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Dues check-off, on the campus and in the workplace

Angus Johnston over at StudentActivism has some great analysis and background to Ray Glass' essay on student government I posted not too long ago. Check it out.

I'd like to push back a bit on his dues discussion in particular though (so go read it if you haven't yet).

When Ray wrote that dues "have probably done more to facilitate their entrenchment, removal from rank and file, and conservative policies" I found that rather spot-on. I don't think he meant "entrenchment" in the sense of union density in the economy, which at this point is probably the furthest from "entrenched" without being snuffed out entirely. I believe he meant entrenched in the sense that the union bureaucracy was immovable, even by its own rank-and-file. (For example, it's very hard to disaffiliate with a union federation that can fight back with a pile of your own dues money.)

Looking through history, organizers doing the actual work of building the labor movement and winning victories weren't the ones advocating for dues check-off (or even standing contracts). They were almost always imposed from above, at the very highest levels. The IWW actually still holds dues check-off opposition as one of its core rules. Tom Wetzel, writing on the rise of the union ("closed") shop (which in many cases arose in direct opposition to what the workers wanted) notes:

The "open shop" situation of the CIO unions in the late '30s meant that local union officials and activists were in the position of having to justify support for the union every day if they wanted to maintain rank-and-file support and dues income. Thus, "grievance battles were the order of the day," writes Lichtenstein(3), "and local officers went about their jobs in an aggressive and energetic manner. Although all SWOC contracts formally prohibited strikes for the duration of the contract, a form of guerrilla warfare nevertheless continued in the mills." 

Wetzel goes on to explain how a combination of the Red Scare and Roosevelt's demand for wartime labor discipline gave union bigwigs the opportunity to drastically undercut the labor movement's fighting spirit.

While dues check-off certainly a way to increase a union's coffers, and that allows it to more easily get things done, it's absolutely a conservatizing force that allows the establishment of a labor aristocracy in the first place. The kind of conservative business unionism that has particularly characterized the national labor movement over the past 2-3 decades, best personified in Andy Stern's rule at SEIU, would have been impossible without a guaranteed, no-strings-attached flow of funds upward. So we end up with SEIU bureaucrats publicly lobbying for single payer healthcare and EFCA, but internally squashing insurgent locals and ignoring the wishes, requests, and demands of actual workers on the ground. That's the kind of conservative tendency that Glass warns us about.

And so we see that when an organization's bureaucracy has become calcified and disconnected from its members over the years, thanks to guaranteed revenue, removal of that guarantee can be a death sentence. Grassroots, direct democracy is like a muscle — when a union all of a sudden faces Right-to-Work, or when a student association has its dues frozen by administrators, we see that muscle has atrophied so much that the organizations often collapse under their own weight.

As labor historian Staughton Lynd put it,

The usual understanding, favored by U.S. labor policy, is that when a union is recognized it becomes the exclusive representative of workers in that bargaining unit. Such recognition puts the union in a position to have management automatically deduct dues from the workers’ paychecks, the so-called “dues check-off.” Workers interviewed in the 1960s and early 1970s who had experienced the self-organization of workers in the 1930s mentioned this most frequently as the reason that “your [watch]dog don’t bark no more.”

Like most unions, student governments are handed a large pot of money at the beginning of the year without necessarily having done anything to actually earn it — regardless of whether the last election had 90% turnout or 2%. Every campus and university system is different, and we shouldn't necessarily take a purist approach to dues collection (Ray Glass himself, as Angus points out, was rather pragmatic on this issue in practice). That being said, understanding the conservative and bureaucratic tendencies that automatic dues can engender is crucial to avoiding the pitfalls that so many fighting organizations inadvertently run headlong into.

VIDEO: "What is Student Power?" at NSPC'12

This is footage from the 2012 National Student Power Convergence, in Columbus, Ohio. I finally got around to offloading and editing it! Apologies for those I didn't get a chance to interview — our caravan had to leave the conference very unexpectedly earlier than we thought!

One of the things I found most interesting — and inspiring — about NSPC was that people's conception of what "student power" meant to them evolved over the course of several days, sometimes dramatically so. In general, people's politics often develop and evolve unevenly: sometimes gradually over years, sometimes leaps and bounds over the course of a weekend. And of course our politics develop differently and at different rates than those around us, which makes it important for convergences like NSPC have radicalizing experiences accessible to people across a wide political spectrum. When we all marched on Obama's Ohio campaign HQ, the crowd was a melting pot of newbies for whom this was their first march (or at least their first unpermitted march on the street), and seasoned movement veterans who have seen and done just about everything one can do at a demonstration (no newspaper boxes were harmed in the making of this protest). Among the several speakers who took to the megaphone with prepared speeches when we arrived, it was an interesting mix of the reformist and radical — each side on some level doing their best to make their rhetoric more palatable to the other.

Official workshops and plenaries aside, often the most radicalizing aspect of a convergence like this is the tossing together of people with wildly different views (in this case, all left of center). For a mainstream liberal/progressive, reading about radical ideas or hearing about them from your professor is one thing, but then you get to a crowd of 100+ students who end up all chanting "A! Anti! Anti-capitalista!" on the way to lunch. That's another experience entirely. Sure, learning an awesome new framework with which to think about the university and society in a workshop is important, but I've found that these impromptu, organic, radicalizing moments of possibility are just as crucial. Sometimes the chant comes after the understanding, but sometimes the understanding comes after the chant.

Are Student Governments Obsolete?

Below is a classic essay from the 1970s — much of it is applicable today, sadly. I don't agree with all of it (which will be the topic of a future post), but it's a very important read. Of particular note is the section at the end, which is one of the earliest strategic analyses of what a student unionism movement in the U.S. might look like, and some of the pitfalls it must avoid.

Ray Glass wrote this article when he was Legislative Director of SASU (Student Association of the State University of New York), prior to that time he was active in the anti-war movement and a voice for Students in New York and the Nation on the issues of financial aid, student rights and equal access to Higher Education. Ray was struck by an automobile on October 1st, 1975 and died a few days later.


by Ray Glass

To some extent, at least, the problems with student governments are similar to those affecting all modern American institutions.

