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A Reflection on Educating College Students About the Value of Public-Sector Unions

This year, labor unions got a reprieve: The Supreme Court deadlocked in a much-anticipated case that could have turned almost every state into Wisconsin, where partisan interests have crippled union power. The case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, addressed a previous case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that public-sector unions, such as teacher or police unions, can require non-members to pay fair share or agency fees to cover the costs of bargaining contracts that benefit all workers. The stakes were high: If the court had overruled Abood, millions of public-sector employees could have opted not to pay fees to unions, and thousands of union contracts would have been affected. The plaintiffs were represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a non-profit public interest law firm with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded organization of conservative legislators and lobbyists.1

The Supreme Court heard the Friedrichs case on January 11, 2016. A month later, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died. On March 29, the court issued a 44 decision that leaves Abood unchanged, and unions still able to charge agency fees. But many other legal challenges to fair-share or agency fees remain in the lower courts. And, while the courts decision may leave federal law unchanged for now, it does not affect the battles labor faces, especially those in state legislatures.

Twenty-six states already have passed so-called right to work legislation, which outlaws agency fees, and several more states have pending legislation.2 One of the most notable was ratified in 2011 in Wisconsin, where at the urging of Republican Governor Scott Walker, a member of ALEC, the state legislature passed Act 10 or the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, outlawing agency fees and limiting the collective bargaining rights of unions.3 As a result, unions in Wisconsin were devastated. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), lost a third of its members. Meanwhile, state membership in the American Federation of Teachers was halved, and the 70,000-person membership of the Wisconsin state employees union fell by 70 percent.4

These are dramatic drops that follow a long and steady national decline in union membership. In the mid-1950s, nearly 35 percent of all wage and salary workers were union members but by 2015, just 11.1 percent were members of a union.5 Paired with the growing threat of right to work legislation, these figures raise serious issues about the viability of unions in the U.S.6 Consider the disparate rates of growth in NEA membership among agency-fee states, many in union strongholds in the Northeast and West, and among non-agency fee or right to work states, many in the South and Midwest. In 2014, while NEA membership grew by 5,300 educators in agency-fee states, it fell by 47,000 in the others.7

Loss of union membership means a loss of union powerand it has a cascading effect for readers of Thought & Action and their students, as well as other union members. Its not just that institutions pay lower salaries to non-unionized faculty and staff.8 The same forces that want to eliminate agency fees seek lower taxes. Lower taxes mean reduced state funding for public institutions of higher education. For students, this means less faculty support, more crowded classrooms, fewer regularly scheduled classes, and higher tuitions. Higher tuitions also mean more student debt, or declining enrollments. In Louisiana, the state that has slashed its higher education budget more than any other, state tuition has shot up 140 percent and state universities have seen declining enrollments.9

What do our students know of all this? Based on our classroom experiences, not much. Even if we factor out the direct consequences to their educational experience of having unionized faculty, our students futures as workers in the U.S. are integrally tied to the future of workers. We should take the teachable opportunities provided by Friedrichs and pending right to work legislation to discuss the changing nature of work and unions in the 21st century. These lessons should focus on the following questions:

  1. Are unions still relevant to todays workers? An interesting class discussion for a management course could be based on recent headlines on efforts to organize independent contractors at firms like Uber and Lyft.10
  2. What role, if any, can unions play in the lives of students? Most of our students dont know how the labor movement achieved gains we now take for granted. These advances include the eight- hour work day, the prohibition of child labor, safer workplaces due to the stricter enforcement of occupational health and safety standards, tax-free employer contributions to health insurance, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, a more equitable workplace, and family leave.
  3. 3. As jobs that sustained the middle class become increasingly scarce and benefits associated with full-time employment evaporate, how will the nations 53 million freelancers pay for health care and retirement, and survive during gaps in employment?11 Do unions have any role to play in protecting workers who have been trans- formed into contractors?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But we must pose them to students as we not only prepare them for the workforce, but also ask them to examine greater existential questions. These existential questions address issues of how an individual defines himself or herself in relation to family, friends, work, co-workers, and to society as a whole, given their social, economic, and political situation. Labor history is rife with lessons for our students.


