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March 2018


It's about (academic) freedom: Why we should all stick with the union
Michael Iasilli


  Michael Iasilli
Michael Iasilli, left, brainstorms with Nic Pestieau during the 3/3 organizing institute. (photo by Kevin Peterman)

At the 3/3 organizing institute, FA members gathered at NYSUT Regional Offices for a fruitful discussion on Janus v. AFSCME, meditating on how to spread the word of what is at stake pending the Supreme Court decision.

The conversation included approaches on how to preserve and improve the strength of labor in America. What we learned is that our activism should focus on ensuring the educational quality of our students and creating a broad coalition of supporters.

As adjuncts, we must remember the generous benefits we receive because of the tireless work the union has achieved for countless sisters and brothers in its history. Adjuncts have a variety of economic aids such as professional development opportunities, promotion, paid sick time, personal days and access to AFT, NEA and NYSUT member benefits, among others.

But what we should be primarily grateful for as educators is the right to academic freedom in the classroom.

The purpose of higher education is to challenge our students with material that stimulates positive inquiry outside the conventional assessment model. At a community college, professors should be focused on preparing students with an academic rigor that places them above the the stereotypical education that some perceive as typical at community colleges.

A pedagogy that propels thoughtful meditation—both in advanced scholarly research methodology and visual understanding of social, psychological and political issues that may challenge traditional norms—yields key developmental processes of fostering an objective, competitive and comprehensive student body. Equipping students with this kind of agency in community college prepares them for the university experience.

Academic freedom is a tool the union has fought for, for both full-time and adjunct faculty. Notwithstanding economic benefits provided by the union, if Janus succeeds, academic freedom can become vulnerable—potentially weakening the creativity, versatility and diversity of thought necessary in the college classroom. In retrospect, the union’s response to Common Core has demonstrated these implications within a secondary education context. Thus, it is our duty to take action now and find ways to sustain our activism.

We should take a page from the teachers of West Virginia who brought a working class movement across their vocation and won. How did they do it? West Virginians created a collective coalition that harnessed the needs of all working people. The coalition broadly mobilized around issues such as fair and equal pay, healthcare, an improvement of benefits and the need for community. Teachers achieved a sorely needed 5% increase in pay.

One of the primary reasons that teachers had the upper hand was mostly because of their commitment to their students. They made the movement not about them but about the students—they argued for better student welfare such as childcare. This is one reason why parents were supportive of the teachers' cause. When teachers have additional resources at their disposal, they can provide for their students. When teachers win, the children win.

West Virginia is a great example of how educators came together to improve the standards of workplace conditions through the activism of improving students' educational standards. Also, let us not forget West Virginia's long history in labor activism. The one important thing they teach us is that when workers stick together, they can achieve a great deal of political goals that benefit the common good and public's national interest. For instance, the Pittston Coal Strike helped to reconcile the injustices done to the UMWA. Shortly after, the 1990 teachers' strike garnered significant pay increases for teachers as well as training and support programs that benefited the faculty and student dynamic. This greatly strengthened workers' rights across the board.

Activists in our contemporary era need to take note of the massive working class movements in our history and the ones currently happening across the nation. This is a movement that goes beyond what divides us. Educators and unionists in West Virginia are having success defeating wealthy elite interest because of their brave willingness to reach across vocations and promote an inclusive solidarity.

In an era where groups are seeking to make the privatization of education the end goal for students and their families, we need strong solidarity that propels the interests of the working class.

We can win if we stick together and stick with the union.