The Chicago Teachers Union is arguably one of the most prominent examples in the past decade of the good that can come from labor organizing that links social issues to worker concerns. Their 2012 strike set an example for unions nationwide to go beyond better wages and benefits, using collective bargaining to build movements for economic and racial justice. Rather than thinking in terms of individual survival, Stacy Davis Gates, Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) argued, workers in education should ask themselves: “How do we fight back as a community, to not just preserve, but to secure, imagine, dream what does not exist yet?”
“How do we have power?” Davis Gates asked hundreds of academic workers on Zoom this January. The answer, she explained, was to “expand the definition of labor and union,” to bring in members of the communities in which Chicago public schools are situated, building coalitions to amplify demands and grow a movement for equity and justice—an approach called “bargaining for the common good.”
Davis Gates was sharing the strategy and insight behind CTU’s approach as a plenary speaker at the Higher Ed Labor United (HELU) summit, a group representing more than half a million academic workers across the country dedicated to reforming and rebuilding the U.S. higher education system. The coalition, made up of workers across ranks—including tenured professors, graduate student workers, post-doctoral fellows, university staff, contingent faculty, and other kinds of academic workers—formed in July 2021, one year into devastating cuts to higher education brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Workers in higher education are not only ready to push back at their individual institutions, but to constitute themselves as a national force. “We’re here to organize a wall-to-wall, coast-to-coast higher ed labor movement,” director Ian Gavigan declared in his opening remarks on the first day of the summit, “that can, as our vision platform lays out, transform higher education into a public good operated in the public interest.”
Higher education is facing a large-scale, decades-long crises of disinvestment from the sector, including contingency and adjunctification of educators, downsizing and consolidation of departments, cuts to university operation budgets, inflation of administrative salaries, and a rising student debt crisis. Without renewed investment and changes in governance, HELU’s vision platform states, these crises will worsen. And the only way to fix the problem, in Gavigan’s words, is to “build the power necessary to overcome it.”
This year’s HELU summit pursued this ambitious goal to transform higher education by thinking big. The program featured star speakers from the labor movement— including writer and veteran organizer Jane Macalevey, national flight attendant union (AFA-CWA) president Sara Nelson, and critically-acclaimed author and climate justice advocate Naomi Klein—alongside dozens of prominent researchers, militant unionists, and dedicated organizers from coalition partners such as Jobs with Justice and The Debt Collective.
The summit took place over the course of four days, offering learning, discussion, and strategizing in three core areas: national coordinated organizing, policy development and advocacy, and building political power. Speakers and strategy groups analyzed crises in the sector and the ways dilemmas in higher education have resonated in civil society more broadly.
The HELU vision platform clearly lays out the urgency of the current crises caused by disinvestment and their necessary solutions. But the summit’s fundamental message was, as Davis Gates and every single other speaker emphasized, situating academic workers in relation to the broader communities in which they exist. “Look at a worker when he or she punches the clock,” said Jane Macalevey, “and actually understand that each one of us have a bunch of complicated, tethered, textured relationships where we live, not just where we work.”
In this spirit of common-good organizing, the coalition clearly outlines its four commitments to achieve change in higher education. You can read the full vision statement here; these commitments are summarized as follows:
Commitment One: Nationwide Action for Federal Government Intervention
In order to address the national crisis, HELU is advocating for coordinated nationwide action to push the federal government to establish universal higher education, end the student debt crisis via debt cancellation, enshrine protections for students and workers from historically excluded backgrounds, enact legislation regulating employment to rectify the adjunctification of professors, and ensure safe working conditions and living wages for all. The coalition also demands an end to right-to-work for higher education workers across the country in order to grow the labor movement in the 28 states where union security—unions’ ability to require membership as a condition of employment—is prohibited by state law, weakening union power. Finally, coalition members call for massive reinvestments in the sector, including federal funds for physical and research infrastructure and public financing for free college.
Commitment Two: Nationwide Action to Realign Campuses
The crisis of higher education is driven by a crisis of democratic governance. Over the past fifty years, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, university administrators and boards of trustees have taken liberties to shift universities towards a model of financialization and have undermined mechanisms of accountability in order to achieve this goal. To rectify such rule by fiat, HELU proposes that the higher education sector reclaim principles of shared governance, granting decision-making ability, institutional leadership, and democratic oversight to faculty senates, student organizations, and unions, and making efforts to involve local communities in participatory processes. This will also mean aligning budgets with educational missions oriented towards students and workers rather than administrative salaries and investment portfolios.
Financial transparency issues are fundamentally related to employment concerns. As a coalition of academic labor unions and other groups, HELU supports graduate worker unionization, ending contingent work, and mandating employment standards such as healthcare and course load limits for all university workers. Another road to employment security in the sector would be to establish more capacious standards for tenure, transitioning current contingent faculty to this broader tenure track, and offering real and robust benefits for all academic faculty and staff.
Commitment Three: Organizing To Win
To tackle these daunting changes, HELU proposes bold, legislative action, including organizing to pass the College for All Act put forward by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Premila Jayapal, which includes making college affordable through free tuition, doubling and expanding Pell Grants, increasing funding to HBCUs, and other measures to make college a right for everyone. The coalition will push for federal legislation mandating labor protections for employees of federal funding sources—such as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Science Foundation (NSF)—to ensure that such institutions honor unionization and collective bargaining agreements. HELU also plans to advocate for rules within the Departments of Labor and Education that would attach minimum labor standards to accreditation status, recalibrating prestige as a marker of how well institutions treat the people that work for them.
The legislative aims of HELU’s campaign also include racial and environmental justice in higher education. Student debt cancellation, reinvesting in public universities, and regranting land and community control to groups dispossessed by theft or gentrification are all part of a larger move to remake universities along more equitable lines. The group argues that campuses themselves should also reform internal policies to address historical oppression. Such reforms would include reducing campus policing budgets. HELU’s coalition also plans to organize for legislation and campus policies that divest university endowments from fossil fuels and invest in green infrastructure and renewable energies in their communities.
Commitment Four: A Unified National Movement
HELU’s movement is an exercise in large-scale thinking, as it proposes bold policies and plans to match the crises threatening to overwhelm the sector. “We commit to work and build solidarity together to fight in our communities and across the country and its territories,” its vision platform concludes, “as a true coordinated higher education labor movement to transform our systems and our lives.” The coalition is advocating for a higher education system that is run by the people that learn, work, and live at the institutions that comprise it—not by the monied administrators or politicians that defund it. Fundamentally, as Naomi Williams, a labor historian at Rutgers and lead organizer for HELU has said, the fight to remake higher education is a fight to save democracy.
HELU represents the rise of a strong labor movement in higher education, one which will build mass coalitions between workers across job categories, academic status, and geographic regions. Transforming public and private colleges and universities into institutions that “prioritize people and the common good over profit and prestige,” as HELU’s vision so lucidly states, necessarily begins by bringing people together to learn from past struggles and make ambitious plans towards transformation. Their victory would mean changing the landscape of higher education as we know it—for the common good.