Robert F. Bundy, an educational futurist who is presently serving as an educational consultant to the New York State Education Department, suggests that most modern American institutions pass through two stages, or watersheds, as he calls them. Since most institutions are formed for noble purposes, the first watershed involves an application of new knowledge and skills to produce desirable effects. The institution, then, provides a great deal of services or programs using a relatively small amount of resources.

In the second watershed, the survival of the institution or organization itself becomes the major purpose as an increasing amount of time and resources are spent maintaining the bureaucracy, leadership, continuing existence and other aspects of the organization. Relatively fewer resources are devoted to the organization's programs and. services.

In this article I have outlined the problems with student governments, their failure to adequately represent and further the interests of students, the need to develop a new organizational form to serve this purpose, and some of the principles on which that new type of organization should be based. I have defined the problems according to Bundy's watershed theory because student governments have passed their second watershed.

What's wrong with Student Governments?

In addition to those problems affecting all Institutions in modern society, student governments suffer from a variety of ills related to their own nature and to the nature of students. Any study of the effectiveness of student governments and the need to replace them with a new organizational form must attempt to discover and understand each of these problems. Below is a discussion of what I consider to be the seven most serious shortcomings of college student governments:

l. Lack of Autonomy
Legally, a university is a corporation and all power and authority to govern and direct the institution is held by its governing board. The governing board delegates some of this authority to the chief administrative officers, lower-level administrators, departments, the faculty senate, etc., and then a few crumbs are delegated to the student government, any or all of which can be taken away at whim. Legally and politically, a student government exists at the pleasure of the university and is a creature of the university. Student governments do not derive their existence, legitimacy and authority from students, but from governing boards and administrators. The lack of independent existence means that student governments are dependent upon the university — for their sources of funding and for office space.

2. They have no power except over social and recreational activities and service programs. In other areas, (purposes of university learning-teaching process, curriculum, admissions, appointment, promotion and retention of faculty, university budget, etc.), the most student governments have is some influence. In very few colleges, (even in those which have faculty-student governance systems), do students have the power and authority to determine these matters. Advise, recommend, influence — maybe, but decibel — no. The decisions are made by legislatures, governing boards, administrators, and faculty (on some matters). The student, even in social activities, is limited, since at most colleges the administration, at least ultimately, has veto power over the use of .the student activity fee. Aside from tinkering with the grading system and course requirements, getting a few new courses offered, or getting "input" into various decisions, student participation in university governance has accomplished little except to co-opt students into helping administer the university for the goals of the administration and the governing board. Most significantly (to administrators) it contributed to the decrease in campus unrest. It has done nothing to change either the fundamental purposes of the university or the educational system or to alter the basic power relationships within the university.

In his book, The Student as Nigger, Jerry Farmer referred to student governments as "those little make-believe student governments which govern in about the same way that baby's toy steering wheel drives daddy's car." Let's face it — student governments are sand boxes for adolescents to play government, training grounds for those who aspire to be real life politicians, and a continuation of the "let's pretend" process of electing home room officers in. grade school where we learn to be "responsible" (and responsive to those in power) and to work within the system even if the system works counter to our goals.

Student government leaders are usually worse than the student governments themselves because they tend to be status or status quo oriented, have a "don't rock the boat" attitude, and they depend on potential adversaries for recommendations to graduate school, law school, etc. If students are naggers in the university and the educational process, then student government leaders are Uncle Tom bioscientist.

3. Lack of continuity — the transient nature of students leads to a rapid turnover in the constituency and in the leadership. The effects of this transient leadership is that student governments have no historical perspective and little patience or long-term vision- which results in limiting goals to those which can be accomplished in one year thereby reducing the chances of accomplishing meaningful change.

4. Lack of support from students. Unfortunately, this is evident to everyone and it hurts in a lot of ways. Since it is obvious that student governments have little support from students, and they have very little influence and no power with faculty and administrators, they are forced to work from a weak position. (Of course, it should be noted that frequently this weak position is exacerbated because the student government compromises and waters down its demands even before approaching the faculty and the administration.)

One must wonder how low a voter turnout it will take before we admit that according to the people who count (students), student governments should be declared dead. Instead, we continue to delude ourselves by trying various P.R. techniques and gimmicks to "cure" apathy rather than to discover the causes of it.

Why is it that students don't care about student government? Could it be because of an unconscious recognition that they are powerless, that student governments are impotent and that student governments are doing nothing to change this? hat but unaware of their oppression? Could it be that activity in student government is virtually meaningless and therefore, students are justified in being apathetic?

If students are to view student government or any other student organization as an effective and meaningful arena for participation, then it has to be so. The student organization has to have power (or be working to take power) and must work on issues more significant than social activities.

5. Bureaucratization, elitism, and undemocratic representation.
Student governments seem to be in the business of building a complex bureaucracy to parallel that of the administration and/or the federal government, one which students don't understand and which acts as a barrier to inexperienced students or student organizations who want to get involved. The budgeting and accounting system for student fees and the new fad of student governments incorporating are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Another common trait of student government people is the elite, cliquish atmosphere among those in leadership positions. The controlling clique of honchos from the student government, newspaper and other related organizations determines and certifies their own successors by grooming their heirs, securing editorial endorsements for them, appointing them to particular committees or granting them other choice assignments, etc. A common trait of student government leaders is a "we-they" attitude. How many conversations have we been involved in when the topic was "why are they so apathetic" or "thick" or whatever? (Maybe "they" are apathetic because our vision and leadership deserve apathy!)

Many student governments have undemocratic representational structures which do not guarantee the representation of all students in a proportional manner (one person, one vote) with a readily identifiable constituency which encourages maximum contact between the representative and the . constituents. These less than satisfactory structures exacerbate apathy, widen the gap between student government and students, and personality rather than concrete issues reigns as the basis for election campaigns. Examples of undemocratic or less than satisfactory representational schemes include: an all at-large election; associational representation by clubs, organizations or other interest groups;) and representation by clubs, organizations or other interest groups;)and representation by academic field or class standing. The system which best meets the criteria listed above is one determined by geographical district, by residential unit on cam- pus and by towns or wards or election districts off campus.

