An Interview with Philip Dine: the Sate of the Unions and Higher Education

You may already know Phillip Dine’s work. According to his official biography, he “covered the labor beat for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for two decades. “ Among his many achievements are two Pulitzer Prize nominations; more recently he won the 2007 National Press Club Edwin Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence and the 2007 Society of Professional Journalists Dateline Award for Investigative Reporting.

His first book, published this year, is called, State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence. Dine believes that unions need to play a more important role in the U.S. “What’s lacking,” he has written, “is not relevance but rather a way for labor to strengthen itself…” I was curious about Dine’s thoughts on labor and higher education and sent him a series of questions via his publicist. His answers were somethings brief– he has got to be a busy man!–but provocative nonetheless.


RW: Do you think higher education largely reproduces or challenges class structures in the United States? Has this changed as union membership has decreased? Would it change again if union membership rose?

PD: Higher education largely perpetuates class structure in this country, and that has not changed much as union levels have decreased. Why? Because unlike in countries such as France and Italy, labor in the United States never has challenged the class structure or the economic system. Rather, unions seek to increase the pie and provide a place at the table for their members. They aim to make the system work better and be more fair, rather than trying to dismantle it. There have been a few threads in the labor movement that have leveled more fundamental questions about the class system over the years, but they generally been short-lived. Ironically, the stronger unions are, the better the current system works, because it meets the aspirations of a broader segment of the population.

RW: Do you believe that the union movement in general has an interest in seeing higher education unionized?

PD: Clearly the union movement is interested in seeking higher education — academics, staff, even students — unionized, for the same rationale it wants other sectors of society organized. Moreover, doing so in the education sector would have even a broader impact, given the influence educators have and students will eventually have.

RW: How do you see the role of unionization in American Higher Education? Do professors need unions? If so, why? Professionals often resist unions because they are so vested in individual systems of merit. How can unions begin to change these entrenched attitudes, particularly in higher education?

PD: Complex questions. On one hand, academia doesn’t lend itself to what at times can be the lowest-common denominator, mass-production approach of unions whose emphasis can be on protecting workers who need it rather than rewarding those who merit it. At the same time, the problems created by administrators who are incompetent or worse can sometimes require that professors have some built-in recourse or collective clout to stand up for their rights. There already is pressure for unions to back off their tough stand against merit pay in secondary education, and the questions that poses are not dissimilar to those you raise here.

RW: Some researchers estimate that more than 60% of all university teachers are adjuncts. How might unions help to alleviate this situation?

PD: Good luck. This is happening in various forms in a host of industries or economic sectors, including two-tier structures for journalists. But unions might have more success in education, because the balance of power hasn’t shifted as much and the employers aren’t as profit-driven.

RW: Online proprietary schools are the fastest growing sector of higher education in the United States today, yet many have argued that they represent the ‘Wall-Martization” of the university. Do you see parallels between the rise of Wall-Mart and the more recent rise of proprietary schools such as Phoenix and DeVry? Is it possible for unions to be organized at online proprietary schools?

PD: There are definite parallels. The diffusion of personnel and impersonality of interaction involved here make organizing all the more challenging.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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