Rose Cohen was one of the few survivors of the catastrophic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1915, in New York City. The fire began around 4:40 p.m., shortly before the end of Roses shift, and quickly spread through the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building, located just below the citys Washington Square. But when workers attempted to flee the inferno, they were trapped. Management had locked the factory doors to bar union organizers from entering and to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. The fire, one of the worst workplace disasters in American history, claimed the lives of 146 of Roses co-workers, most of whom were Jewish and Italian women aged 16- to 23-years-oldthe same age span as many of our current college students. The youngest victims were 14 years old.

Imagine if we could travel back in time to ask a young factory worker like Rose, Why be a member of a union? Rose, of course, never had that opportunity. She might have answered by expressing hope that the union movement would help achieve a fairer, more just society. She might have expressed her wish for rights that probably seemed utopian then, but most Americans take for granted today. No doubt she would have wanted reasonable work hours; a five-day, 40-hour workweek with weekends free. Rose also would have hoped for higher hourly wages, paid overtime, and a more equitable distribution of wealth. She would have hoped for an end to child labor. And, of course, after surviving the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, she would have wanted a safer workplace.

The passage of legislation to protect workers came 20 years after the fire, when the National Labor Relations Act, or WagnerAct, was signed into law in1935. This Depression-era legislation guarantees the rights of private-sector workers to form unions and collectively bargain for such things as pay, safe working conditions, sick leave, and more. Within months of the acts passage, nearly 2,000 auto workers at General Motors plants in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio would test their new rights through sit-down strikes that forced management to recognize the United Auto Workers and sit down with the union at the bargaining table. Eventually, not only did those workers win salary raises, they also won the right to talk to each other at lunch. Victories like these helped support the vibrant middle class and consumer economy of the post-World War II era. By the 1940s and 1950s, when union membership peaked, income inequality was at its nadir.12

With the success of the union movement, union leaders accepted a sharp demarcation between managing and working.13 Consequently, labor paid a huge price for their lack of boardroom access, starting in the late 1960s when wage competition became international. Seeking to reduce costs, management began moving productionand high-wage union jobsto low-wage countries. By the end of the 1980s, less than 17 percent of the American workforce belonged to a union, or half the pro- portion of 30 years earlier. Hardest hit were manufacturing, mining and construction unions. Only public-sector unions continued unscathed.14

But public unions would soon face their own adversary. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan redefined public-sector labor relations when he fired almost 12,000 striking air traffic controllers, all federal government employees. Their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), had been at the bargaining table for months, seeking better working conditions and pay. When contract negotiations stalled, the controllers went on strike. They are in violation of the law, Reagan declared, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.15 Reagan not only terminated these workers, he decertified PATCO.

Nonetheless, even as fewer Americans belong to unions, a notable shift in Americans attitudes towards unions is promising. According to the 2015 Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, up from 53 percent in 2014.16 Whats most encouraging is that young adults aged 18 to 34 are the most supportive of all age groups. The fact that more Americans favor unions may reflect the economic insecurity many Americans feel, given that the middle class is shrinking and more people are living below the poverty line.17


One growing group of Americans being squeezed out of the middle class is freelancers, the many workers who labor without job security, maybe for a few weeks or months at a time, under work-for-hire arrangements. By 2020, its estimated that more than 40 percent of the workforce60 million peoplewill be freelancers.18 Under the National Labor Relations Act, freelancers are contractors, not employees. Their employers are neither obliged to bargain with them, nor to provide benefits like health insurance, paid vacations, or severance pay upon dismissal. As Sara Horowitz, executive director of the 200,000-member Freelancers Union told the New York Times, In todays economy, theres a huge chunk of the middle class thats being pushed down into the working class and working poor and freelancers are the first group thats happening to.19 This is the job market that awaits our students. In the freelance economy, many of our students will work harder and longer while they earn less. How unions can help these workers needs careful study and will, no doubt, require a long struggle to change peoples attitudes and our laws.

The idea that hard work can change the life of any American is becoming more and more elusive. The rich are getting richer, the poor stay poor, and those in the middle struggle to stay afloat. The average American worker simply cant afford to buy a mid-sized house, pay for electricity and high-speed Internet, have a car and keep it gassed up, feed their family, and occasionally go out to eat.20 Making matters worse, the Pew Research Center reports that 69 percent of undergraduates who graduated in 2012 borrowed money to finance their education.21 Current students will have between $39,000 and $42,000 in student loan debt by the time they earn a bachelors degree. And, the average holder of a bachelors degree takes 21 years to pay off his or her debt.22 Given the vicissitudes of the American job market, we wonder whether these graduates will emerge from debt by the time their children are ready to enter college. We also worry about how students who fail to graduate will pay off student loans.