6. Time, attention, energy and resources are devoted to peripheral issues, areas and problems.
Aside from the time, attention and resources devoted to the survival and growth of the student government itself, most of a student government's resources are devoted to peripheral areas. Issues such as social, cultural and recreational programs, student services, recognizing and chartering student organizations, administering the student fee budget, food service, book stores, health care, searching for and appointing students to serve on university, faculty or student committees or other bodies, and tinkering with academic policies dominate the attention of student governments.

Even though these issues or programs are directed toward aspects of the quality of student life and are important, they are peripheral because they are not directly related to the fundamental nature and central purpose of what it means to be a college student — which is that student's role in the educational process. Education is the originating nature and purpose of what the university and students are all about, while these other issues and aspects are derivative and marginal.

At this time, the point is simply that student governments devote their resources to peripheral issues and problems. Probably the most obvious example of this shortcoming is to compare the amount of time and attention that student governments devote to the student activity fee budget and that which they devote to the university budget, even though the university budget is usually 10 or 20 times (or more) larger and has a much greater impact on students, education, and the university as a whole.

7. No Philosophy and No Planning
Even more significant than their focus on peripheral issues, student governments do not' have a philosophy, any underlying principles, values, goals, or any vision of the purpose of a college education, the role of the student in the educational process, or the role of the educational system in society. Instead, student governments work on an ad hoc, issue by issue, year by year basis that keeps them in a powerless position working on incidental problems with little support from students. To bring about truly meaningful change, an organization has to adopt a perspective that encompasses more than one year. Because of the lack of continuity and transient nature of students and student leaders and because students are pitted against faculty and administrators · and permanent, it is even more necessary for students to develop a philosophy and goals and then plan how to bring about those goals. A student master plan is as essential as a university master plan.

Before moving to a summary valuation of the effectiveness of student governments, it is necessary to first discuss two other questions: what is a student, and what should be the purposes of an organization that represents students?

What is a Student?

Strangely enough, student governments are not based on any explicit perception of what it means to be a student or what students have in common with one another as students. This situation is strange, indeed, because just about the first thing that people who want to organize a labor union (or any other organization) do is to define the community of interest that exists among the people whom they want to join the organization. They are most likely to be successful in organizing the union if they base it upon those interests which the potential members have in common with one another. For a labor union, the community of interest is obvious. Workers are workers and work in order to make a living. Therefore, their community of interest is based upon their working conditions, particularly economic conditions. The labor union views its major function as improving the working conditions of its members. Labor unions also provide political action, lobbying, services and other programs to their members, but their overriding central purpose is to improve the working conditions of their members. Likewise, it should be quite obvious what it means to be a student and what students have in common with one another as students. Simply that we are students which means that the only basic thing we have in common with one another as students is our role in the educational process as learners. The primary purpose of a representative student organization, therefore, should be to improve the learning conditions of its student members.

The Role of the Student in the Educational Process

If the central community of interest among students is our role in the educational process, it is necessary to define and understand that role — what it should be and what it is. John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Harold Taylor, John Holt, Ivan Iliac, and almost all educational theorists are in general agreement that education and learning are an active process, that one can only educate oneself, that all learning must be self-initiated and self-directed, and that the only proper role for the student in the education-learning process is as an active participant; In the words of Harold Taylor, "freedom for the student is the necessary condition for learning."

Originally, academic freedom had two traditions — one called lehrfreiheit to protect the teaching and research of the faculty, and one called lehrnfreiheit to protect the active role and freedom of the student to learn. Historian Henry Steele Commager reports that the latter "was designed to provide independence for students. It meant freedom to learn, freedom to study what one wished to study — to go from one university to another, to attend class or stay away — freedom, in short, to run one's own affairs and live one's own life."

Yet, there is probably not one college in the country which guarantees this student academic freedom or has. an educational process that reflects anything near self-directed learning with the student as an active participant. The student's role is not that of an active participant, but of a passive recipient of instruction. The present educational system teaches submission, socializes us to passively accept authority and coercion, and to surrender one's individuality to an institution. Despite all the administrative rhetoric to the contrary, students are still naggers.

The classroom, the university and the educational system are oppressive and authoritarian, and students, as a gr6up, are oppressed and exploited by that very system.

Purpose of a Representative Student Organization

If the above is true, then the primary purpose of any organization which represents the interests and welfare of students has to be the radical transformation of the educational process in the university. All other issues, goals and activities should be secondary or complementary to the goal of radical educational reform. If the present educational system is authoritarian, then tinkering with it can not accomplish meaningful change — radical transformation and overthrowing of the system is necessary. Present liberal reform efforts aimed at putting students on governing boards, revisions in the curriculum and grading system, etc., take the existing system and structure for granted. What is needed is radical, structural reform to alter the power relationships in the existing structure and to transform the system itself.

Student Governments Are Obsolete

It is clear that student governments are presently doing nothing to eliminate this oppression or accomplish the necessary radical changes in the conditions of students or the educational system. In the light of the expressed fundamental shortcomings of student governments, it seems likely that student governments are, by their very nature, incapable of restructuring themselves to make it possible for them to accomplish radical change.

Since they are the only student organizations that presently have any legitimacy or substantial funding, and because of their collaborationist nature, student governments stand in the way of carrying out meaningful change and are a threat and obstacle to what a representative student organization should be doing. I must conclude, therefore, that student governments are obsolete, dysfunctional and counter-productive, and, at least in regard to the function of representing the interests and welfare of students, a new organizational form is necessary.

What Needs To Be Done?

l. In general, we and all students must become conscious of our oppression and we must begin to ask the questions as to how we should change the conditions of our oppression and to begin to take adequate steps to deal with the system which oppresses us.

2. We must develop a philosophy based upon a body of underlying values, principles, and assumptions and upon a comprehensive analysis of the present system. Our philosophy must project a vision of what kind of educational system and society we want. Our analysis must include the past and present role of the student, faculty, administration, and outside forces in the educational process, the role of the university or college in the educational system, the role of the educational system in society, and the purpose, goals, functions and methods of other student organizations. Once we have developed a philosophy, we must develop goals, objectives, strategies and tactics consistent with it. The development of this philosophy and master plan will require an incredible amount of research, theorizing, planning, discussion and agreement.

