Interesting Times Demand a New Unionism   

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The Chinese have a curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

Education is certainly facing some interesting times. While I don’t see it as a curse, I certainly do see it as a challenge. And it’s a challenge that the National Education Association is meeting with a new brand of unionism.

But since I’m a social studies teacher, let me begin with a little historical perspective.

At the start of the 20th century, 85% of all workers were in agriculture. Today, less than three percent are. In 1950, 73% of U.S. employees worked in production and manufacturing. Today, less than 15% do.

The hot job field right now is “knowledge”–data processing, computer programming, and the dissemination of information and technology. Our workforce is changing as quickly as the computers we use. People today are often required to update their skills constantly, and to build careers in a perpetual state of flux.

Needless to say, this has had a huge impact on higher education.

In fact, the so-called “real world” is encroaching on the Ivory Tower as never before. More and more, our economy and our culture at-large are influencing higher education–driving changes, shaping its policies, and rewarding its research in the marketplace.

Today, record numbers of Americans are enrolling in colleges and universities. But, to put it bluntly, they want to learn programming, not poetry. They want skills that will get them jobs--and they can’t spend four years on a campus learning them, either.

This, coupled with universities’ scramble for funding, has created a dramatic rise of online “distance education.” Whereas 200 years ago, you needed a fortune and an estate to attend college, today you only need a personal computer with a 20 gigabyte hard drive!

Seventy-eight percent of all four-year public colleges and universities now offer some form of “distance education.” In fact, it’s expected that by next year, over 90% of all public institutions will offer it.

With 1.6 million students now plugged into virtual classrooms, students are coming to be regarded not as scholars but as consumers, and colleges and professors mere commodities that must market themselves and justify their value.

The relationship between research universities, the free market, and corporations is also becoming more incestuous. Private companies are subsidizing research at public universities, and are then laying claim to the patents and products that are being developed. Similarly, more and more universities are starting to treat their research departments as cash cows for their schools.

An article in Atlantic Monthly claims, “Universities, once wary beneficiaries of corporate largesse, have become eager co-capitalists, embracing market values as never before” (Press & Washburn, 2000, p. 41).

And this, in turn, is igniting a whole new set of new conflicts over intellectual property.

For example, if two professors receive a research grant from a drug manufacturer, and they discover a new treatment for diabetes, who has the right to market it? The drug company? The university? Or the professors?

For that matter, if a professor designs a Webpage for a sociology course, who owns it?

Right now, there’s a case in which an online company called is paying students enrolled in college courses to take notes, which it then posts on the Web. It makes its money by selling ad space on this Website. But the information on the site has been posted without professors’ permission. So who is entitled to the profits and compensation?

A showdown is brewing between the First Amendment and intellectual property rights.

To top it all off: In these lean, mean, and profit-driven times, the workforce inside the Ivory Tower is becoming as transient as the workforce outside of it. Colleges are finding that it’s more economical not to hire tenure-track faculty. Forty-three percent of all college faculties are now composed of part-time, non-tenured teachers. This is almost double the percentage of part-time workers in other sectors, and it means that some colleges are staffed almost entirely by temporary faculty. What other profession is comprised of so many part-time workers? Could you imagine hospitals where half the doctors are “temps”? Or engineers who visit a site only twice a week over a two-year period to help design a bridge?

These are interesting times indeed. They are forcing higher education to reexamine the very heart and soul of its institutions. Schools are asking, “How can we keep up with today’s changing world?” “How can we stay relevant in it?” and “How can we maintain academic quality?”

The education unions can, and must, play a pivotal role in meeting these challenges head-on. In fact, these “interesting times” are ripe for a renaissance of unionism. They present us with a unique opportunity to organize and position education unions as the guardians of quality and professionalism.

Teachers are the largest group of unionized “knowledge workers” in the United States. Yet, there are vast populations who have yet to be organized, particularly temporary faculty and graduate students, who are increasingly carrying the workload at colleges and universities. By organizing them along with tenured faculty, we can insist that employment within higher education become more stable and better paying, for all staff.

It’s the old labor adage: “Better to bargain together than to beg alone.”

