiscal crises in Illinois and does not reflect his best interests or the interests of Illinois citizens.

In building support for Janus, the Right has questioned the meaning of union membership while also criticizing public employee unions’ engagement in politics. Unions have frequently been ineffective in responding to the charge that they are just another special interest group, buying politicians for their members’ benefit. Unions have disarmed themselves in this assault by adopting the mentality and tactics of special interests. Labor has by and large accepted the Right’s definition of the contest (winning over “friendly” politicians in either party), the weapons (campaign donations), and the opponents (workers in other countries as our competitors). In doing so, labor has turned its back on its unique and most powerful resource—an informed, empowered and mobilized membership.

Instead, labor has countered the Right’s arguments on narrow grounds, railing against “free riders,” who they say will require unions “to represent non-members, who would be paying nothing at all, passing that burden off to dues-paying members.”

But this argument has little resonance to workers who already feel they are not well-represented. Like Mark Janus, they don’t feel their voices count. The “union” exists apart from them, with staff and officials insulated from even hearing, let alone responding to, members’ opinions and needs. The economic payoff from union dues can be hard to see when your paycheck hasn’t increased or in some cases, has decreased, despite your union having bargained in your name.

And this argument also avoids addressing the larger case made by the Right: that joining a union is not in workers’ best interest. The Right has confused workers by selling an individualistic, competitive ideology. And unions have been too slow to address why this ideology is harmful and antithetical to principles of collective action and solidarity. As others have observed, organized labor has by and large forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of class struggle.

From “it” to “we”

Though we shouldn’t adopt their methods or mentality, labor can learn a great deal from the Right’s victories. To move from defense to offense, labor needs to develop a new mindset. The strategies being discussed to avoid disaster post-Janus reflect many unions’ unwillingness to reimagine themselves.

One of these strategies is to eschew the legal responsibility to be “exclusive representative” of the bargaining unit, thereby creating competition between unions. Multiple unions representing workers for a single employer is the norm in other countries, where unions are allied with political parties. And some might consider it an idea worth pursuing. But encouraging competition among unions is a disaster, as Chris Brooks demonstrates in a close study of what occurred in Tennessee when an NEA affiliate lost exclusive representation. Workers turn against one another, viewing one another as rivals. Company unions, masquerading as professional groups that offer low insurance rates, compete, successfully, against traditional unions.

Is a “Workers’ Bill of Rights” an answer to Janus and the anticipated loss of collective bargaining in more states, as has been proposed in this publication? This is an interesting strategy but its limitation is that it’s a legalistic solution, not a political one. It doesn’t speak to the reasons workers choose not to join unions when they have that right, or to why they vote them down in elections.

Further, as Nelson Lichtenstein points out, the “rights discourse” is limited by being individual. What makes unions unique is that they represent members’ individual interests through struggle for their collective interests. Moreover, such a bill of rights ignores social oppression that workers experience on the job and separates their lives and rights outside the workplace from those they have inside. This strategy’s major flaw is not in what it tries to do but that it substitute for labor’s ability to critically analyze its losses.

One way to understand what adopting a new mindset would mean is looking to what occurred when the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won the union’s leadership. This caucus conceived of the CTU as a member-driven union that served members’ economic interests best when it supported social justice issues across the board. The newly elected leadership altered the way the union made its purpose evident and worked to make all the union’s operations support this new mindset.

CORE put the people it represented, employees of the Chicago Public Schools, at the center of its organizing, as Jane McAlevey puts it. A member-driven union gives people a reason to be union members and not agency fee payers. The goal? Shift the union from being an “it” to being “we.”

Democracy or bust

Putting workers at the center of organizing requires union democracy. It also demands moving towards international solidarity. What Kim Moody calls “labor nationalism” has weakened the unions by allowing workers to fall prey to Trump’s xenophobia. “’Buy American” is very close to “Make America Great Again.” Such slogans lead workers to become hostile to their counterparts in other countries rather than to the transnational corporations and elites that set economic policy.

Overcoming the fallout from Janus will require reimagining union membership by inverting hierarchical relations that replicate disempowerment on the job. To do this, unions need to grapple with a number of pressing questions:

Why have professional negotiators or paid staff sent to the bargaining table by national- or state-level unions rather than members who have been elected based on their leadership and ideas? Should union organizers be elected rather than being hired and appointed? Why aren’t members allowed to know how their representatives vote in the unions’ executive council meetings? Should endorsements for political office be made by the membership in a referendum? Should unions use “participatory budgeting” to have members decide priorities for where their dues are allocated? What is a member’s responsibility for recruiting and educating co-workers about the union?

Activists who have tried to recruit co-workers to their union know that changing people’s minds about joining can be slow and hard work. It requires listening and a deep commitment to union ideals because people often hold beliefs that are inimical to collective action. This work also requires having a union you trust will make a difference in the lives of its members. Like democracy anywhere, union democracy is difficult to obtain and fragile. It can be inefficient and it creates tensions. But it’s also the key to union power. Vibrant democracy and a mobilized membership are crucial to winning at the bargaining table and to enforcing any agreement in the workplace. Like all legal rights, the contract is only as strong as members’ knowledge of its provisions and willingness to protect it.

This is a moment of truth for unions and their supporters. We need to look in the mirror and see that Janus has two faces. The case could reduce organized labor to a shell, or it could be the start of a remarkable revitalization that draws strength from the widespread social movements that have emerged from both the Bernie Sanders campaign and Trump’s election. The latter is possible, but it will be up to all of us to make it a reality.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

After 41 Years, The Teamsters Reform Movement Is Finally Building Power

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

In the beginning, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) was full of spunk. But they didn’t have any union leaders on their side, nor many rank and file supporters, nor much strategy about turning around a corruption-riddled union.