3. Because of the focus on radical educational change from a student-as-student basis, it will be necessary to adopt a national perspective and strategy. Meaningful educational change (initial steps would probably include the elimination of grades, credits, examinations, degrees, and departments as we now know them) would be nearly impossible to accomplish on a campus-by-campus basis. Development and agreement on a national philosophy, goals, and strategy will be difficult enough in itself. Our task will be more complicated than that which originally faced labor union organizers, but, nevertheless, just as labor unions never would have gotten anywhere if there hadn't been general agreement on purposes, so too will students fail if we adopt a philosophy of letting every campus do its own thing.

4. The National Student Association must use its resources to begin the work of developing a national student philosophy of education. We don't need model collective bargaining contracts yet, but we do need a national think tank with plenty of staff and resources, national and regional c6nferences with radical educational theorists as resource persons, and a network of people across the country committed to and working for the development of this philosophy, master plan and organizational form. (I should note that. I have not written off NSA, student governments or people in student government organizations as incapable of joining and helping the cause by financial subsidy or organizing efforts. I'm sure some student government organizations and people will oppose this effort, but our task will be difficult enough without writing off any potential bases of support.)

5. We must develop a new organizational form which builds into its essence, structure, purposes, elements, and means features to counteract and overcome the shortcomings of student governments. Tinkering with student government structures, holding more referenda, conducting a high powered P. R. campaign or other gimmicks will not be sufficient to accomplish radical educational reform. Radical goals will require radical changes in organization, strategy and tactics. Given the nature of the shortcomings of student governments, and the requirement of working for radical educational reform, I believe the only organizational form which will be sufficient to meet our purposes is unionism. A union is a collective agent to advocate and further the common interests, needs and welfare of a group of people, which is built upon the community of interest of the members of that group.

Nature of a Student Union

A student union should be a voluntary association of students funded by voluntary, individual dues from students, dependent in all respects on students and independent of all other people, agencies or forces, which so overwhelmingly speaks for students that it becomes recognized by the university as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for students on all matters affecting the students of that university as students. The primary purpose of a student union should be to accomplish a radical transformation of the educational process in the university.

Collective bargaining is an organized and civilized forum for the settlement of issues and disputes between parties which are in an adversary relationship. Agreements reached in the bargaining and negotiations between the part es are sealed in a contract which is binding on all parties. If the educational system is oppressive and students as a group are oppressed by this system, then it would seem to follow that students should adopt an adversary relationship to the system and those responsible for governing and administering it. Collective bargaining would, therefore, appear to be an appropriate forum for the settlement of issues between students and the university. With radical educational reform as the primary purpose of the union, the collective bargaining agreement will be the most important program provided by the union. In addition to educational reform and collective bargaining, other functions of the union could include internal university advocacy, legislative lobbying, political action, and various service programs. The leadership of the union should be democratically elected by the members and all decisions should be made democratically. The union must develop a radical base with a capacity for prolonged resistance, dedication and endurance. The initial organizing drives will take years. While philosophy, goals, structures and strategies are being determined, there will be a need for a massive, sustained educational campaign and then a recognition drive which might require a student strike. The initial contracts will inevitably require full scale, sustained student strikes. We will never get power or meaningful changes by having the administration give them to us. No more than was the case with labor unions. We will have to take the power by offering the university a choice between no university or one which meets our goals. The only power students have now is to say "NO" — to stop or disrupt the educational system until we are satisfied with it. The union should be entirely financed by students through dues and services program income. Before and during the organizing drive, seed money and financial subsidies will probably be needed from the student government or some other source. The voluntary nature of dues will probably be a difficult principle to live with. The rapid turn over of students and the large number of part-time and commuter students will make it very difficult to maintain a membership base. On the other hand, since the mandatory dues which labor unions charge have probably done more to facilitate their entrenchment, removal from rank and file, and conservative policies than any other factor, it should be worth the effort and the risk. One major initial problem will be the relationship between the student government and the student union. The student government (probably with a mandatory fee) could continue to act as the major organizer and promoter of extracurricular activities. It could also, at least initially, subsidize the operations of the student union. The union should be primarily an advocate and catalyst of change, not an administering agency. In order to prevent the creation of a top heavy bureaucracy and to insure concentration of attention and resources on radical change, the union should severely restrict the number of services and other programs it administers. We must also be conscious at the outset that if student unions are successful, at some point they will no longer be necessary. Once the university and the educational system and process are satisfactorily transformed, the union will have outlive its original purposes and the adversary relationship will have to be replaced by a cooperative learning community.

Potential Pitfalls in Student Unionism Movement

Despite the very short period of time in which student unionism has been given serious consideration, several problems and pitfalls have already developed which, if they go unchecked, will set back or abort the movement at this early stage.

1. Lack of patience — The natural reaction to the idea is to immediately embrace it as a panacea, and plunge forward with a lot of half-baked, ill-conceived notions which will probably set back the ultimate goals. As a point of reference, students have been talking about the idea of student unions for more than 10 years now and we're still not past the preliminary theoretical work. If the union develops and adopts a radical philosophy and a set of goals and strategies student unionization will initially unite all factions — faculty, administration, legislature and public against us. Our goals and strategies must be well thought out if we are to succeed against these adversaries.

2. Student unionization as a reaction to faculty unionization. Faculty are workers with working conditions which represent a community of interest much more tangible and easier to organize around than anything students have. Faculty unionization is simply an extension of labor unions to a new group of workers. Students as a whole are not workers and any attempt to rationalize them as being such is just plain foolish. The proper analogy between the labor union movement and the student union movement is to compare the student movement now to the labor movement 80-100 years ago.

3. Legislative approach — Several student leaders have recommended that our strategy be lobbying to get legislatures to authorize student collective bargaining and unionization. This proposal is terribly naive and unrealistic. Legislation is a reflection of existing power relationships. No legislature is going to give students anything, especially power. Power is never given away, but must be seized. Furthermore, student power is not a legal principle, it is an educational principle. It should also be noted that legislation authorizing collective bargaining by labor unions was not passed until over 30 years after labor collective bargaining was a reality.