Ironically, we can organize using the very technology that is changing our lives in the first place. NEA surveys have found that virtually all higher education faculty have access to a personal computer, e-mail, and Internet on campus. Seventy percent have computer access at home as well. For younger educators, “cyber-literacy” is a way for life; it’s probably the best way to reach them, short of direct person-to-person contact.  NEA also surveyed its teacher members in 1998 and found that 95 percent have access to a computer at work and 77 percent have internet access; 78% have access to a computer at home and 71% have internet access at home.  Among support staff members, 84% report access to a computer at work and 69% have access at home. 

Part of organizing, of course, means promoting the good, old-fashioned, bread-and-butter benefits of union membership. That means letting people know that union wages are 34% higher than non-union wages, and that 85% of union members have health care benefits and pensions. But these benefits are insufficient for education unions to win job security or higher pay for members. In today’s climate, we must promote a unionism based on quality and professionalism.

Why? The quality of higher education is being threatened by the misuse of corporate research funding, intellectual property disputes, and the increasing reliance on part-time faculty. In this environment, education unions must be the voice of reason, and the guardians of high standards and professionalism.

With this in mind, NEA has been embracing “new unionism,” which combines the concerns and advocacy of a labor union with the professionalism and standards of a craft guild. New unionism means using our clout, resources, and bargaining to promote high standards, reforms, and professionalism within our ranks. It means working cooperatively with management whenever possible as well as forging partnerships with businesses and communities. It means taking risks and thinking “outside the box.”

In short, for NEA, new unionism means making education quality our responsibility. Our members who teach K-12 tell us: Yes, they want better salaries and benefits. But they also want their union to help them right inside their classrooms. They want mentoring programs, better professional development, and smaller class sizes. They want us to go to bat for them on professional and quality issues.

And nowhere is this sentiment stronger than in higher education. Our higher education members have told us that their number one concern is professional development. They want academic standards to be maintained. They want their intellectual property protected. These members are not fighting the new wave of distance education. Far from it. They’re embracing it.

In April, NEA released the results of a phone survey of our members who teach distance education courses. This is the first national study that has been done among faculty who teach online. Seventy-two percent of these teachers say they are positive about distance learning. In fact, they report that distance learning has several benefits. It allows them to reach students who cannot take traditional college courses, and it enables smaller institutions to offer a richer curriculum (2000).

Our members’ biggest concern is not the existence of online education, but the quality of online education. They also worry about being responsible for more students, more work for less pay, and losing control of their intellectual property.

Therefore, it is NEA’s agenda to help them in exactly these areas.

After all, as futurist Stewart Brand said, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

Staking out cyberspace is shrewd unionism. Because if the professoriate itself is not the standard bearer for this new form of instruction, it leaves the field wide open for co-optation by outsiders--not to mention waste, fraud, and abuse.

NEA understands this very clearly. I’m proud to say that, in both 1997 and 1999, our members passed a resolution supporting distance education and spelled out guidelines that we believe are necessary to ensure quality in this area (1999).

To further our commitment to quality, NEA recently joined forces with Blackboard, Inc to set benchmarks for quality in the field. Together, we commissioned the Institute for Higher Education Policy to evaluate the benchmarks that are being implemented at universities. And they found that many of NEA’s original recommendations work to instill quality in distance education (2000).

NEA knows that educators are wise to position ourselves as the vanguard of professional standards, virtual education, and issues of quality. After all, who else has expertise?

To this end, in the face of corporations that are increasingly trying to influence (and, in some instances, suppress) university research, NEA will defend intellectual objectivity and academic freedom as core values that cannot be compromised.

And lastly, in an environment where intellectual property is increasing exponentially, NEA’s higher education affiliates are striving to stand up for members’ rights of ownership. Recently our faculty members at both Mott Community College in Michigan and at Youngstown State University in Ohio have used interested-based collective bargaining to secure intellectual property rights in their contracts.

In these areas and others, collective bargaining is perhaps the greatest power tool in our arsenal. Today, in fact, this tool is more important than ever. Collective bargaining is the ideal framework for advancing a reform agenda–and the ideal way to secure professional freedom, standards, job security, and intellectual property rights for faculty.

During these extremely “interesting times,” higher education’s best course of action is to rise to these challenges with guts, creativity, and a willingness to organize the workforce. We must make it clear that intellectualism and unionism are not incompatible. And we must wield the power of collective bargaining wisely, using it as a tool to promote quality and protect academic integrity.

The best response to the new economy, our interesting times, is a new unionism.

Editor's Note: A modified version of this paper was presented at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education 28th Annual Conference, “Visions for the Future,” New York City, March 20, 2000.