“When they said we didn’t know what we were doing, it wasn’t totally false,” says Ken Paff, who has led the TDU almost since its founding 41 years ago. “We knew what we didn’t know.”

In time, the TDU learned how to become a thorn in the union’s side, challenging its contracts, finger pointing to officials’ corruption and lopsided multiple salaries, and electing reform-minded members to local and national positions.

At its 41st convention from October 27 to 29 in Chicago, TDU will mark last year’s national campaign that fell only 6,000 votes short of ousting James P. Hoffa. He has led the nearly 1.3-million-member union since 1999, four years longer than his father, James R. Hoffa.

But the TDU is not “just about elections,” Paff says.

The talk during the upcoming convention, according to Paff, will focus on winning strong contracts, converting part-time jobs into full-time work, boosting wages that start for some at $11 an hour and protecting pensionsthat have been under attack. And then there’s what the group has focused on since its start: developing leaders, he adds. The union’s problem, he explains, “is not such bad leaders, but that we need more leaders.”

It’s a strategy of constant activity that the TDU honed as it became one of a handful of reform movements inside the nation’s largest unions. And it has survived with a small Detroit-based staff and about 10,000 members, of whom half are behind on their dues, according to Paff. TDU has six full-time staff, all of whom earn the same salary, as well as two part-timers, Paff explained.

Paff joined the group in 1978 as a full-time national organizer. But he didn’t fit the stereotype of a hardscrabble trucker. He had an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of California at Berkeley and had worked as a schoolteacher. He was driving for a trucking company in Cleveland when he lined up with the union dissidents. For inspiration, he studied the work of the Miners for Democracy, learning about their battle within the United Mine Workers union.

Looking for a way to make an impact, TDU began campaigning against the contracts signed by the union. It was a gutsy strategy, since the group had no voice within the union. “They [the contracts] were terrible, and members knew it. And they [union leaders] didn’t have to pay any attention to the members,” Paff recalls. The group won a lawsuit requiring the union to put its contracts up for a majority vote. After a major publicity push, members voted down the union’s master freight agreement in 1987.

“That really caused people to take notice,” Paff says.

But the real turning point came in 1989, when the U.S. government took control of the union in a consent order—and said the union had to hold its first-ever rank-and-file election. The government described the union as virtually a “wholly owned subsidiary of organized crime.

The union sought to put off the election, which finally took place two-and-a-half years later. Ironically, that was a gift for the TDU. “It was perfect for us. We weren’t able to hold an election and we lined up Ron Carey to win,” Paff recalls. Carey’s 1991 election led to reforms across the union.

But the changes were short-lived. An election victory by Carey in 1996 was overturned, and he was barred from the union by a court ruling as a result of election wrongdoing by his aides, leading to a new election. Hoffa beat a TDU-backed candidate in 1998 and has been in power ever since.

For the last 35 years, the TDU has hectored the union about officials’ salaries. Its latest report, issued in 2016, showed, that 46 union leaders earned over $200,000 in 2015. Hoffa earned $387,244 in salary and compensation in 2015, the TDU reported. He was ranked as the highest paid leader of a major union in 2016, according to news reports.

John Coli, the once-powerful head of Chicago area Teamsters, was among the highest-paid Teamsters in 2015, with $337,215 in salary and compensation, according to the TDU. He was indicted this year by federal officials for an alleged extortion scheme that netted him $325,000 from a major Teamster employer in Chicago. A major internal investigation of union corruption that focused on Chicago collapsed in 2004, allegedly when Chicago Teamster leaders protested to Hoffa.

By constantly pointing to the union’s high salaries and voicing the concerns within the union, Paff claims that the attention helped spur changes. “Once we got the right to vote, we started driving down the salaries. [Jackie] Presser made $500,000 in the 1980s, and today they make in the 300,000s,” Paff says.

Some of the TDU’s challenges have not disappeared, however. At the union’s last convention, only 8 percent of the delegates were aligned with the group. Furthermore, TDU has been unable to raise the money required to run a major national campaign. Hoffa and his slate spent about $3 million on the national election in 2016.

And yet the Teamsters United slate, backed by the TDU, won in the Midwest and South, sweeping the votes in the Chicago area for the first time ever. One of its candidates for vice president came within roughly 4,000 votes of winning, according to Paff. The vote totals “show you the discrepancy between the rank-and-file and local officials,” he adds.

With many more Teamsters coming from jobs outside prisons and public services—the union’s traditional trucking base—the union is seeing more members who don’t have the same interests or long-term loyalties to Hoffa and his supporters. Paff sees yet more potential for change. At 71 years old, he expects to pass the baton to others in the coming years.

There’s no expectation within the TDU that jobs are passed down to family, friends or long-term allies—as is the case in some unions, he says. Paff underscores, “We still have people out there who can help.”

 This article was originally published at In These Times on  October 26, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.

Miners Working with Congress to Solve Pension Crisis

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

Strong bipartisan legislation has been introduced in recent congressional sessions to solve the pension crisis currently facing America’s mine workers. The Miners Protection Act is a response to a growing insolvency problem with the Mine Workers (UMWA) 1974 Pension Plan. The legislation would protect the pensions of 87,000 current beneficiaries and 20,000 more who have vested for their pensions but have not yet begun drawing them. We’ve waited too long to see this problem addressed, and Congress should act now.

