From the Editor: Organizing and the Pandemic

By Michael Ferguson

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its third year and we struggle through yet another surge in the virus, it is hard to feel optimistic about a postpandemic future. Recent issues of this magazine have documented the damage the pandemic has done—to faculty members and students, to institutions, and to norms of academic freedom and governance. Yet the past two years have also seen a resurgence of faculty organizing. In higher education, as in other sectors, the labor movement is energized.

This issue turns attention to the work of AAUP chapters, focusing particularly on how the pandemic has changed organizing. As contributors Johanna Foster and Marina Vujnovic observe, the pandemic has created a “disaster opportunity” not only for administrations but also for AAUP members, who are seizing this moment to strengthen their chapters and fight for a better future for higher education. Even the pandemic’s bleakest moments have engendered new kinds of solidarity, as faculty members have found ways to come together and take collective action despite their physical isolation.

The articles collected here offer snapshots of recent AAUP organizing work around the country: issue campaigns by chapters in South Carolina and at George Mason University, union building by United Academics of the University of New Mexico, contract campaigns by the California Faculty Association and the Faculty Association of Monmouth University, a faculty strike by Oregon Tech–AAUP, and the revitalization of the Guilford College AAUP chapter. They provide templates that union and nonunion chapters alike can use to expand the faculty’s power on campus. And they draw out lessons that chapters can carry forward into a postpandemic era.

Those lessons are numerous, but a few are worth underscoring here. While we all miss being able to gather easily in person and many suffer from “Zoom fatigue,” Zoom and similar platforms have helped chapters increase member engagement by enabling faculty parents, members on satellite campuses, long-distance commuters, and faculty members with disabilities or health problems to participate in events more easily. Chapters have also found innovative ways to use technology to build community beyond campus: Oregon Tech–AAUP streamed virtual picket lines—open to supporters around the world—on Facebook Live, for example, and the Guilford AAUP chapter sponsored a public teach-in on Zoom that spurred the creation of an alumni-led Facebook group dedicated to saving the college. Many chapters have forged new coalitions as well, whether by collaborating with faculty governance bodies to defend the faculty’s role in institutional decision-making or by making common cause with other unions and social movements.

The stories in this issue also serve as a reminder that, despite the upheaval of the past two years, the power and influence of AAUP chapters are still built on the same foundations: one-on-one conversations, transparent and democratic leadership, member engagement, careful identification of issues, cultivation of allies, and strategic planning. Organizing matters.