4. Instant unionization — a romantic, adventurist method to develop student unions. It is impossible to create a meaningful student union by merely eliminating the mandatory fee, circulating pledge cards, changing the name of the local student government to local student union, or performing other wizardry. The perfect example of how not to create a student union was the Stockton State (New Jersey) fiasco. Blessed with a recently announced tuition increase and an impending faculty union strike, the Stockton Student Union (SSU) launched an organizing drive and got 1,100 of out of 2,500 students to sign pledge cards. The organizes realized that they needed money to finance the union's operations and decided to levy dues, whereupon membership fell to something like 50 members. Their highly proclaimed "contract" did nothing except barely maintain the status quo. It did not initiate any reforms (liberal or radical) for students, but only acted to restrict the impact on students of the faculty union contract. The student contract even bargained away the right of the SSU to participate in any way in the faculty union negotiations. Another example of the irrational "instant union" craze occurred at the 1973 NSA Congress when uninformed delegates responded to the demagoguery of misinformed student union zealots by passing a resolution designating NSA as the national collective bargaining agent for all students in the country (without, of course, bothering to find out what the students thought about it).

5. Confusing reactions to faculty collective bargaining with student unionization. It is essential that we make a distinction between short-term actions to reduce and restrict the immediate impact of faculty collective bargaining and Long-term actions to organize student unions. Until the day when student unions are operational ( and that day is at least years away), certain actions can and should be taken to restrict faculty collective bargaining: permitting third party student observers to speak and protect student interests during negotiations, publication of the proposed contract before ratification by the two parties with public hearing held on its provisions and approval required by the university's governing board on the basis of the educational merits of the contract, and restrict the negotiable issues to exclude specific university governance issues. This final restriction could be dangerous because the very issues we would want to keep faculty collective bargaining agreements away from now are likely to be the very issues we would want student unions to deal with.

6. Basis of the student community of interest, organizing drive and of student unionism — (or how to sneak the student union in through the back door). The question here is on what basis and on what issues the student union movement should exist. I have contended that in order to tap the basic community of interest among students it is necessary that the primary goal be radical educational reform and that all other issues or programs be secondary or complementary to this goal. A few student union activists, however, believe that the student union can be organized on the basis of peripheral issues such as tuition, financial aid and other economics (a misapplication of the labor union model) or by luring students into a political movement by offering irresistible consumer service programs (a perversion of unionism).

A disappointing example of this mistake is being made by the otherwise comprehensive and advanced Student Organizing Project at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Representatives of this Project led a workshop on student unionization at the 1974 NSA Congress in which they spoke supportively of "the back door way of getting people into the union" and that the union should try to go as far as possible toward "being everything to everybody." Unless we resolve that developing student unions is going to be a very long and very difficult task and forget about easy, instant solutions, we might as well scrap the whole idea and go back to tinkering with student governments because, otherwise, we'll be wasting our time.

7. Blind, Unthinking (Mis-) Application of the Labor Union Model.

In addition to trying to apply labor issues (economics and working conditions) to students and the idea of mandatory (closed shop) dues, we should be ever vigilant to learn from (and not repeat) the mistakes of labor unions and other organizations and institutions.


The philosophy and strategy of student unionization outlined in this article is extremely ambitious and will take years to conceive and years to develop and probably decades before it succeeds in radically transforming the educational system in society. The author of this article believes, however, that this is the only way in which these goals will be accomplished, and that if, through this process; we could develop an educational system which is responsive to the needs of humanity and the planet and which also truly reflects the ideals of education, learning, and the active participation of students, it seems that it would be well worth the effort, the work, the patience and the risk.

Chicago Strike Ends

The Great Chicago Teacher's Strike of 2012, after one week, is over. Or as the business press put it, "finally" over.

Via Reuters:

Chicago public school teachers voted on Tuesday to end their strike and resume classes in the third-largest U.S. school district, ending a confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that focused national attention on struggling urban schools.

Some 800 union delegates representing the 29,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago Public Schools voted overwhelmingly to resume classes on Wednesday after more than two hours of debate.

"I am so thrilled that people are going back," Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said. "Everybody is looking forward to seeing their kids tomorrow."

Lewis, an outspoken former high school chemistry teacher, said the entire membership of the union will cast a formal vote in the next two weeks to ratify a new contract agreement.

The delegates ended the strike on their second attempt, having decided on Sunday to continue the walkout for two more days so they could review details of a proposed three-year contract with Emanuel.

Emanuel had to retreat from a proposal to introduce merit pay for teachers and he promised teachers that at least half of all new hires in the district would be from union members laid off by the closing of schools.

CTU has posted a handy summary guide to the biggest changes in the proposed contract. 

The way this strike ended must be considered a victory, at least these days. The idea of unionized employees going out on strike and not being beaten is so far off our cultural radar, even modest concessions from Chicago Public Schools is something worth shouting from the rooftops.

Especially notable was the fact that the teachers ended the strike on their own terms. They could have struck longer if they wanted to — at the very least until the votes were in from all teachers — but CTU's House of Delegates knew when to end on a high note. Majorities of both the Chicago public and Chicago parents supported the strike, and they were smart to keep it that way.

Rahm may have gotten his teacher evaluation system (or at least a small part of it), but CTU got a clear and unambiguous victory. And given what a victory means for all of us, in these dark days of reaction and austerity, Rahm and those like him just lost a hell of a lot more than they realize.

A union goes on strike, and doesn't get blown to smithereens, literally or figuratively?

I could get used to this.

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Thank Chicago Teachers!

Chicago teachers strike! Here are the facts, and why this is bigger than Chicago

Today, teachers across the Chicago Public Schools system are on strike: almost 30,000 staffers from almost 700 schools. After months of stalled negotiations with CPS bigwigs, the time came to take to the streets. (Check out this fascinating account of the CTU's House of Delegates meeting last month, at which they voted unanimously to authorize a strike.) At stake is not just whether our teachers will be paid fairly — which is itself very important — but it's also whether students will learn in the schools and classrooms they deserve. Just like last year's protests in Wisconsin weren't just about Wisconsin, teachers in Chicago are taking a stand for all teachers: the corporate assault on public education is taking place everywhere.

