From the President: What Can We Learn from the Teachers in West Virginia?

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

Neoliberals have been attacking public services, including higher education, for more than forty years. Reduced state funding has precipitated the privatization of public higher education and contributed to soaring tuition and student debt. Simultaneously, US higher education has become ever more corporatized, with exorbitantly paid professional administrators managing the “business” of higher education.

Rising tuition, stagnant real wages, growing inequality, and changing demographics are pressuring nonselective private institutions. Increasingly reliant on tuition discounting—a strategy ultimately sure to fail—an unprecedented number of such institutions are laying off faculty or closing altogether.

These developments have transformed our profession, starting with what can only be called the phaseout of tenure. Today, only about 30 percent of the faculty are tenured or on the tenure track. Full-time non-tenure-track faculty, largely working on year-to-year contracts, and armies of graduate students and part-time faculty now teach most undergraduate classes.

Academic freedom and shared governance, both endangered species, face escalating attacks. Institutions now rely on high-priced consultants to reshape their curricula and pick academic programs for elimination. Though these changes initially targeted the humanities and social sciences, other fields are also now being affected as administrators dumb down the curriculum in an attempt to increase graduation rates, bolster retention, and support the metastasizing administrative bureaucracy.

So, what might the future hold for our profession? Unless we act, we will see declining real wages for all faculty. For those full-time faculty lucky enough to have health insurance, premiums as well as copays, deductibles, coinsurance, and out-of-pocket maximums will continue to rise, shifting the burden to those who are sick and those who can least afford these additional costs and eroding what it means to have “insurance.” The many faculty without employer-provided health insurance, who must seek insurance in private exchanges or through Medicaid, will likewise face eroding benefits. Public-sector faculty will see “pension reform”—a euphemism for cuts in pension benefits levied even on those who have already retired. Institutions without pensions will contribute less to individual retirement accounts.

Frequently, I hear faculty say there is not much they can do to combat these trends because they don’t have collective bargaining, they live in a right-to-work state, or they live in the South. However, even with a union, getting a contract is always about political power. Only rarely do unions win great victories by relying upon the legal apparatus provided by collective bargaining. Those who win good contracts and are able to enforce them do so by exercising the power that comes from forming an organization and paying dues that enable faculty to act collectively.

That is the lesson of the West Virginia teachers’ strike. Although the teachers were from a “red state” that has no law allowing for public-sector bargaining, they did have a union.

What is a union? It is an organization of employees, funded by member dues, that negotiates with the employer on behalf of workers. Unions existed long before collective bargaining law! After all, collective bargaining is just a legal framework that provides for union representation but also places limits on that representation.

Interestingly, in his 1923 book The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education, Upton Sinclair referred to the AAUP as the “union for faculty.” If we are going to save our profession, we must make Sinclair’s statement a reality. No matter where you live, regardless of whether you have collective bargaining rights enshrined in law or your institution is private or public, you can organize and engage in concerted activity. You can stand together!

In West Virginia, teachers had endured years of skyrocketing health-insurance premiums without pay increases, and their salaries had sunk to forty-eighth in the country. They recognized that this situation was hurting not only teachers but also their students. They went on strike for higher wages and better health coverage, but ultimately their struggle was about respect for them and the communities they serve.

The West Virginia teachers have shown us that being organized and engaging in concerted activity matters. Remember, too, that our struggle is not just about our jobs or even the education that we provide our students. It is also about saving our democracy by ensuring that we have an educated citizenry and by showing politicians bought by wealthy corporations that they cannot influence what we teach or what research we do.