The pension fund for America’s mine workers began as a promise from President Harry Truman in 1946 that America would protect the health and welfare of coal miners, who were vital to the country’s safety and growth. In 1974, changes were made to the plan to strengthen these protections. But in recent years, a combination of extremely depressed coal markets, coal company bankruptcies and other factors have caused a significant dropoff in the employer contributions to the fund. In the past two years, contributions to the plan have fallen by more than $100 million, setting up significant problems in the near future, with the fund currently projected to go bankrupt in 2022 or 2023.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  1. Include a provision from the original Miners Protection Act allowing transfers of excess funds in the Abandoned Mine Land program to the 1974 UMWA Pension Plan.
  2. Direct the Treasury Department to loan the 1974 UMWA Plan funds annually to prevent insolvency.
  3. Cap the annual loan amount at $600 million and set the interest rate at 1%.
  4. Require the fund to pay interest only for the first 10 years and then pay back the principal plus interest over a 30-year term.
  5. Require the fund to certify each year that the pension plan is solvent and able to pay back the remaining principal and interest.
  6. Actuarial analyses indicate that the UMWA 1974 Plan would need to take loans for as little as four years.

Learn more about the legislation.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on October 4, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.

The Right Wing Has a Vast, Secret Plot to Destroy Unions for Good. Here’s How to Fight Back.

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

The vast right-wing network of Koch brother-funded “think tanks” is now plotting to finish off the public sector labor movement once and for all.

In a series of fundraising documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy of Madison, Wis., and published in the Guardian, the CEO of a cartel of 66 well-funded arch-conservative state capitol lobbying outfits promises funders a “once-in-a-lifetime chance to reverse the failed policies of the American left.”

Tracie Sharp, the leader of the States Policy Network (SPN), goes on to explain that the pathway to permanent right-wing victory is to “defund and defang” unions that rely on the legal protections of state labor law.

Though less well-known, the SPN is something of a sister organization to the American Legislative and Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes cookie cutter “model legislation” for right-wing state legislators.

SPN affiliates, like Michigan’s Mackinac Center and Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, promote ALEC’s agenda in the public sphere and attack organizations that are opposed to it. Both networks have effectively nationalized the conservative agenda in state legislatures.

The One Percent Solution

What’s fueling this drive is a combination of the vast sums of money that flow into elections in the Citizens United-era along with the gerrymandering that has helped rig elections in favor of Republicans. The result has frequently been “triple crown” GOP-led state governments that hold little accountability to voters but tremendous debts to their corporate masters.

University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer has documented the rise of the corporate legislative agenda in all 50 states in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time.

Lafer found that state bills pushed by ALEC and the SPN, along with more traditional business lobbyists like the Chamber of Commerce, generally fall into four broad categories.

The first, and most obvious, are efforts to constrain or destroy institutions that empower working people to fight back, such as labor unions.

Second are efforts to privatize public services. Lafer found these efforts were primarily intended to diffuse the responsibility of providing these services. “If no public authority is responsible,” he writes, “demands become customer-service issues rather than policy problems that must be addressed by democratically accountable officials.”

Third are efforts to block—or preempt—rebel cities from passing living wage or fair scheduling laws, thereby foreclosing on the ability for localities to defend and advance progressive goals.

Finally, through tax cuts for the wealthy and austerity-driven cuts to vital public services, Lafer found that this corporate agenda seeks a downward shift in what people come to expect for a basic standard of living.

In other words, the One Percent’s solution is to convince the rest of us, as the Dead Kennedys song goes, that soup is good food; that each new indignity is simply our new standard of living and that we shouldn’t expect more.

“Give yourself a raise”

If the States Policy Network does really strive for this One Percent goal outlined by Lafer, then it’s no wonder that the group has been most dogged in pursuing its union-busting agenda. SPN and ALEC have long understood what many Democratic politicians are only just beginning to realize: strong unions help keep right-wing politicians out of office while protecting the social safety net.

SPN and ALEC have aggressively pursued so-called “right-to-work” legislation as a means of bankrupting unions and knocking out a key component of their opponents’ get-out-the-vote operation. Twenty-eight states now have these anti-union laws on the books. Five of them—all former bedrocks of union power—were passed this decade as a part of the anti-union drive described in the documents released by the Center for Media and Democracy.

That’s hardly the extent of the role of these “think tanks” in busting unions. Flush with cash, they’ve begun volunteering their efforts as union avoidance consultants where no one has asked for their services.

In 2013, I was part of a drive to organize the workers at Chicago’s United Neighborhood Organization Charter School Network, under the terms of a neutrality agreement. The employer was getting rocked by a financial and insider dealing scandal that was a daily cover story in the local media. The schools’ employees joining the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) was the only positive headline they had to look forward to when we launched the card drive.

That didn’t stop an SPN affiliate, the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), from harvesting teachers’ email addresses and spamming UNO’s e-mail lists with condescending admonitions to “not sign any union petition or authorization card unless you are certain that you want union representation.”

These union busters seemed to assume that the “launch” of our card drive meant a bunch of beefy goons were about to descend on the schools to strong-arm teachers. In fact, the public launch of the card drive was the union organizing equivalent of a touchdown dance. The representative, democratic organizing committee we had spent weeks training, educating and empowering signed up over 90 percent of their colleagues in time for a May Day card count certification.

The Illinois Policy Institute is better prepared for the upcoming Supreme Court case, Janus vs. AFSCME. Originating from Illinois, the case is a blatant do-over of the craven attempt to turn the entire public sector labor movement “right-to-work,” previously pushed in the Friedrichs case.