The Institute for Higher Education Policy. (2000). Quality on the line: Benchmarks for success in Internet-based distance education. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved 26 July 2000 from the World Wide Web:

National Education Association. (1999). NEA 1999-2000 Resolutions. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved 26 July 2000 from the World Wide Web:

National Education Association. (2000). A survey of traditional and distance learning higher education members. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved 26 July 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Press, E., & Washburn, J. (2000, March). The kept university. The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 39-54.

Critical Reviews

Critic X

For Critic X's review, click here.

Critic CC

I think this article has merit and should be published. Unions emerged in our industrialized society to protect factory workers from management. The story goes that little-educated laborers who were performing a rote skill at the factory could be taken advantage of by management, their jobs threatened. Isn't it interesting to see that technology actually eliminated their jobs! To add to the author's quotes,  Jeremy Rifkin in his book, The Age of Access predicts that by the year 2050, "as little as 5 percent of the adult population will be needed to manage and operate the traditional industrial sphere." (Rifkin, J. 2000. The age of access. New York: Tarcher, Putnam) In the corporate world, managers are talking about how to get and keep people, not how to take advantage of them. Knowledge workers, people with technology skills, and those with the ability to manage themselves are in high demand. I know, I run a company looking for such people. And companies today are offering signing bonuses, longer vacations, increased professional development, flexible work schedules, work-from-hom options, memberships to health clubs, company cars, and more to keep their talented employees. Unions would do well to turn their attentions away from protecting jobs and toward reinventing their workers to command this kind of attention.

Perhaps the NEA is moving in this direction; it needs to let its constituencies know. We provide cutting edge professional development to school districts and universities. We had two school districts cancel their summer professional development with us because of contract disputes, and  this was the union's "punishment" to management. Both superintendents stood in awe at the fact that the union was recommending that teachers cut their own throats to presumably gain clout for pushing through contract demands. Once the contract is settled, those teachers will have their wage increases and related benefits. But they will never ever be able to regain the time lost this summer drinking up the professional development they so desperately need to reinvent themselves for the 21st century. And from the sound of the author's warning, technology may swallow them up as well and greatly reduce the number of teaching jobs needed. I don't think the article paints the dismal picture that truly exists for educators and how the "old" unionization is digging a grave for its members while employees in other fields are gaining tremendous work benefits and high wages without any unionization, armed instead with the tools of technology an understanding of what it means to be a knoweldge worker. Time Magazine (May 22, 2000) predicted the ten hottest jobs for the future and the ten jobs that will become obsolete. Among the latter were teachers.

To move away from the content, I think the format of the article is interesting in that the author chose to arrange his thoughts in very small paragraphs, even one-sentence paragraphs that would make his/her high school English teacher gasp for breath. This is a wonderful model for how communication in a digital world is changing. The format makes the article very easy to read off-screen! The only sentence I'd change (and this is picky) is the one that claims that all you need for distance learning is a computer with a 20 Gb hard drive.  I'm sure the author realizes that no one needs that large a drive to engage in distance learning, but some of the readers may not. I wouldn't want people thinking they need a powerful computer to take advantage of the many wonderful Web-enhanced and Web-based courses that already exist.

Critic U

For Critic U's review, click here.

Critic ZZZ

I would not publish the commentary as it is now.

Need clearer idea of who is writing the piece. It mentions that the person is a social studies teacher. Why is this person qualified? Background?

Main problem is lack of focus. It takes half the essay to get to the point. For example, here are the topics a reader thinks the essay is about until he/she reads to the middle to get to the argument about unionizing:

- "interesting times" (omit this quote)

- agricultural workforce/statistics (why are these relevant?)

- workforce skills

- Ivory Tower

- distance education

- intellectual property.

In addition, is it about K-12 unions or higher education? It is important to stick to either K-12 or higher ed. Why is AAUP not mentioned if this is talking about higher education unions?

I think that the focus should be clear and the essay should get to the point. E.g. "faculty in higher education should unionize because of the impact of distance education." Or "faculty in higher education should unionize because of the threat to intellectual property caused by the Internet." Each paragraph should then argue why, with statistics/support for each point. Need case studies/examples. E.g. an example of a university where a union helped with an intellectual property issue.

If the essay is used, it should maintain the focus on a technology issue (e.g. distance ed.) and not on arguments for unions in general.