Gutting the UMass Labor Center

Ben Taylor reports on efforts to push back against the attempts by the University of Massachusetts administration to strangle the Labor Center in Amherst.

Participants in a union conference at the labor center (UMass Amherst Labor Center)Participants in a union conference at the labor center (UMass Amherst Labor Center)

IF YOU set foot on the shady walkways of the University of Massachusetts' (UMass) flagship campus in the bucolic Pioneer Valley, you'd be forgiven if you thought that the school's money woes of the past few decades were a thing of the past.

Shiny new solar canopies grace the visitors' center parking lot, the main dining commons at the Blue Wall positively radiate wealth after a recent $19 million renovation, and gleaming new buildings rise all about the campus core--from the $101 million Integrated Learning Center to the $62 million expansion to the Isenberg School of Management, which just broke ground last week.

UMass University Relations crows over the stratospheric rise of the campus in several major college rankings--jumping to number one for campus food in the Princeton Review and clawing its way onto the top 30 national public universities list on the "2016 Best Colleges" guide released by U.S. News & World Report.

But beneath this polished exterior, a neoliberal worm burrows. State support for this institution of public higher education continues its steady decline, with hundreds of millions of inflation-adjusted dollars lost since 2001.

The drop in funding has not only driven tuition to new heights--the class of 2014 graduated with an average debt of $30,000--but it also provides the university's neoliberal administrators with adequate cover to pursue a corporatizing agenda, transforming academic departments into "revenue generators" in pursuit of the "university-as-business" model.

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THIS IS the fate befalling the renowned Labor Center at UMass Amherst. The Labor Center got its start at UMass in 1964, and in the last five decades has churned out nearly 1,000 dedicated fighters for the working class and their organizations.

Despite the prestige that the Labor Center brings to UMass--not to mention the invaluable service it provides to the labor movement--the Labor Center has come under repeated attack over the last decade. Numerous budget cuts have weakened it, undermining its faculty and undercutting its mission.

According to Dr. Eve Weinbaum, the recently ousted director of the Labor Center: "We have been asked to shrink the curriculum, to cut electives and to eliminate some required courses--including Collective Bargaining and Contract Administration, Current Issues and Debates in Labor, and possible Labor Law, among others--all in order to lay off faculty and cut costs."

To add insult to injury, the UMass administration not only wants to cut costs, but to effectively increase the bill presented to students. "We have been told to recruit only students who can afford to pay full tuition, preferably out-of-state tuition, which is currently $31,733 each year for the full-time graduate program (not including room and board), or $63,466 for a two-year degree," said Weinbaum.

The two objectives--"revenue generation" on the one hand, and the land grant institution's mission to provide affordable and accessible quality education to the commonwealth on the other--are objectives that are clearly at loggerheads.

While the university has ample funds on hand to pay for massive construction projects, and lucrative salaries for top administrators and athletic coaches, the Labor Center's continued existence is threatened unless it "serv[es] as a 'revenue generator'--to fund other parts of the University outside the Labor Center," commented Weinbaum.

Dr. Weinbaum's ouster at the Labor Center came after she filed two grievances this past spring when it became clear that proposed cuts to the Labor Center violated the faculty union's contract with UMass. The administration made clear that any resolution to those grievances would be contingent on Weinbaum's replacement by a director more open to "compromise."

When news got out that the Labor Center was under attack and its director sacked, and that the administration's ceaseless quest for revenue was to blame, the labor community responded, though not with protests and other actions. A letter-writing campaign deluged the inboxes of key administrators, and an online petition gathered over 4,500 signatures, forcing the administration to backtrack, at least rhetorically.

A fact-finding meeting of "key stakeholders" at UMass has been called for future date by Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and Massachusetts AFL-CIO Chair Steven Tolman. If past experience is any guide, the labor left should be wary of the chancellor's intentions when it comes to fact-finding meetings, as they are a favored stalling tactic of the campus elite.

The struggle for the future of the Labor Center, like the labor movement writ large, depends on the self-activity of the rank and file. The successful campaign for fossil fuel divestment at UMass proved to us this spring the truth in the immortal words of Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."