Should the Supreme Court vote to make union fees voluntary, the IPI and its sister organizations are prepared to run the mother of all “open shop” drives. They will likely FOIA the names and as much contact information as possible of every union-represented public sector worker and inundate them with glossy materials encouraging them to “give yourself a raise” by quitting the union.

How to fight back

The revelation of the SPN’s nakedly partisan agenda should open every one of its affiliates to challenges over their status as tax-deductible educational charities. These challenges are worth pursuing, if only to delegitimize their role in public debates. But this won’t really affect their bottom line—their funders have so much money they hardly need the tax breaks for donating to their favorite political causes.

In preparation for the post-Janus attacks, public sector unions should behave more like Chicago ACTS and confound the SPN’s moldy old assumptions about the source of union power. To do this, we need to greatly increase members’ democratic involvement in their unions. The slick “give yourself a raise” pamphlets will do the most damage in places where members think of the union as simply a headquarters building downtown. If that’s the extent of their interaction, workers could fall for the cheap trick of blaming the union for the stagnant wages and reduction in benefits that are actually the direct result of the GOP’s corporate agenda.

But where members are involved in formulating demands and participating in protest actions, they find the true value and power of being in a union. That power—the power of an active and involved membership—is what the right-wing most fears, and is doing everything in its power to stop.

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Shaun Richman is a campaign consultant and writer with fifteen years experience as a union organizing director and representative. He is a contributing editor to In These Times magazine.

When the Parades Are Over, Who Stands With Unions?

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

The Labor Day parades are over. The bands have packed up. The muscular speeches celebrating workers are finished. The trash is getting collected from parks across the country.  And now conservative politicians from Trump on down will revive their systematic efforts to weaken unions and undermine workers.

Trump – despite all the populist bunting that decorates his speeches – sustains the deeply entrenched Republican antipathy to organized workers. Their attack is relentless.

Trump’s budget calls for deep cuts in the Labor Department, eviscerating job training programs and cutting – by 40 percent – the agency that does research on workplace safety. It would eliminate the program that funds education of workers on how to avoid workplace hazards. It even savages money for mine safety enforcement for the miners Trump claims to love.

Trump is systematically reversing any Obama rule that aided workers. He signed legislation scrapping the rule that required federal contractors to disclose violations of workplace safety and employment and anti-discrimination laws. His Labor Secretary has announced his intention to strip millions of workers of the overtime pay they would have received under Obama DOL regulations.

Trump is creating a pro-business majority at the National Labor Relations Board, which will roll back Obama’s efforts to make it easier for workers to organize, and make it possible to hold home companies responsible for the employment practices of their franchisees.

The GOP’s Anti-Union Strategy

This is simply standard operating procedure for today’s Republican party. Long ago, Republicans realized that organized labor was a central “pillar,” as Grover Norquist described it, of Democratic Party strength. Now Republican office holders at every level – from county officials to statehouses to judges – know that their job is to weaken labor unions. From right to work laws to administrative regulations to court challenges, Republicans sustain an unrelenting attack.

And aided by our perverse globalization strategies, they’ve been remarkably successful. Unions are down to about 7 percent of the private workforce. Public employee unions, a relative stronghold, are facing court challenges – essentially allowing workers to enjoy the benefits of union negotiations without paying dues — that will decimate their membership.

True conservatives would embrace unions. They are a classic “mediating institution,” a voluntary civic organization between government and the individual. Unions increase the voice and power of workers in the workplace, helping to keep executive accountable, and to protect workers from abuse. They also educate their members, teach democracy, and are central to community volunteer and service efforts. They teach and practice democratic citizenship.

The modern Republican Party, of course, is the party of big business and big money. It isn’t conservative; it is partisan. And weakening unions is a constant target.

While Republicans understand how important unions are to Democrats and to workers, Democrats don’t seem to get it. Sure, they line up to get union donations; most will vote to defend unions and worker programs. But as the money in politics has gotten bigger and the unions have gotten weaker, the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party has become more powerful.

The result is clear. When Republicans get control, they attack unions relentlessly. When Democrats gain control, as they did in 2012 with the election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses, labor law reform, empowering workers to organize is not a priority. Obama essentially told unions that if they could get the votes, he’d sign the law, but he wasn’t leading the charge. And so as under Carter and Clinton, changing the law to make it easier for workers to organize and bargain collectively didn’t happen.

Unions Under Siege

Now unions are under siege. Yet it is hard to imagine how a small “d” democracy can be robust, or a large D Democratic Party can regain its mojo without a revived movement of workers. It’s time for Democrats at every level to realize: strengthening workers and their unions isn’t an elective; it’s a requirement and a first priority.

The loop works like this: Unions are in decline. As a result, unions lose influence inside the Democratic Party. The Democrats then feel no pressure to stem unions’ decline, and the economically disadvantaged lose what was once their most powerful advocate. Then the cycle continues. We cannot revive unions, and we have no template for egalitarian politics without them.

Unions aren’t simply economic actors. They’re political actors. Labor still needs the Democrats. The Democrats, more than they realize, still need labor. But most of all, all those who want to build a fairer society need their partnership.

Republican elites understand the doom loop. Big business, small business, and Tea Party alike have pushed hard against unions. As the parties have polarized, Republicans have taken the gloves off, risking the votes of the 40 percent of union members who back Republicans in order to crush a pillar of the Democratic coalition. Even President Bernie Sanders would have real trouble rebuilding unions in the face of a Republican Congress and a federal judiciary eager to swat down pro-labor executive action.