Chicago is also important politically and symbolically. It's the home turf of the White House's two biggest charter and standardized testing proponents: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama. Before Duncan took his post at the DOE, he was CEO (fitting title) of Chicago Public Schools, and led the charge in gutting local school board democracy and the imposition of unaccountable charter schools (in many cases carving out entire wings of public school buildings to be used by these charter groups). And, of course, the Mayor is Rahm Emanuel: the patron saint of the right-wing "Blue Dog Democrats" in Congress, and known for hurling verbal abuse at any progressive group that doesn't toe the official Democratic line.

Rahm's agenda is a familiar one for those who have been following where the billions in ed "reform" money have been flowing: privatize everything that isn't nailed down, and then privatize that stuff too. From parks to parking lots, and everything in between. 

The Chicago Teacher's Union has new leadership, just a few years old, that ran for election on an insurgent, rank-and-file oriented platform. With that new leadership came an increase in on- and off-work actions, including ongoing protests of the Mayor's agenda. And the strike has historically massive approval: almost 90% of all CTU members voted Yes for the strike. This comes as a particularly humorous blow to Jonah Edelman, who last year at the Aspen Institute bragged about how he crippled the CTU by (among other things) forcing them to accept a rule change that established 75% as the threshold for a strike. "The union cannot strike in Chicago," he said. "They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold needed to strike."


Chicago Teachers on Strike!

Despite the overwhelming support for the strike among teachers, millions of dollars of anti-union money is already rolling, with the help of corporate newspaper, TV, and radio outlets. It's all the more important that we establish some basic facts about this particular fight. I'll be updating this list.

The Facts

Classroom size: the school district wants to remove the caps on classroom sizes from the contract. They say that the caps exist elsewhere, but that also means they could increase it without teacher input. Some teachers are reporting up to 42 students in a classroom. [Source] [Source]

Evaluations based on standardized tests: This fall is supposed to mark the beginning of teacher evaluations which take "student growth" into account, which is to say, their performance on standardized tests. Everyone who's looked at the data (or hell, taken a standardized test) can see what an irredeemably flawed system this is. [Source] [Source] 

Air conditioning in classrooms(!): Most Chicago school classrooms have no air conditioning, which makes teaching during summer months particularly painful, and makes the likelihood of actual learning going on practically zero. As one teacher puts it, "When you make me cram 30-50 kids in my classroom with no air conditioning so that temperatures hit 96 degrees, that hurts our kids." GOP claims aside, global climate change is only going to make things worse — Chicago just experienced its hottest summer on record. [Source] [Source]

Compensation: CPS offered only a 2% raise for the next four years (after Rahm nixed their scheduled 4% raise last year). Yesterday, CPS reportedly acceded to a 16% raise over four years, but I'm hearing conflicting rumors about this. [Source]

(Part of the problem with getting an accurate picture of contract issues is that negotiations are going on in private, so there isn't a working draft we can look at or analyze.)

But let's be clear: issues du jour aside, we should keep our eyes trained on the larger forces at work here. The education "reforms" that CPS and most politicians on the left and right are proposing are at the forefront of the attack on what remains of our public infrastructure. Eager to find ways to turn a profit on everything they see, the ultra-rich — from Wall Street bankers to Fortune 500 CEOs — have their eyes trained on public schools. I have issues with how traditional public schooling is set up, particularly in how they are run and managed, but the "reforms" being rammed down our throats only make those issues worse. A world where all public funds are funneled to private gains is their vision. Those of us who don't happen to have bank accounts in the Caymans or summer homes in the Hamptons would do well to consider ourselves as much a target of these attacks as the countless teachers who are struggling, both to stay in the middle class and provide their students with a decent education.

Things to do:

UPDATE: Check out this discussion at Democracy Now!, which looks at the Chicago strike in the context of Obama's larger ed reform crusade:

DNC and RNC Education Platforms: from Bad to Worse

Now that the Democrats and Republicans have both released their 2012 party platforms, I took a look at each party's education planks (with stiff drink firmly in hand). Here's a bit of preliminary analysis.

The first thing that struck me was just how little was actually written on the Democratic side. Sure, substance is not just about word count (though the GOP's plank is 65% longer), but the difference is notable.

It's mostly touting Obama's reforms, and is very light on details for what a second term would hold from either the President or Congress. In their defense, incumbent parties usually take up a lot of space talking about their policy wins — the GOP did that in 2004, but their education plank then was more than twice as long as today's Dem plank.

Some of the Dem plank's internal contradictions are staggering. Here's their description of Race to the Top — which is an exercise in arm-twisting to all but force states to drastically expand charter schools, testing, and "merit" pay — cloaked in opposite words, like "flexibility."

President Obama and the Democrats are committed to working with states and communities so they have the flexibility and resources they need to improve elementary and secondary education in a way that works best for students. To that end, the President challenged and encouraged states to raise their standards so students graduate ready for college or career and can succeed in a dynamic global economy. Forty-six states responded, leading groundbreaking reforms that will deliver better education to millions of American students. 

And I was a bit surprised that they doubled down on what was probably the dumbest idea they proposed to tackle spiraling tuition costs:

President Obama has pledged to encourage colleges to keep their costs down by reducing federal aid for those that do not...

I tackled this ridiculous idea back when he proposed in in January. The idea is that colleges who can't keep tuition below the rate of inflation will face a cut federal aid (it's not clear if that's direct institutional aid, or aid to students who go there). It's a cousin of the equally ridiculous policy in many states that punishes low-performing K12 schools by cutting funding.

But often, the difference between Dem and GOP planks is merely one of tone:

GOP: Rigid tenure systems based on the “last in, first out” policy should be replaced with a merit-based approach that can attract fresh talent and dedication to the classroom. 
Dem: This includes raising standards for the programs that prepare our teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers. We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom.

GOP: New systems of learning are needed to compete with traditional four-year colleges: expanded community colleges and technical institutions, private training schools, online universities, life-long learning, and work-based learning in the private sector.
Dem (2008 platform): At community colleges and training programs across the country, we will invest in short-term accelerated training and technical certifications for the unemployed and under-employed to speed their transition to careers in high-demand occupations and emerging industries. [...] We support education delivery that makes it possible for non-traditional students to receive support and encouragement to obtain a college education, including Internet, distance education, and night and weekend programs.

