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Connect the dots: ALEC bills threaten classroom experience

Julia Scheib
News Editor

Last week, we learned a little about APSCUF (the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties) from Dr. Barry David, who is vice president of the union here at Millersville.

Every faculty member and coach in the state system has the option of being a member of the union. Through the collective bargaining process, members of the union negotiate with their employer, PASSHE (the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education) for fair pay and working conditions. Despite the union’s hard work, faculty raises are not keeping up with inflation under the newest contract. Effectively, that means they are going down.

Often, APSCUF is forced to use the rhetoric of war – talking about the ‘battle,’ or ‘fight,’ for stable jobs and acceptable salaries – when describing negotiations. And indeed, the higher education system is becoming more profit-oriented and, subsequently, increasingly exploitative.

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In the business world when jobs are de-skilled – through automation, hyper-specialization or other means – employees become expendable and therefore their labor is devalued. Right now in this country, academics are fighting what is essentially the devaluation of their labor.

Last semester, 22 APSCUF members were laid off by seven PASSHE universities. It could have been worse – the union was able to get negotiate that number down from 140 – but APSCUF commissioned an independent audit and found that the seven school administrations’ economic explanations for the layoffs weren’t fiscally sound.

In reality, the universities did have money to continue to pay the faculty who were let go; audits showed that administrations prioritized expensive construction projects over education and curriculum development. To pay off debt from new buildings, they reallocated money from their Education and General funds, which contain money from the government that should go toward education.

A report released earlier this month by the Delta Cost Project shows that colleges are spending much more on wages and salary than they used to, but it’s not due to increased salary and benefits for faculty: between 2000 and 2012, higher education experienced an increase of 28 percent in its workforce; this was driven by growth in administrative positions.

The logo for the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The logo for the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Fair treatment of faculty is imperative if PASSHE is going to keep up the quality of the education it provides. Yet during the collective bargaining process with APSCUF, top system officials try to lower the standards of fair treatment – the ‘rules’ laid out in faculty contracts.

The weaker the rules are, the more flexibility administrations will have when it comes to paying and keeping faculty. At the same time, being a professor or coach will become a less stable and less fulfilling professional experience.

If the union were broken, faculty would have even less of a say in how much they and their colleagues are paid, their course loads (top PASSHE administrators have suggested raising it from four classes a semester to five), how many classes they are required to teach online, and many other important issues. Dismantling APSCUF would mean taking the brakes off the state system’s shift to an exploitative, profit-centric model.

On West Chester University’s APSCUF blog, Professor Seth Kahn discusses legislation that takes aim at public unions.

PA House Bill 1507 and Senate Bill 1034, now under consideration by the state legislature, apply to all public-sector unions except those for police and firefighters.

The bills would prevent PASSHE, the employer, from managing the automatic deductions for union dues from employees’ paychecks. If these bills pass, it will become more difficult for the unions to collect dues from members.

The logic behind the bills assumes something that, according to Dr. Barry David, isn’t true: that the union uses dues-money to contribute to political campaigns or support political causes.

An anti-union site might give us insight into what the proponents of this legislation are really afraid of, or at least how their constituents rationalize it: on MediaTrackers.org, blogger Sarah Leitner says, “Membership and fair share fees might not go directly to political activities, but they do make the shifting of more money to political activities possible. And Pennsylvania unions donate heavily to liberal candidates and organizations.”

As any former member of the MU men’s track team (now defunct) will attest, some decisions made by politicians directly affect the lives of students, coaches and faculty.

But APSCUF does not contribute money to candidates or political causes; rather, it has the Committee for Action through Politics (CAP), to which contributions are voluntary. “We can make contributions to the CAP fund and those funds are used for supporting political causes and politicians,” said Barry David.

On the site LegiScan.com, citizens can see which PA state representatives sponsor the bills. On FollowtheMoney.org, we can see which industries or political organizations contribute to each of these representatives’ campaigns. But where did the legislation come from in the first place, and whose agenda is it advancing? In other words, who would want to make it harder for unions to do the work of ensuring fair treatment and a quality, affordable education for Pennsylvanians?

“This legislation didn’t begin with the legislators who introduced and co-sponsored it. It’s based very closely on ‘model legislation’ drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC] in 1998,” said Kahn.

ALEC is a group made up of lobbyists (people paid to represent the interests of corporations and other groups such as ‘think tanks’) and politicians. It is the most influential group of its kind in the US.

The organization is an alliance between public and private sectors: ALEC drafts model legislation, which is then sponsored by the politicians who choose to follow its agenda, and in return these politicians receive campaign contributions and, after leaving public service, jobs from their corporate partners. Essentially, it is kind of like a union for corporate interests. It was established in 1973.

On its website ALEC calls itself a “nonpartisan membership association for conservative state lawmakers who [share] a common belief in limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.”

Since unions ‘interfere’ with the free market, ALEC is fervently against them.

What corporate interests are represented by ALEC?

The Center for Media and Democracy’s Sourcewatch page lists the corporations that have representatives on ALEC’s “Private Enterprise” council. Altria, Koch Industries, UPS, ExxonMobil, AT&T, and Pfizer are a few examples, but the website displays an incredibly long list of other corporations that have also been involved with ALEC.

Kutztown political science professor Glenn Richardson offered his perspective on ALEC and its attacks on unions and funding for higher education when he addressed the APSCUF legislative assembly in February of 2013. His comments were recorded on RagingChickenPress.org.

Richardson cites the Powell memo, a soaring call to action written by a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell just months before Nixon appointed him to the Supreme Court, as a way to explain the public-private corporate-government groups that exist today, as well as the proliferation of lobbyists since the early 1970s.

Powell urged corporations to take lessons from labor unions, whose members knew that collective bargaining made them more powerful than individual complaints.

Corporations were being marginalized in the political sphere, he thought, and they needed to become more influential, and fight back against the “campus origin” of anti-free market and deregulation “hostility.” To read his words, one might imagine he was advocating for the rights of homeless shelters rather than for entities whose sole purpose is to make the highest possible profit for shareholders.

“Independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient,” Powell writes. “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

Because unions make it possible for workers to have a voice in their pay and conditions, the corporate interests ALEC represents want them to be abolished. Even if the bills fail, ALEC’s enthusiasm for free-market practices and ethics has already made itself known in the leadership of PA’s public higher-education system; Corbett’s cuts merely made this more apparent.

In the words of Frank Brogan, PASSHE’s new chancellor who worked for Jeb Bush in Florida earlier in his career, state-system schools must take measures to increase their revenue or their “existence” will be “in doubt.” Brogan and state legislators have come to the conclusion that PASSHE is like a body on a beach in need of CPR. How will they try to resuscitate it financially? A topic for the next issue.