Even without Republican politicians digging their graves, labor unions face deep challenges. In the private sector, unions must sign contracts workplace by workplace. Gawker writers here and home-care workers there will continue to organize their workplaces, but the barriers remain dauntingly high. In the public sector, unions have stood steady. But cops and teachers alike face blowback for putting their own prerogatives above the public interest. And if the Supreme Court bans the collection of agency fees in the public sector (thus imposing “right to work”), public-sector union membership could halve in a decade.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on September 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Robert Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future. The organizations were launched by 100 prominent Americans to develop the policies, message and issue campaigns to help forge an enduring majority for progressive change in America. Mr. Borosage writes widely on political, economic and national security issues. He is a Contributing Editor at The Nation magazine, and a regular blogger at The Huffington Post. His articles have appeared in The American Prospect, The Washington Post,Tthe New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He edits the Campaign’s Making Sense issues guides, and is co-editor of Taking Back America (with Katrina Vanden Heuvel) and The Next Agenda (with Roger Hickey).

Labor unions are trying to take back politics in the Midwest

Monday, September 4th, 2017

On Labor Day — designated a federal holiday in 1894 to honor America’s labor movement — at least eight Democratic candidates will hold rallies in five Midwest cities to tell workers just how far the country has veered from its pro-labor roots.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) has helped turn the state red by decimating public-sector unions. In Iowa, Republicans rolled back an increase in the minimum wage in March. Just last week, Illinois’ Republican governor vetoed a billthat would have raised the minimum wage. And Republican governors in Michigan and Ohio have also pushed for regulations that would cripple workers.

In 2018, each will face challenges from unconventional, labor-aligned candidates inspired to run by President Trump’s election and the decline of pro-worker lawmakers, which has resulted in a political system in the Rust Belt that favors the wealthy over the working class. Each candidate will center their campaigns on their support for a $15 minimum wage, progressive health care, and pro-union policies.

Cathy Glasson, a registered nurse and union leader in Iowa who will officially announce after Labor Day her campaign for governor in 2018, said that before this year, she had never considered running for elected office.

“This wasn’t in my plan, but as a union leader, you take action when you see the problems ahead and you don’t sit back and wait for things to change,” she told ThinkProgress. “That’s why I decided when I saw what happened with the legislature and the rollback of the minimum wage. We had raised the minimum wage in five counties in Iowa and this administration literally took money out of the pockets of Iowans — 85,000 Iowans were affected by the rollback here.”

Like other first-time politicians throwing themselves into 2018, Glasson has been a union member for decades and will prioritize the need for more American workers to join unions and employee associations.

“The number one job of any elected official, particularly the governor, should be to raise wages and improve the standard living for all Iowans,” she said. “The union movement and the Fight for $15 and its allies realize that low pay is not okay.”

Glasson’s campaign will have the backing of her union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). One of the country’s largest labor unions, SEIU and its Fight for $15 arm — a national campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 — will announce Monday a push to elect labor-friendly candidates in 2018 in the Midwest states where unions once held tremendous power. The union will budget roughly $100 million for the 2018 midterm elections — around $30 million more than it spent in 2016 — to flip the once-Democratic states back to blue.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Wisconsin who announced he’s considering a run for governor in July, will rally with workers at a hospital. In Cleveland, Ohio, talk show host and former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer, who is considering a run for governor next year, will join workers at a march. In Des Moines, Iowa, Glasson will also rally at a medical center. In Chicago, Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy and J.B. Pritzker, three leading 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidates, will rally with SEIU’s president. And in Detroit, Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, another gubernatorial candidate, will also rally at a hospital.

“With the election of Donald Trump, we’re seeing a wave of first-time candidates excited about creating change in each of our states,” Glasson said. “We need to give people something to go to the polls and stand in line and vote for.”

Randy Bryce, a Wisconsin ironworker known as “Iron Stache” who launched a challenge to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in June and saw his campaign video go viral, will also be participating in Labor Day events across Wisconsin. He told ThinkProgress that, other than his son’s birthday, Labor Day is his favorite holiday.

“Especially in Wisconsin, with all the blatant political attacks, it’s great to see people still getting together and the numbers seem to increase every year, instead of what they’re trying to do, which is decrease our membership,” he said. “It’s great seeing more people get angry, frustrated, and want to fight back at the attacks because the government isn’t doing anything to stand up for workers’ rights.”

In Wisconsin in particular, the labor movement has struggled to fight back against the “banana republicans” in office, as Bryce calls them. “The labor movement took everything that we had for granted up until Scott Walker got elected,” he said.

Republicans in Wisconsin have gerrymandered the state so they do not fear losing their seats, Bryce noted, but the union movement is going to latch onto policies that he believes will resonate with voters across party lines, like wages and health care.

“Iowans and Americans in general are just tired of not fixing the problem, and states like Iowa should lead on this,” she said. “We can do that because it’s a reasonable size states, we can figure out how to pay for it, we can put policies in place that can move that agenda.”

Bryce agreed. “It’s the right thing to do but it’s also going to help create jobs,” he said.

SEUI’s campaign will include a voter engagement drive aimed at expanding the turnout on Election Day in 2018. According to the New York Times, the union conducted a pilot project during the 2016 campaign in which it canvassed voters in two largely African-American neighborhoods of Detroit to spread information about which candidates support workers and higher wages.

“Over all, about 62 percent of voters the union talked to during the pilot project cast ballots in the presidential election, versus turnout of about 38 percent of voters who it did not talk to, according to data provided by the union,” the report noted. “Applying the same percentage to all of Detroit’s voters would have produced about 40,000 more total votes in 2016, an amount that would have almost certainly secured the state for [Hillary] Clinton.”