As a result, we see the Democratic platform is simply a mild-mannered version of the GOP platform. The GOP platform, sure, has some particularly rotten fruit — "we support the English First approach", vouchers and "choice," abstinence, online universities, attacking colleges as "zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the Left", and kulturkampf over religion and "cultural identity." But the two planks clearly are trees sharing the same roots.

Fundamentally, the framing used to understand problems and prescribe solutions in education is a bipartisan one: it's always about competition, and America competing with competitiveness in competitions with other competitors to out-compete each other to win (implied anti-China saber-rattling included, free of charge!).

Dem: "An Economy that Out-Educates the World"
GOP (2008): "Education Means a More Competitive America"

It's no surprise then, with framing like this, how easily right-wing education policies are held by Democrats and Republicans alike.

What might an actually progressive education plank look like?

There are a lot of things that could have been included in the Dem's education plank, especially since they really want — need — high youth turnout to keep the White House and win back Congress. Here are several (some more politically plausible than others):

  • Attack standardized testing, and all systems that link any benefits or penalties to them.
  • Propose returning most decision-making back to the classroom
  • Propose that students should have a significant presence on all school boards and administrative bodies.
  • Propose that any charter school operating with public funds must be a non-profit with a democratically-elected board.
  • Propose a constitutional amendment to ensure that all students receive an equitable, properly-funded, quality public education.
  • Propose a strengthening of student free-speech rights in K12 and college, which courts have been drastically eroding over the past decade.
  • Propose a serious student loan debt forgiveness program. Right now the current income-based loan repayment programs are confusing and underresourced, and only apply to Federal loans (no luck if you, like most of us, had to take out a ton of private loans).
  • Propose allowing student loan debt to be discharged in bankruptcy, like all other loans.
  • Propose that Federal student loans will be granted at drastically lower rates, perhaps the Prime Rate
  • Affirm that all public and private university employees — including grad students — have the right to organize under the NLRB.
  • Propose that any accredited university, in order for any of their students to receive federal education benefits, must be a non-profit.

I'm not holding my breath that we'll be seeing any of those bulletpoints coming from the White House anytime soon. It'll take a massive, multi-sector, non-electorally-focused student movement that can instill terror in the hearts of politicians to get any of this done. And that's exactly what we should be organizing around this fall semester, even in an election year — or as our friends in Québec might insist, especially in an election year.

Democratic and Republican Party Platforms: Education Planks, 2012 and 2008

Below is, for your reference, the education planks of the Democratic and Republican Party Platforms for 2012 and 2008.

Democrats: 2012 | 2008

Republicans: 2012 | 2008

Student Power in Columbus, Ohio!

I've been in Columbus, Ohio, at the National Student Power Convergence since Friday afternoon. (My trip started with a van full of organizers trekking out from Boston for an epic 14-hour drive.)

The workshops have been fantastic, but as is often the case with these conferences, it's the people you meet, talk, laugh, and drink with that make it all worth the trip. Thankfully there was no shortage of phenomenal, inspiring student and youth organizers — at least 200 so far. Many of them are organizers at the top of their game (many with amazing victories under their belts, along with a host of USSA execs past and present), and others are just at the start of their journey.

Probably the most interesting part of this convergence is that it wasn't organized under the umbrella of a large national organization. These were students from across the country that coordinated and put together 5 days of programming based on what they perceived the needs of the current student movement to be. This manifests itself in a number of ways.

  • The planning process was the most transparent and welcoming of any I've ever seen. Let's do this more often (hooray for Google Docs!)
  • The call for programming was sent far and wide, and the resulting proposals have driven almost all the workshops and plenaries on the schedule (and due to the fact that there wasn't larger organizational forces at work, there's a wonderful diversity of topics).
  • The culture and tone of the convergence is pluralistic. We have a huge swath of the left here, from Obama fans, to CLASSE organizers from Québec, to newspaper-toting Trotskyists, to anarcho-communists: and because there isn't an overall ideological stance imposed on the convergence, there are a lot more contested spaces and interesting political conversations and minglings.

I presented my workshop this morning to a pretty packed room, and had a number of fascinating discussions during and afterward about how student power organizing is progressing on individual campuses.

There are still two more days to NSPC12, so join us in Columbus or watch us online:

Video streaming by Ustream

Come to the Student Power Convergence!

This will be a conference of many firsts. For starters, it's the first national conference I've ever heard of, past or present, dealing exclusively with student power. It's also the first conference of this scope and size I've seen that doesn't have a large sponsoring organization (e.g. USSA, Campus Progress, Young People For, even SDS).

No matter what comes out of this Convergence, it will be important, and it will help shape the terms of student struggle for years to come. So come to Ohio this weekend, August 10-14, for as much time as you can.

I'll be there (leading this workshop). Will you?

Click here to register! >

From Student Debt to Student Power

I recently sat down with The Daily Agenda to chat about student loan debt and how it relates to larger activist movements on- and off-campus.

Patrick St. John is a graphic designer by trade and student organizer by love. Patrick has been organizing and agitating since high school; as an undergraduate at Moravian College, he continued to agitate for student rights and power as both Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper and later as student government president (where he advocated abolishing the position).

Like so many other young Americans, he left school thousands of dollars in debt. During his off hours Patrick is still organizing and writing a book on student power. He blogs at forstudentpower.org.

We interview Patrick about the state of student debt and the prospects of breathing new life into the student movement.

DA: As student debt has now climbed to over a trillion dollars, who exactly benefits from having so many students owing so much money?

Patrick St. John: It’s always important to ask that question, because it’s certainly not the students and it’s clearly not the faculty. However one winner is the administration, including the Board of Trustees. The size of university administrations have soared over the past 40 years, far outpacing the regular growth of faculty and support staff.

There has been an increasing emphasis on running the university like a business. As a result you get a ton of administrative overhead and you get administrators who are more interested in growing the bottom line than in education. Right now a lot of campuses, especially the higher profile universities, hire President’s that have no experience in the classroom. They come from business backgrounds, or sometimes from the military or politics.