A recent paper from the Center for American Progress shows how unions can revitalize the American Dream.23 It builds on the research of Raj Chetty, a Stanford University economist who identifies five factors that strongly correlate with a childs ability to break out of intergenerational poverty: 1) single motherhood rates, 2) income inequality, 3) high school dropout rates, 4) social capital, and 5) racial and economic segregation.24 The Center for American Progress researchers added a sixth factor: union membership of parents. These researchers found that unions still boost children out of poverty. In fact, in areas with high union membership, children born into low-income families have greater probability of ascending to higher incomes than children born into areas with low union membership. This increased economic mobility extends to children whose parents are not union members, but live in high-union areas, the study found. The researchers suggest several reasons, besides union parents earning higher wages, for the association between union membership and higher economic mobility. These include the lobbying efforts of union members to encourage greater spending on public education from pre-kindergarten through university, easier access to affordable health care, and raises to the minimum wage. The study concludes, Localities with higher union membership are also areas where children of poor parents end up higher in the national income distribution and children throughout the income distribution earn more in these areas.25

These efforts are apparent in New York, where 24.6 percent of the states workers belong to a union, the highest proportion in the nation.26 Throughout New York, unionized educators have advocated for the rights of their students, and against increased student testing. Their success is evident through the work of the Common Core Task Force, appointed in September 2015 by Governor Andrew Cuomo and charged with reviewing the elementary and secondary school curriculum standards adopted by the state. In a report released on December 10, 2015, the task force recommended a series of 21 changes, including significant reductions in student testing and flexibility to allow educators to develop appropriate curricula.27 One of the most significant recommendations was the delay in evaluating teacher performance based upon student test scores until 2019.

The report represents a collaborative effort of individuals with committee membership from key union leaders in New York. More importantly, the report underscores the power of a collective voice, a union and the changes that can be effectuated by their efforts.


The same urgent need for a collective voice extends to higher education, where union members across the U.S. are fiercely defending students ability to access a high-quality, affordable public higher education. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker and the state legislature have dramatically cut funding to public colleges and universities, which has led to larger class sizes and course eliminations, and likely will force students to take more time to graduate. Faculty responded this spring with a series of rolling no-confidence votes.28 In 2015, Arizonas Republican Governor Doug Ducey proposed cutting all financial support for the states two largest community colleges.29 And in Illinois, budgetary battles between the Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democratic- controlled General Assembly resulted in all state universities and community colleges operating without any state funding for nearly a year.30

To cover cuts in state funds, public universities across the U.S. are hiring more low-paid adjunct or contingent faculty, and raising tuitions.31 Higher tuitions force students to borrow more money, work longer hours, and study less. While students protest, faculty and staff unions stand by their side as proponents of college affordability measures on Capitol Hill, such as Representative Tammy Baldwins In the Red proposed legislation.

In New York, we face the same struggles. In mid-December 2015, over the objections of faculty and staff unions at the State Universities of New York and the City University of New York, Governor Cuomo vetoed a Maintenance of Effort bill passed by the New York Legislature, which would have ensured that funds generated from higher tuition be used for additional staff and programs. Under Cuomos administration per-student investment in the City University of New York is down 14 percent.32 As in the rest of the country, New Yorks public colleges and universities increasingly rely on tuition to keep the lights on.

Ultimately, our local issues illustrate just how much students need to understand about American labor. As unionized faculty, we are both role models and educators, who must teach our students the value of union membership. Students should learn the history of labor, and how unions provide vital employment training and work- place safety. Even more important, they should be aware that unions might hold the key to their own upward mobility, to their access to an affordable education and the American Dream.


We note at least two challenges ahead, as we take on the work of educating students about unions. First, students across all disciplines must be aware of the historical role that unions have played in advancing public higher education. Making this difficult for faculty, virtually all available textbooks for our introductory business course present managements view of business, not labors. Furthermore, our textbooks are not unique in their minimal coverage of unionsthis issue extends to history, economics, human services, and other courses. No wonder most students respond with blank expressions whenever we mention unions. Unions are mostly absent from classroom discussions of corporate social responsibility, globalization, and even the management of human resources.We must supplement textbooks with appropriate materials. These could include the Center for American Progress study on union and economic mobility, which would enliven our classroom discussions on corporate social responsibility, the impact of globalization on business and our society, how to manage employees, and the ever-changing job market. We could discuss the quality of the evidence presented in this study and help our students distinguish between a statistically significant correlation and an experimentally proven, causal relationship. Including the topic of unions and employees rights in classroom discussions would help students build critical thinking skills.

