The Union Solution for Higher Education

We can’t reform higher education without unions


By Elena Carter, University of Iowa Lecturer 
(as published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen)

If you need to build a building, you call an architect. If you’re starting a restaurant, a few chefs better be on speed dial. Today’s presidential candidates must apply the same logic to their plans for higher education reform.

Presidential candidates cannot fix our broken colleges and universities without including a voice for educators—those of us who are actually in the classroom day-in-and-day-out. Thanks to years of slashed budgets for our colleges, I serve as a member of a growing class of contingent faculty at the University of Iowa, deep in our right-to-work state. That means I work long hours for low pay and have to worry from semester to semester if I’ll keep my job. Sadly, I'm not alone.

According to the American Association of University Professors, 75 percent of all college professors teach off the tenure track and a whopping 50 percent of all professors teach part time. To make matters worse, contingent faculty are also underrepresented on the governing bodies at our institutions, such as the Faculty Senate. With no union and no real institutional power, the process of improving our working conditions can be very difficult, even when the situation is dire.

For example, this past fall, we were fighting to establish a sick bank so we could donate our unused sick days to colleagues with severe health issues because of the lack of cataclysmic health care coverage on campus. We were fighting to help campus workers like my colleague who was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Administration officials said we could not, so we took direct action to demand they change their policy. Today, even after my colleague passed away in July, the administration hasn't chosen to do the right thing, and the only reason they are talking with us is because we organized to hold them accountable.

Our higher education system and the American dream is broken. Professors should not have to work for poverty wages and inadequate benefits, and all campus workers should have a voice on the job. Students should not be buried under mountains of debt to pursue a better life. Change is coming too late for my colleague, but presidential candidates must recognize that the need is still great for the millions of educators and students the system fails daily.

The good news is that some candidates are listening to our calls for college for all, student loan forgiveness, and a union for all campus employees. 

As candidates consider big and much-needed investments in our colleges, they must include a voice for educators. Without it, they will be writing a blank check to administrators who all too often invest in fancy buildings and big paychecks for themselves, rather than in our students. 

Join us and DEMAND #UnionsForAll

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