Unions are vital to college-based issues

Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer AFL-CIO

The headlines are Northwestern University and unionized college sports, but the storyline is universal and highlights an opportunity for us all.

Forget the fretting pundits who conjure up endless ‘what ifs.’ The truth is that the football players at Northwestern understand the power of collective action and the meaning of a fair deal. We’d all be better off understanding the same.

You see, one player standing alone against institutions as powerful as Northwestern or the NCAA faces some pretty tough odds. But when a majority of players come together, that’s a game changer. That’s how collective bargaining lifts up whole groups of people – from individual workplaces to the community at large.

Students and universities, in general, could do with more than a little lifting up.

That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear university representatives echo the kind of comments we hear from anti-worker politicians and CEOs, who cajole and bully workers with lies and scare tactics. We deal with this kind of stuff every day.

America has been playing college football for more than 100 years, and we’ve cheered for our school teams every season. But college football is no longer just an extracurricular activity or a booster for alumni. It’s big business. The truth is, the NCAA makes a lot of money from college sports and so do universities. Both also exert control over pretty much every aspect of the student-athletes’ lives, and the pressure on players to produce is at an all-time high. But that’s just it — no one has sat down to seriously address the impact of this new regime on the players. And that’s why the Northwestern players stopped waiting for someone else to come up with a solution and have stood up for themselves collectively.

The NCAA is a financial powerhouse with assets of more than a half-billion dollars. The universities, too, are major institutions. They’re not push-overs. No one has to worry about their interests. No corporation or institution of that size will change easily or overnight — and the effects won’t be isolated to Northwestern or football players.

Think of the era, not long ago, when universities outsourced official apparel to the developing world where textile companies forced workers to labor in dangerous conditions for rock-bottom wages.

Students organized themselves and founded United Students Against Sweatshops, which has built a powerful presence on more than 150 campuses over the past two decades and have won ground-breaking campaigns for fair labor practices for the men and women who make college gear.

Last month, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, highlighted the big problem of student debt, which has topped $1 trillion, and he pointed out the increasingly stratified world of higher education, where a low-performing, high-income high school student has an 80 percent chance of going to college, compared to a high-performing, low-income student, who has only a 20 percent chance of going to college.

That’s wrong. America’s post-secondary education system should be a defender of meritocracy, not the opposite. That’s why earlier this year students and organizations like the AFL-CIO launched the Higher Ed Not Debt campaign to tackle the crippling and ever-growing issue of student loan debt in America.

And the growing movement doesn’t stop there. When adjunct professors at Duquesne University were being denied fair benefits and pay, they organized in collective action. When food service workers at Pomona College were being treated poorly, they organized in collective action.

The atrocities of sweatshops. Growing student debt. Low pay for adjunct professors. Mistreatment of food service workers. These issues need rebalancing in the modern era. Certainly, most people recognize the need for a similar rebalancing when it comes to the NCAA. Who better to provide that balance than the student-athletes themselves?

What’s happening in college sports is another movement of people understanding what’s possible through collective action. And it’s being led by the people who know it best, who live it and work it every day. These are the kinds of movements that give us all hope and help to lift us all.