We also could discuss John Hoerrs classic article, What Should Unions Do?33 Hoerr argues that unions must find ways to rein- vent their structure and refocus their energies to face the changing technological and innovative economy, to remain a driving force in the future of the American workforce.

A second challenge to our efforts is the work by some law-makers, including a 2014 effort in Michigan, to punish universities for teaching about unions. The Michigan bill, which passed an appropriations committee, would have specifically cut $500,000 in state funds to Michigan State University for labor-related courses. The law that actually passed requires Michigan universities to stay neutral on the subject of unions.34 Clearly, faculty and staff must resist efforts to limit their academic freedom rights, and use the collective bargaining process to protect those rights.

America is at a crossroads. There is widespread agreement that the American Dream is fading. But, we are a deeply divided country. The forces behind the Friedrich case will certainly try again. The current vacancy on the Supreme Courtand who will choose the justice to fill Scalias seatunderscores the importance of Novembers election. But even beyond the election, the question facing faculty and students is this: Can our unions revitalize the American Dream?

Christine Mooney is an associate professor at City University of New Yorks Queensborough Community College, where she also serves as a member of the University Committee on Student Entrepreneurship, co-program director of the Community College Innovation Challenge, and as a faculty mentor for student cohorts in the New York State Business Plan Competition.

Edward Volchok is an associate professor of business at Queensborough Community College. He also is a marketing strategist with 28 years of experience in branding, marketing communications, new product development, and customer relationship management.


  1. For more on ALECs agenda, see
  2. The 26th state was West Virginia on February 12, 2016. The law has not yet gone into effect.
  3. Bottari, ALEC Bills in Wisconsin.
  4. Samuels, Walkers Anti-Union Law has Labor Reeling in Wisconsin.
  5. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union Member Summary.
  6. Trottman, Organized Labor Suffering Decades long Slide in Its Ranks.
  7. Antonucci, Teachers Unions at Risk of Losing Agency Fees, pp. 2-8.
  8. Schmidt, Unionizing Pays Big Dividend for Professors at Regional Public Universities.  
  9. Russell, The Devastating Impact in the State Thats Cut Higher Education the Most.   
  10. Scheiber and Isaac, Uber Recognizes New York Drivers Group, Short of a Union.  
  11. Horowitz, Help for the Way We Work Now.
  12. Mayer, Union Membership Trends in the United States.  
  13. Hoerr, What Unions Should Do.
  14. DiSalvo, The Trouble with Public Sector Unions.
  15. Reagans statement to the media on August 3, 1981, may be found at: https://reaganlibrary. 
  16. Saad, Americans Support for Labor Unions Continues to Recover
  17. Ibid
  18. Schrader, Heres Why the Freelance Economy is On the Rise.  
  19. Greenhouse, Tackling Concerns of Independent Workers.   
  20. Soergel, Even Americans Cant Afford the American Dream.   
  21. Frey, Cumulative Student Debt Among Recent College Graduates.  
  22. Bidwell, Student Loan Expectations: Myth vs. Reality.  
  23. Duke et al., Bargaining for the American Dream: What Unions do for Mobility.  
  24. Chetty, et al., Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States. pp. 1153-1623.  
  25. Duke et al., op cit.
  26. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union members in 2015. 
  27. New York Common Core Task Force, Final Report. 
  28. Flannery, Wisconsin Faculty Fighting the Destruction of Public Higher Education. 
  29. Brody, Arizonas New Governor: We Have No Money for Public Education, But Lets Fund This Private Prison.   
  30. Douglas-Gabriel, Illinois Gives Universities $600M in Funding, But is it Too Little Too Late?
  31. College Board, Annual Survey of Colleges. 
  32. Clarion Staff, Cuomo Vetoes CUNY Funding Bill. 
  33. Hoerr, What Should Unions Do?   
  34. Holland, State Funding to MSU Wont be Cut for Alleged Union-related Activity.  


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