Often times funding decisions are not based on the consideration of the students or even the professors, but either the university in its quest for prestige or the vanity of big donors. You see this dynamic where trustees and other wealthy donors make donations that go into physical projects like new buildings, new facilities, or new sports stadiums. You can’t bolt a plaque onto a scholarship; but you can bolt a plaque onto a building. In the University of California system, the Regents have made it quite clear that they prefer tuition dollars over state-issued dollars, because they have much freer range in their use — so we see on campuses across the state massive physical projects, either completed and unused, or frozen in mid-construction. It’s yet another predictable result of the people most affected by university decisions having the least amount of say in making those decisions.

You also predictably see an increase in official corruption, with Trustee boards often including the heads of the very businesses the college contracts with (usually banks and construction firms).

DA: Do you detect any sort of change in what is being taught in our universities because of the increased role of private corporations in higher education?

PSJ: It’s a funny kind of feedback loop. On one end, as parents and students see rising increasing tuition combined with a sluggish economy, you see an emphasis on the “career ready majors”: the majors that are guaranteed to get a good-paying job above all else. Students begin asking themselves, “why am I taking this literature class when I could be taking another economics class?” It has that sort of effect.

On the other end of the feedback loop, universities are trying to attract more — and wealthier — students by touting the fact that “if you go here, we’re sure that you will get a job after you graduate.” There is actually an interesting case where a woman who attended a for-profit school went through school and of course racked up a ton of debt. When she graduated she sued the school because the school had essentially promised, through their advertising materials, that she would get a job. Her lawsuit failed, but the point she made is here to stay.

DA: Student loan debt rates are set to double in 8 days if Congress (at the time of this interview. It now appears that Congress will freeze student loan rates for one year). How meaningful are the Democrats’ proposals to stop this from happening?

PSJ: It’s a smart political move for Obama because he might be able to re-energize many of his supporters on his left flank. But we all need to be clear: this is not a fight between progressive and conservative policy positions. This is a fight between conservative and very conservative policy positions.

The interest rate on student loans is already too high, even at the current rate. For comparison, it’s roughly 450% more than the rate the Fed loans money to banks. The President is trying to spin this so that he can attach it to his “usual hope and change” mantra, when in reality it’s just a holding position. It’s keeping the conservative status quo intact in the face of something even more conservative and more corporate.

But there is a lot that he could do. He could lobby and push to allow student loan debt to be dischargeable in bankruptcy court. This could actually energize lots of students and alumni, those who are most pro-Obama but least likely to vote. There are many Democratic Senators and Congresspeople who are more progressive than Obama on this. So it’s not like this is something out of nowhere. It doesn’t tackle the systemic problem of why higher education is so unaffordable, but consumer-side student debt reform would be a step in the right direction.

DA: Among the four demands put out by the Occupy Student Debt movement was “a one-time debt forgiveness, or “jubilee.” What would this entail?

PSJ: Wiping away all current student debt would be wonderful, and not just because I’m saddled with it myself. It’d be a huge boon for the economy, and it’s a much more helpful use of government funds than throwing trillions at banks. While it has a snowball’s chance in hell of happening, it’s still a useful demand to organize around, for two reasons. First, it engages students in a concrete way and encourages them to start thinking outside the box in terms of what is possible. Second, the act of pushing and agitating for a debt jubilee allows you to change the tone of the conversation. And it’s always a plus when you can tell conservatives that the thing you’re agitating for is right there in the Bible!

In America’s fragmented and decentralized system of higher ed, students may actually find more success tackling this issue at private colleges and state university networks. If you can establish, one way or another, a certain slice of the student population who can have their debt eliminated by the university, such as those with low-incomes, who do public service, and so on, that’s a foothold, or fulcrum, that can potentially be used to widen that slice until it encompasses all students.

But in terms of the big picture, if the person on the street or your local representative rejects the idea, you already have them talking about student debt. You can change the conversation, which is I think one of the lasting legacies of the Occupy movement: changing the political narrative not necessarily to get some 12-point plan through, but to create openings for individuals and groups to push for actual change.

DA: In an article that you wrote for ForStudentPower.org, you say that:“when electoral democracy is this broken, it's never that straightforward, and we are demobilized by thinking it is. We need to throw out the old playbook and pick up a new one (or two).”
What is the new playbook and what does it have to say about building a more vibrant democracy?

PSJ: Right. So if the framing of the problem is that the laws on the books are simply incorrect, by either mistake or malice, and that the solution is simply to correct the laws, then our paths of organizing are pretty limited. We have a sort of knee-jerk deference to people in power that often comes along with a very warped idea of how change comes about. Hopefully the protests in Québec right now will disabuse students of that deference. Québec tuition has been consistently among the lowest in the Western world for decades now, the only reason being that students and allies took to the streets in mass numbers and prevented every attempted increase, even minimal ones.

It’s also about changing the facts on the ground until elites catch up. If you look at the labor movement, workers didn’t wait until the Wagner Act in 1935 to actually start organizing unions. Everything from basic union recognition to the 8 hour work day, those were examples of Congress catching up with the facts on the ground. Huge swaths of the American workforce had fought for and won an 8 hour work day by the time Congress made it law. Many African-Americans didn’t wait until the Civil Rights Acts to eat at whichever lunch counter they wanted, or sit wherever they wanted on the bus. Through radical, direct action to change the facts on the ground, everyday people were able to spur sweeping historical changes.

All the wonderful things liberals like about the New Deal and Great Society got done by a Democratic President because he had immense pressure from his left flank in the form of more progressive Democrats, socialists, communists, and anarchists — with youth in the mix in all these groups.

Unfortunately, through the fog of history, a lot of liberals think that you do not need a far left to get liberal reform done. You absolutely do. Change doesn’t come about by voting for a specific person, change comes about when whoever happens to be in office is pressured by the people to do what’s right. Obama famously told bankers in a private meeting in 2009 that he was the only one standing between them and the pitchforks. Given the state of things, and the track record of both the banks and Obama in the years since, it seems clear to me that we need a hell of a lot more people with pitchforks.

For people wanting to get involved in this fight, one of the most exciting developments is the upcoming National Student Power Convergence this August in Ohio. Students and youth from across the country will be there, and it’s where we may get a glimpse of the future of student organizing.

Read the rest of the interview at The Daily Agenda! >

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