College campuses nationwide are centers for free thought and the exchange of ideas. The research, technology and other developments that universities create are and should be used for the public benefit. But recently, some of these hubs of objectivity have been subjected disproportionately to corporate interests over the common interests of students and campus employees.
Although everyone should respect a professor’s academic freedom and choice to research a wide variety of subjects, administrators should hold them accountable to higher ethical standards as to the end products and use of their research. Professors who moonlight as paid consultants to corporations should be particularly careful as such activity limits their accountability to the university and to the students. Even worse, corporate interests by their very nature must prioritize profit levels above all else — including quality of education and campus climate. This often leads to less competitive pricing for students and shrinking wages and benefits for campus workers.
But when professors start consulting for corporate interests who seek to limit workers’ ability to organize and collectively negotiate for better conditions and pay, they add yet another barrier for workers — graduate student employees, cafeteria staff, janitors — to organize and articulate their collective voice to assure fair wages and benefits. In most cases, forming a union is a worker’s only chance for a fair deal.
For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a network of companies, business associations and state and local chambers — recently contracted professor Jarol B. Manheim of George Washington University to draft a briefing titled “Trends in Union Corporate Campaigns.” In Manheim’s conclusions, he loosely suggests that in order to protect the interests of Big Business, the Chamber should push for more regulation on union activities. Manheim specifically refers to corporate campaigns — tactics used by workers to identify where they may have leverage over a particular employer in order to win improved wages and benefits. Manheim, who has worked for other corporations, wrote this barely a year after students and workers at his own campus fought for an increase in wages and benefits during the National Student Labor Week of Action, organized annually by the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP).
Coincidentally, shortly after the release of Manheim’s report, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce initiated a project with Richard Berman to manage Unionfacts.com, a web site attacking the AFL-CIO and its members. The site claims not to be anti-union, but attacks almost all unions in the United States. It encourages workers to decertify from their union, and identifies specific corporate campaigns organized by unions as “hassles to an employer.” It is not a stretch to say that this $8 million project, based in part on Manheim’s report, will not help the cause of workers on his campus or anywhere else.
Since its founding in 1999, the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) has been working to support, advise and solidify the student-labor work on campuses and in the communities across the country. SLAP works with other organizations to coordinate the National Student Labor Week of Action each year to work out a strategy of support for campus workers across the country. SLAP aims to demonstrate the direct self-interest all students have in defending workers’ rights. This year is no different as students around the United States gear up to SLAP Corporate Greed on campuses, targeting contracted corporations at their school and university officials that defend their interests more so than those of students and campus workers.
A professor’s responsibility, just like students and workers, should be to educate first — not to beat back campus workers’ rights or increase a corporation’s profitability. Everyone wants dignity, support and the ability to work in a climate that values their presence. The standard of living for campus workers affects a student’s ability to get the most out of her or his college experience. Professors, of all campus groupings, should understand that.
Eddy Morales is president of United States Student Association. Howard Zinn is the author of “A People’s History of the United States.” For more information visit www.studentlabor.org.