While the need to push out anti-worker Republicans in the Midwest is paramount, many of the labor-aligned Democrats are also running to provide a counter to the Trump administration. As Glasson noted, the administration has been a disaster for working families and has alienated labor more and more as the year progresses. In August, in the wake of the president’s comments about Charlottesville, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka left the president’s manufacturing councilsaying that some White House aides “turned out to be racist.”

Glasson said that because of the administration’s hostility toward labor, its critical to have pro-union individuals get involved in politics.

“Unions have been the only way that workers who drive our economy have a voice in politics,” Glasson said. “By collecting and pooling union members’ money, we are a force to be reckoned with in politics, and so the intentional attack on unions in the state of Iowa and the Midwest and beyond is intentional to silent the voice of everyday workers that need to have a voice in politics.”

Bryce agreed that if unions do not get involved now, the Trump administration could decimate the labor movement to a point of no return.

“You’re seeing a lot of people step up since this past election and see that if we don’t get our stuff together, what little we have left, it’s going to be totally gone.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kira Lerner is a political reporter at ThinkProgress, where she covers a wide range of policy issues with a focus on voting rights and criminal justice reform. Her reporting on campaigns, elections, town halls, and the resistance movement has taken her to a long list of states across the country (but she’s still working on hitting 50). A native of the Washington, D.C. area, she holds a degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Labor Day 2017: Working People Take Fewer Vacation Days and Work More

Friday, September 1st, 2017

Working people are taking fewer vacation days and working more. That’s the top finding in a new national survey, conducted by polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the AFL-CIO in collaboration with the Economic Policy Institute and the Labor Project for Working Families. In the survey, the majority of America’s working people credit labor unions for many of the benefits they receive.

In response to the poll, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

Union workers empowered by the freedom to negotiate with employers do better on every single economic benchmark. Union workers earn substantially more money, union contracts help achieve equal pay and protection from discrimination, union workplaces are safer, and union workers have better access to health care and a pension.

Here are the other key findings of the survey:

1. Union membership is a key factor in whether a worker has paid time off. While 78% of working people have Labor Day off, that number is 85% for union members. If you have to work on Labor Day, 66% of union members get overtime pay (compared to 38% of nonunion workers). And 75% of union members have access to paid sick leave (compared to only 64% of nonunion workers). Joining together in union helps working people care and provide for their families.

2. Working people go to work and make the rest of their lives possible. We work to spend time with our families, pursue our dreams and come together to build strong communities. For too many Americans, that investment doesn’t pay off. More than half of Americans work more holidays and weekends than ever before. More than 40% bring home work at least one night a week. Women, younger workers and shift workers report even less access to time off.

3. Labor Day is a time for crucial unpaid work caring for our families. Our families rely on that work, and those who don’t have the day off and have less time off from work can’t fulfill those responsibilities. A quarter of workers with Labor Day off report they will spend the holiday caring for children, running errands or doing household chores.

4. Women are less likely than men to get paid time off or to get paid overtime for working on Labor Day. Women are often the primary caregivers in their households, making this lack of access to time off or overtime more damaging to families. Younger women and those without a college education are even less likely to get time off or overtime for working on Labor Day.

5. Most private-sector workers do not have access to paid family leave through their employer. Only 14% of private-sector workers have paid family leave through their job. The rest have less time to take care of a family member’s long-term illness, recover from a medical condition or care for a new child. As a result, nearly a quarter of employed women who have a baby return to work within two weeks.

6. Over the past 10 years, 40 million working people have won the freedom to take time off from work. Labor unions have been at the center of these wins.

Recently, the AFL-CIO played a lead role in fights to expand access to paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave in in New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. Individual unions have been at the forefront of new and ongoing fights in Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.

7. An overwhelming majority of Americans think unions help people enter the middle class and are responsible for working people getting Labor Day and other paid holidays off from work. More than 70% of Americans agree. A plurality of Americans think weaker unions would have a negative impact on whether or not they have adequate paid time off from work. The majority of Americans would vote to join a union if given the opportunity. A recent Gallup poll showed that 61% of Americans approve of unions, the highest percentage since 2003.

Read the full AFL-CIO Labor Day report.

This article was originally published at AFLCIO.org on August 30, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars. Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History. His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

The Skies Just Got Friendlier for Working People: Worker Wins

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Our latest roundup of worker wins begins with flight attendants and air traffic controllers standing together to make the skies safer for working people and travelers and includes numerous examples of workers organizing, bargaining and mobilizing for a better life. 

Flight Attendents Reach Tentative Agreement with Mesa Airlines: Flight attendants at Mesa Airlines, represented by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), stood together in efforts to have the work they do as aviation’s first responders recognized. They successfully announced that they have negotiated a tentative agreement with management on a four-year agreement that would provide more than 1,100 flight attendants with economic and quality of life gains.

Teachers Who Train Air Traffic Controllers Join IAM: In an effort to make the skies safer and improve the lives of working people, more than 280 instructors at SAIC in Oklahoma City have joined the Machinists (IAM). Facing a strong anti-union campaign from SAIC, the instructors successfully organized and now have more leverage to make sure the public is safer.

