By Bryan O’Keefe
Our friends over at Inside Higher Ed wrote a story the other day about the most recent labor dispute to shut down a college campus, this time at the Community College of Philadelphia. I just checked out their website which shows a big message reading “Classes Have Been Suspended Until Further Notice” which I suppose means that the strike is still ongoing.
First and foremost, this strike and others like it are an absolute travesty for students. At the school in question, students pay about $3,500 for a years worth of instruction, a cost which is significantly higher than most other two-year colleges. The bare minimum that these students should expect is to at least have a teacher in the classroom. The problem becomes even greater when you take into consideration that many students at two-year colleges are hoping to transfer to four-year colleges someday and pursue other academic endeavors. I am not quite sure what the college is going to do to fix this in the short-term, but suffice it to say that the spring semester is officially a mess and many students may have to reevaluate some of their plans, through no fault of their own.
Having done a great amount of research and writing myself on labor issues, I fully understand that labor disputes often times boil down to a he said/she said situation. It’s usually hard to figure out who exactly is telling the truth and who’s bluffing, and most of the time the disputes are solved by splitting the difference.
That being said, if Inside Higher Ed’s story is accurate (and I have no reason to think that it’s not), it’s very clear that the faculty, staff, and labor union are the ones being unreasonable in this instance. It’s true that the university has offered pay increases which are only slightly below the rate of inflation. But the school has also said that the employees can receive health care at no cost to themselves. Given that health care premiums and cost continue to rise, far above the rate of inflation, this translates into an economic benefit of several thousand dollars a year. In fact, this type of benefit is nearly unheard of in the private sector, especially for rank and file employees. It’s hard to see how the university is in the wrong when they are offering these types of packages.
This whole situation brings me back to an earlier point I made some time ago when another faculty labor brouhaha was in the news – should faculty have the right to strike at all? For the most part, we do not allow firefighters, police officers, transit workers and other important public servants to strike. While the work itself is not exactly critical or life threatening, academics are being paid by students to perform a task. This is not simply an employer/labor union fight – there is a critical third party (students) and they are the ones who are primarily footing the bill. If we are going to ask students to continue to stretch themselves and take out student loans and the like, perhaps we should also ask faculty members to give up certain privileges too – like the right to strike. At the very least, students should know that their faculty will show up for work.