Skip to content Skip to footer

Can HELU Ride the Tiger?

Article published:
People-almost all women- standing at the back of a multi-purpose room listening to a meeting. The home-made signs they hold talk about pay parity and respect. There's a woman in a wheelchair wearing an oxygen mask in the foreground.

Higher Ed Labor United can build on more than 25 years of previous organizing—and starts off with a deeper base and broader vision.

Higher Ed Labor United (HELU) has come together with astonishing rapidity since the pandemic winter of early 2021. It has managed to host two summits, and has begun to lay out a national strategy for higher education labor, something the traditional teachers’ unions have never been able to do. It has now been endorsed by 131 different local unions and organizations. The organizing committee raised more than $40,000 to put on the recent February 2022 Summit where over 500 people registered.  The event drew headliner speakers like Naomi Klein, Jane McAlevey and Sara Nelson.  

Now the core organizers, who have been running on adrenaline, face not only going back to work (teaching classes, many as contingents) but carrying through on the commitments made at the conference. In their report that was published March 28, at the end of the web page where they list those commitments, they ask for volunteers.

Older activists may worry when they see a call for volunteers. The slow dismantling of higher education has been going on for over 40 years, and organizations have risen and faded. Some closed up shop entirely, while others stay on the books but are not active, all hoping to “reclaim the Ivory Tower,” as Joe Berry put it in his book by that name. When we ask, “Can HELU ride the tiger and fulfill their commitments?” we should compare HELU with those previous organizations, as well as place them in the context and moment out of which they arose.


All of those groups fought—or still fight—the good fight, given their resources and structure, but none has taken on the total challenge that HELU has staked out.  Some of the better-known among them included the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE, late 1990s–early 2000s), the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE, 2005–2010), and the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW).

Your inbox needs more left. Sign up for our newsletter.

NAFFE was a grant-funded project that attempted to both gather information about and organize within contingent work at the time when it was just becoming common enough to make news. It involved taxi drivers, hospitality workers, sub-contracted tech workers, people working out of labor agencies, and contingent faculty. It held some conferences and produced some reports, but disappeared when the funding ran out.  

CFHE attempted to bring together faculty nationally across unions; like HELU, it was sparked by major faculty locals. It was friendly enough to contingent faculty that the New Faculty Majority (NFM) played a major role in it. However, the primarily tenure-line faculty was not able to tap into the energy of the contingent faculty who were at that point just becoming the majority. NFM, which focused on contingent faculty issues, received some grants. This cramped its political activity, despite the fact that its number one project was addressing the unfairness of unemployment benefits, which is a federal issue. Again, when the grants ran out, NFM was not able to pivot to becoming a membership organization and could not pay staff, and so it is inactive at the moment.

The Coalition on the Academic Workforce was sparked by the Modern Language Association, a major disciplinary organization. CAW published important reports on the state of the campus workforce, but never had much contingent faculty direct input and depended on loans of paid staff from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for its day today existence. It exists today as an MLA-supported website where its data can be consulted. This demonstrated the limitations of top-down organizing and the lack of legs-on-the-ground of disciplinary organizations.  

There have also been movement-type efforts like Campus Equity Week, a bi-annual series of linked demonstrations on campuses across the country, and Adjunct Walkout Day, which appeared to pop up spontaneously and was adopted around the country. The prize for longevity appears to be the International Coalition on Contingent Academic Labor, or COCAL International, which is an unstaffed network that puts on a conference every two years rotating among Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, with a floating pot of money that comes from conference registration fees. It also sponsors the COCAL Updates, a news aggregator that has been running for over 20 years, and adj-l, a long-running email discussion list. In fact, COCAL was the incubator of Campus Equity Week and NFM. 

Why is HELU different? Why might it survive? 

HELU differs significantly from its predecessors. It emerged from overlapping efforts that included women labor historians and major union locals. They used College for All to coordinate outreach to contingent faculty, graduate students, staff, and diverse unions as they all responded to a moment of both danger and opportunity for higher education.

HELU is the first in its lineage of organizations to give contingent faculty (adjuncts, graduate students, etc.) the appropriate amount of leadership responsibility. It is much more led by women, younger activists and people of color. While individuals can participate, actual membership comes with an endorsement from a union or organization. One of the activities of the moment is calling for delegates to be named from these organizations, in order to set up some accountability and democratic, transparent process. Although the member unions cover all the unions that represent higher ed workers, these are not the top levels of the big traditional higher ed unions: the National Education Association (NEA), the AFT or the AAUP. This is not an organization that is waiting to be sponsored top-down; instead, activists at the ground level are encouraged to get their local unions to endorse and join and choose delegates.

HELU also distinguishes itself by its broad vision, which has been central to its organizing. The first meetings in May 2021 (before the group even adopted its name) focused solely on aligning higher ed unions and organizations around a shared transformative vision of what higher ed should be. They then used the July 2021 Summit to crystallize the vision so they could use it for further organizing.  

Typically, local higher ed faculty unions talk about two things: wages and job security. In Power Despite Precarity, our book about higher ed organizing and representation, Joe Berry and I put forward a “blue sky” vision that goes beyond wages and job security into legislation and the public good. The HELU vision jumps far beyond that. The “labor” in HELU means all the workers who make colleges and universities run. Their vision is wall-to-wall organizing, all workers: “Wall to wall and coast to coast.”  

The HELU vision also involves nationally coordinated bargaining. They have already produced a map and spreadsheet to facilitate this. It is an explicitly anti-racist vision. It has a specific focus on eliminating contingency—for faculty, yes, but for all other workers too. It breaks out this vision into three main projects: One is policy development, one is political advocacy, and one is organizing.  None of the other organizations named above had a vision that was comparable to this. 

HELU arises as the crisis of higher ed is making headlines—but it’s not all bad news. Not only are the abuses of power in higher ed topical right now: so is the organizing.  Some news items do focus on attacks on tenure, the frustration and anger of adjuncts, freedom of speech on campus, academic freedom, bloated administrative salaries or student debt burden. But some cover good news—the strikes and credible strike threats by workers at prestigious campuses like Harvard, UC Berkeley, Columbia, and Howard that have led to collective bargaining agreements. Suddenly this is a sector where successful labor organizing is going on and people want to understand it.

Another aspect of the moment is that the clock is ticking on climate change. Anti-intellectualism and anti-science have had a field day with COVID. All of this brings into sharp relief the question of what higher education is actually supposed to be doing. 

HELU is attempting to fill the same space that the other organizations knew needed filling. None of them could or can play this essential role. Speaking as someone who watched (or participated in) all the efforts mentioned above, I’m betting on HELU. They’ve found the tiger and climbed on.

Featured image: For decades, part-time faculty in the California Community College system have been paid on a lower scale than full-timers. Peralta Community College District part-timers were the first in the state to get equal pay for equal work. Photo courtesy of California Federation of Teachers Local 1603.