Swissport Workers Stand Together and Put Employer on Notice: Cleaners and ramp agents at Bush Intercontinental Airport voted to join the IAM, citing broken promises on pay, scheduling, overtime, and working conditions. IAM Organizer Fabian Liendo said: “Workers stood together throughout the campaign and put Swissport on notice. These new IAM members sent a clear message and are prepared to fight to secure much-needed job improvements. They should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

Graduate Employees at University of Chicago to Hold Election in October: When the university attempted to deny its’ graduate employees right to come together to negotiate for a fair return on their work, the working people fought back. Their efforts were rewarded when the National Labor Relations Board rejected the university’s argument and ruled that a union election can go forward. The election is scheduled take place in October.

In Near-Universal Vote, Nurses in Turlock, Calif, Vote to Join CNA: Nearly 300 registered nurses at Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock, California, voted overwhelmingly (284-4) to join the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. Chelsey Jerner, an emergency room RN, said: “As patient advocates, we voted yes to have a collective RN voice to enhance positive patient outcomes at our hospital. Patient safety is our number one priority.”

Oregon Service Industry Workers Earn Protection from Unfair Scheduling: A coalition led by the Oregon Working Families Party fought for legislation that would protect retail, hospitality and food service workers from unfair scheduling practices. Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed the bill into law earlier this month. Working Family spokesperson Hannah Taube said: “This is a huge moment for labor rights in America. Oregon’s Fair Work Week legislation is one of the most important labor victories in decades for low-wage workers. We hope Oregon is the first of many states to expand scheduling protections for workers—knowing when you work more than a day in advance is essential to parents, students and many other workers trying to make ends meet with two or three different jobs.”

More than 40,000 Educators in Puerto Rico Join AFT to Fight Education Austerity: On Aug. 3, the Asociacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR) signed a three-year agreement with the AFT in order to fight back against austerity and privatization in education that is having a devastating impact on students and teachers in Puerto Rico. AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “The people of Puerto Rico didn’t cause this crisis, but they’re forced to shoulder most of the burden because of the actions of hedge funders and irresponsible government deals.”

Lipton Tea Workers in Suffolk Organize for First Time in Plant’s 60-Year History: For the first time in the history of the Lipton Tea production plant in Suffolk, Virginia, employees have voted to unionize. The vote was 109-6 to join United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on August 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars. Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History. His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Elon Musk May Be a “Visionary,” But His Vision Doesn’t Seem To Include Unions

Friday, August 11th, 2017

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been making more headlines than usual lately. Shortly after the business magnate claimed he had received governmental approval to build a hyperloop from New York to Washington, D.C., he got into a public argument with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the future of artificial intelligence. Musk also recently made comments regarding the production of Tesla’s new Model 3, a battery-electric sedan. “We’re going to go through at least six months of manufacturing hell,” he told journalists.

It’s hard to know exactly what constitutes “manufacturing hell,” but it might also be difficult to ever find out. That’s because, since last November, Tesla has required employees to sign confidentiality agreements which prevent them from discussing workplace conditions. This policy has faced increased criticism since February, as workers at Tesla’s Fremont, Calif. plant have expressed concern over wages, safety and their right to unionize. They have reached out to the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) union, which is now intervening.

Last week, some of those workers made specific demands. A group called Tesla Workers’ Organizing Committee sent a letter to the company’s board members seeking safety improvements and a clearer promotion policy. The letter cites 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the last full year for which such information is available. “For that year, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that our injury rate was higher than that of sawmills and slaughter houses. Accidents happen every day,” reads the letter. The committee also addressed Tesla’s resistance to workplace organizing: “We should be free to speak out and to organize together to the benefit of Tesla and all of our workers. When we have raised this with management we have been met with anti-union rhetoric and action.”

Attention was originally drawn to the factory’s organizing fight after Tesla employee Jose Moran published a Medium post on February 9. Moran raises safety concerns, writing that, a few months ago, six of the eight people on his work team were on leave due to workplace injuries. He also breaks down problems with the factory’s wages. According to Moran, workers at the Tesla factory make between $17 and $21 in Alameda county, an area where the living wage is more than $28 an hour. Moran wrote that some of his coworkers make a two-hour commute to work because they can’t afford to live near the factory.

“Tesla’s Production Associates are building the future: They are doing the hard work to build the electric cars and battery packs that are necessary to reduce carbon emissions. But they are paid significantly below the living wage for one adult and one child in our community,” Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director of the local worker advocacy group Silicon Valley Rising, told In These Times via email. “We believe that green jobs should be good jobs, and that they have a right to organize and advocate for themselves and their families.”

The day after Moran published his post, employees passed out literature containing the piece during a shift change at the factory. According to an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made by workers, and obtained by Capital and Main, this prompted management to schedule a meeting where workers were told they couldn’t pass out information unless it was pre-approved by the employer. The same NLRB charge accuses Tesla of illegal surveillance and intimidation.

Moran’s piece, and the subsequent accusations, were taken seriously enough to be addressed by Elon Musk directly. In an email to employees, obtained by Buzzfeed, Musk declared that safety concerns ignored vast improvements established in 2017. Tesla also put out a statement echoing Musk’s claims. The company’s data points to a 52 percent reduction in lost time incidents and a 30 percent reduction in recordable incidents during the company’s first quarter.

Musk promised a “really amazing party” for workers after the Model 3 reached volume production. In addition to the party, the factory would eventually include free frozen yogurt stands and a roller coaster. “It’s going to get crazy good,” he wrote. As for Moran, Musk claimed he was a paid UAW plant and that he had looked into his claims and discovered they weren’t true. The UAW, he explained, “does not share our mission” and their “true allegiance is to the giant car companies, where the money they take from employees in dues is vastly more than they could ever make from Tesla.”

