In 2012, the Service Employees International Union announced a locally focused organizing strategy, aimed at adjunct faculty working in large metropolitan areas. The idea is that by unionizing as many institutions as possible in a metro area, market pressures will build for colleges and universities to improve adjuncts’ pay, benefits, and working conditions, creating new local benchmarks.
SEIU Local 500 has had success in Washington DC area organizing adjunct unions at American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University and Montgomery College in Maryland. And organizing efforts are progressing at other area institutions, such as the University of DC.
SEIU’s Adjunct Action effort has since spread to Boston (Tufts University, Northeastern University, Lesley, Bentley University), Los Angeles, (Whittier College, University of La Verne) and Seattle, (Pacific Lutheran University) and other US cities, including Philadelphia.
But now, a little over a year since the SEIU metro strategy was announced, the American Federation of Teachers have announced their own citywide adjunct organizing strategy in Philadelphia, where they’ll be in direct competition with SEIU’s efforts.
According to Inside Higher Ed, the AFT’s United Academics of Philadelphia has targeted adjuncts (and graduate employees) at a number of the City of Brotherly Love’s higher education institutions, including: Temple University, Moore College of Art and Design, University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, Swarthmore College, Community College of Philadelphia, Villanova University, and St. Joseph’s University. United Academics’ aim is to “become a city-wide bargaining unit under a common contract onto which individual campuses could sign.”
Is there enough adjunct love to go around in Philly?
Is the competition between SEIU and AFT to represent Philadelphia adjuncts a good thing for their potential members?
What is happening in Philadelphia seems to be a burgeoning turf war between SEIU and AFT and the prize is dues money (and clout). The Philadelphia situation is nothing new, merely a variation on a long running theme of unions battling for (each others) members, something that has intensified as organized trade union membership in the US has continued its slide. Recent examples include: SEIU v National Union of Healthcare Workers (Kaiser Permanente in California); Transportation Workers Union v Teamsters (American Airlines mechanics); Teamsters v International Association of Machinist (US Airways); and SEIU (SPM) v Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), to name a few.
Certainly these situations are bad PR for unions (especially since nearly 90% of the workforce in the US is unorganized). It’s also true that union raiding and organizing battles contradict the notion of solidarity amongst all unions and workers. The fact is that union bosses pretty much operate on the mantra of “solidarity for never” (as Rich Gibson says). Examples: Lawsuits filed by the nurses union against SEIU or the TWU’s legal actions against the Teamsters. Ironically (or not) what fuels these intra-labor union wars, at least in part, are the concessions these same unions have bargained away (e.g., job cuts, two-tier wage scales, benefit givebacks, the right to strike, etc.) all in order to ensure the flow of dues money.
Unions ≠ Worker Solidarity
Solidarity is the power of labor, no doubt. But worker solidarity shouldn’t be conflated with trade unions and their bosses. From the examples above we can see the divisions union bosses often create among workers and between union members and other members of the working class, with whom they share collective interests. In short, workers need to cast a wary eye toward their own unions because the unity of interests often described between the rank-and-file workers and their unions is most often a chimera.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather be a union member than not and I support organizing of all academics because unions have the potential to improve workplace rights, working conditions, wages, benefits, etc. But organizing, followed by bargaining a contract is merely the first steps of building solidarity and there are serious limitations to the kind of “business unionism” contracts we see for teachers and academics in particular.
For example, teacher unions in the US have tied their interests to corporate education reform (note that not all teachers have, but the union leadership has). The solidarity offered by National Education Association and AFT is not with the source of real educator power—that is unity with poor and working class parents and students who have everything to gain from school. Some early teacher unionists, such as Margaret Haley (who worked in both the NEA and AFT in the early 1900s), led campaigns that drew on the powerful unity of interests among students, teachers, and parents around issues such as class size, freedom to control the local curriculum, and a more just tax system.
Unfortunately both NEA and AFT have abandoned the vision that would link the activities of school workers with students and parents. The most obvious example of this estrangement of interests is the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher strike, which pitted the New York City teachers union, led by the late, long-time AFT President Albert Shanker, against the African American community. The conflict centered on community control of public schools. The union won and community control was lost, establishing a labor-management model that mirrors private industry, one in which educational policy was determined in bilateral negotiations between a highly centralized school administration and highly centralized union.
Neither of these unions, anywhere, has attained attractive and enforceable rules about class size. Neither union has fought hard against the shift of the tax burden onto poor and working people. Neither the NEA nor AFT has defended academic freedom from the onslaught of standardized test regulations, indeed they commonly support a mandated curriculum (e.g., NCLB, Common Core State Standards).
The good news is that workers and their unions are not synonymous and there are movements within (and outside) of unions led by workers to pursue real, collective solidarity that extends beyond narrow unions interests.
In a nutshell, criticizing the actions of labor unions is far from throwing the interests of rank-and-file workers (or the working class) under the bus, indeed it is one of the first things we have to do to protect ourselves.