Presidential Address

The following is a condensed version of an address made by AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum to the AAUP’s 104th Annual Meeting on June 16.

We are awaiting a Supreme Court decision that will likely have a profound effect on the way that most unions in the public sector operate, and it will have a profound effect on the AAUP.

But ultimately, the effect that it has on the AAUP is up to us and the members of our profession.

We have seen forty years of neoliberal attacks on public services, including public higher education. Reduced funding has precipitated the privatization of higher education, skyrocketing tuition, and soaring student debt. Simultaneously, US higher education is ever more corporatized.  Rising tuition, stagnant real wages, increasing inequality, changing demographics, and growing hostility toward immigrants are all pressuring nonselective public and private institutions.

These developments have totally transformed our profession. Contingent faculty now teach the majority of undergraduate classes.  The racist and xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric of the Trump administration poses additional challenges for colleges and universities. And attacks on academic freedom  through the use of targeted online harassment are on the rise.

The good news is that we do not have to stand by and watch our profession and with it higher education, as a public good, be destroyed by super-rich corporate interests and extreme right wing forces.

How do we fight back? With unions.

I want to draw a distinction between unions and collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is a state-sanctioned process that allows workers to unionize and bargain with employers, while at the same time placing certain restrictions on union activity. Collective bargaining is supposed to provide certain legal protections to employees, their union, and to employers.

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! After all, collective bargaining is just a legal framework that provides for union representation but also places limits on that representation. Where we have collective bargaining, we should use it. Where we don’t, we can still organize a union.

Only rarely do unions win great victories by relying upon the legal apparatus provided by collective bargaining law. Those who win good contracts and are able to enforce them do so via their political power—power that comes from forming an organization and paying dues that enable faculty to act collectively. Political power starts with membership, but membership alone is not enough. That membership must be organized and active. Good contracts and strong unions happen because union members are willing to act collectively to defend their rights.

That is the lesson of the West Virginia teachers’ strike. They did not have collective bargaining because there is no law that allows for public-sector bargaining in the state. They live in a state where 70 percent of voters went for Trump. They don’t have collective bargaining, striking is illegal, and they are in a red state. But they do have a union!

Read the entire presidential address, “What Can College and University Faculty Learn from the Teachers in West Virginia?” (pdf)

Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 21, 2018