Unions Are Unreliable Allies of Labor-Studies Programs, Scholars Say

November 20, 2011

Labor-studies programs cannot count on college administrations or labor leaders to defend them when they come under political attack, several labor scholars who have weathered assaults on their programs or their work said at a conference held here Friday. Instead, the programs need to ensure that they can withstand tough outside scrutiny, said the scholars.

The good news, they said, is that such programs have been able to beat back several recent attempts to cut their funds or to pressure them to dismiss scholars who had come under fire from business leaders or the conservative media. And the Occupy Wall Street movement, which sprang up in September not far from where this event was held on New York University's campus, was heralded by conference participants as not only offering labor activists potential models of new tactics, but also signaling a shift in the political climate that is likely to bring labor-studies programs much more public support.

New York University's Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center began planning Friday's conference on labor education and academic freedom in response to the controversy last spring over two University of Missouri system labor-studies instructors who were accused of advocating violence in their classroom. The attack on the Missouri scholars, which began after their online lectures were rebroadcast by a conservative blogger in heavily edited form, "violated everything that we think we know about the principles of academic freedom," Michael Nash, a co-director of the New York University center, told the scholars gathered here.

The Missouri controversy came at a time when many labor educators felt generally besieged. In Michigan, a free-market-oriented public-policy organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, was trying to use open-records requests to force the state's three largest public universities to hand over e-mails from labor-studies faculty members, to try to find any evidence that the instructors had illegally used public resources to engage in partisan political activity. And in several states, most notably Ohio and Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers who dominated state legislatures as a result of the 2010 elections were mounting attacks on organized labor that included efforts to strip public employees, including faculty at public colleges, of collective-bargaining rights.

Little Union Help

Both Don Giljum, an adjunct instructor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis who faced the prospect of losing his job as a result of the rebroadcast of his lectures, and Roland Zullo, a research scientist at the University of Michigan's  Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy whose e-mails were subject to the Mackinac Center's open-records request, told the symposium audience that labor unions did little to come to their defense.

In fact, the St. Louis-based Local 148 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, where Mr. Giljum had been a business manager, responded to allegations that he had advocated violence by forcing him to resign from his post there. The Missouri AFL-CIO responded by issuing a statement denouncing violence.

"The labor movement, in general, was more or less muted" in its response to the Michigan open-records requests, Mr. Zullo said. "We did not receive a ton of support."

Mr. Zullo said the University of Michigan's administration solidly supported him, but administrators at the University of Missouri at St. Louis moved to force Mr. Giljum to resign, and changed their tack only after many other academics, and the American Association of University Professors, as an organization, spoke out on his behalf.

Officials of the St. Louis campus eventually ended up issuing a statement absolving him of any misconduct and denouncing the videotaped snippets of his lectures that had been posted on the conservative blogger's Web site as selectively and misleadingly edited to paint Mr. Giljum in a negative light.

Not every speaker at the conference complained of having experienced a lack of support from labor unions when their programs came under attack. For example, Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at City University of New York's Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies who spent more than 20 years as a labor scholar at the University of California at Los Angeles, credited California's unions with helping to fight off attempts by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state's then-governor and a Republican, to slash financial support for labor-studies programs at public universities.

For the most part, however, conference participants characterized labor unions as unreliable allies of labor-studies programs. They said union officials sometimes feel threatened by such programs' efforts to train labor leaders, and can be wary of becoming associated with labor scholars whom they regard as ideologically too far to the left.

"We need to strengthen and keep our alliances with labor and with our academic community, to make sure we are, more and more, accepted and considered valuable," said Lois S. Gray, a professor emerita of management and labor relations at Cornell University.

The Long View

Much of Friday's conference was devoted to taking the long view of labor-studies programs, and examining how they have come under attack repeatedly over the past 100 years, especially during the early days of the Cold War. Several speakers expressed frustration that labor-studies programs often come under fire for serving an outside constituency—labor unions—while other academic programs, similarly geared to serve outsiders, such as business schools and agricultural-extension programs, do not face such criticisms.

Conference participants said such programs can help stave off future attacks by ensuring that their teaching and research is of high quality, but some on hand disagreed on the question of whether labor-studies programs should become more selective in the students they admit, to promote academic rigor.

Ruth Needleman, a retired professor of labor studies at Indiana University Northwest who now directs a working-class studies program at Calumet College of Saint Joseph, argued that labor-studies programs should not abandon their historic mission of providing training to union members with little in the way of college education, and can get around concerns about their programs' academic rigor by letting such students take classes on a noncredit basis.

Ms. Milkman argued, however, that "We don't do anyone a favor by lowering our standards" and operating classrooms where students do not absorb much. "We can't pretend," she said, "to teach people things that they pretend to learn."