This wouldn’t be the last time Musk would use such language in regards to a union. Six months after Tesla acquired Germany’s Grohmann Engineering, Musk found himself clashing with the country’s dominant metalworkers’ union, IG Metall. The union intervened to insist that Tesla straighten out a wage discrepancy that had some workers claiming they were making 30 percent less than union rates. Musk sent a letter to Grohmann employees offering a one-time bonus—an extra 150 Euros a month—and Tesla shares instead of a pay increases that the employees desire. “I do not believe IG Metall shares our mission,” reads the letter.

“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk told The Guardian in May. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing.” Two months after that interview, Automotive News reported that Musk had been the highest paid auto executive of 2016, exercising stock options worth $1.34 billion. Musk’s incredible economic success hasn’t exactly been generated via an unfettered free market. According to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Musk’s companies have benefited from billions in government subsidies.

Whether or not Tesla’s board members are receptive to employee demands, it seems clear that the workers’ struggle is not going away anytime soon.

This article was originally published at In These Times on August 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

As Universities are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

The exploitation of academic workers has simmered for decades. Now, buoyed by a National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate employees at private universities have the right to unionize, a new generation is organizing unions across private universities—defying a wave of pushback from administrations. Some students win (Columbia, Loyola). Some withdraw (Duke). Some get caught in a limbo of university appeals (Yale).

But all of these efforts are integral to the U.S. labor movement, as graduate workers challenge their own exploitation and the neoliberal decimation of the higher-education institutions that employ them.

I’m a graduate worker at Vanderbilt University and a member of the committee organizing to unionize 1,200 graduate employees. I attend graduate school out of a passion for learning, writing and teaching young people. I came here to critique Western intellectual history by analyzing social, economic and political issues. These matters impact my life and the lives of loved ones; they are not academic hobbies or intellectual fancies. Even lecturing is no mere academic exercise: Higher education is what fosters democratic citizenship. It cultivates capacities for critical self-reflection, engagement in public discourse and thoughtful participation in a rapidly changing world. We need these pursuits now more than ever.

I did not come to graduate school to spend thousands of dollars out-of- pocket to fulfill professional obligations while watching my institution insidiously cut funding opportunities for faculty and graduate workers. I did not come to graduate school to listen to administrators rebrand us as students gaining ‘experiential education opportunities’ rather than as employees teaching introductory classes, executing research programs, or building scholarly communities. Most importantly, I did not come to graduate school to bolster a system that abuses its workers, ignores academic rigor, overlooks sexual harassment allegations against distinguished (male) faculty, engages in unlawful labor practices and disregards the needs of its staff and faculty.

And yet, this system demands that I participate by providing constant intellectual, physical and emotional labor, despite minimal job security.

Many scholars have already exposed the decline of education and the poor labor conditions of university educators. In his 2011 The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg published a devastating analysis of the decline of faculty power. More recently, Elizabeth Anderson’s 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, published as Private Government, chronicled dictatorial employment practices. And last month, University of Michigan dual-Ph.D. candidate Maximillian Alvarez penned “Contingent No More,” a manifesto criticizing the laissez-fare academic culture that perpetuates the “neoliberization of higher education.”

These writers illuminate the struggles of a new generation of faculty and graduate workers in academia. Burdened by insurmountable student debt and confronted by the machinery of U.S. capitalism, we fight just to survive.

Recent struggles in higher education are part of a long history of economic exploitation and domination over workers, problems that have pervaded U.S. society since its racist, genocidal and profit-driven founding. Whereas in the 1970s almost 80 percent of faculty were full-time, universities today have shifted to a contingent employment model. Non-tenure track faculty now compose 70 percent of the academic labor force, 41 percent of whom are part-time. Graduate workers are 13 percent of the academic labor force, almost 5 percent more than full-time, tenure-track faculty.

Why? Because contingent labor is cheap, and no tenure means we’re expendable. This allows universities to slash salaries for faculty while expanding bureaucratic administrations that obstruct grievance processes and legal redress.

In fact, Business Insider reveals that tuition has increased by 260 percent since 1980, compared to the 120 percent increase in consumer items over the same period. So, where is that money going, if not to faculty and graduate employee salaries? It is going to university administrators, whose employment has increased by 221 percent from 1975 to 2008. In contrast, faculty employment has increased by only 3.5 percent.

All the while, faculty and students are left in the dark as to how university revenue is spent. The Illinois State Senate’s 99 Percent General Assembly 2015 Report on Executive Compensation notes that “tuition increases have coincided with a dramatic increase in administrative costs, including the size of administrative departments and compensation packages for executives.” Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos was cited by Forbes as the fifth-highest- paid university president in 2012, with an annual salary of $2.23 million. He and 35 other university presidents across America made over $1 million that year. Nearly 40 percent of university presidents are eligible for financial bonuses for increasing statistics like graduation rates, at the expense of faculty resources for research and conference travel.

For the administrative university, undergraduates—our students—have gone from ‘future leaders’ to ‘commodities.’

The generation of capital, rather than free and critical thought, is increasingly becoming the purpose of higher education. Deans see themselves as micro-CEOs, while provosts and chancellors view the university as a money-making venture. We instructors are the face of the university and provide the classroom education that students pay for, yet revenue we bring in doesn’t pay for our security. Instead, we are told that admission to a doctoral program is a gift, that our employers are benevolent, and that quiet gratitude is the only appropriate response to our conditions. They pretend this is enough to ignore watching us sink below a living wage, struggle with mental health with little support, and work ourselves to exhaustion.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sabeen Ahmed is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in social and political philosophy and critical phenomenology. She is currently working to analyze refugee discourses through a critique of Western intellectual history.

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