National Labor College Curriculum Changes With the Economy

December 29, 2009
Should the Employee Free Choice Act overcome a Senate filibuster and be signed into law by President Barack Obama, potentially millions of workers who have never been part of a bargaining unit will be organized.

A number of them likely will learn to be union leaders at the National Labor College, a campus nestled on 47 acres of prime real estate in Silver Spring, Maryland, one of the most expensive Washington suburbs, featuring buildings of both traditional and modern design.

“If [the act] passes, you’re going to see union membership grow,” says William Scheuerman, president of the school. “You’re going to see a much more diverse labor movement. We’ll be educating a lot of those folks.”

Founded as an AFL-CIO training center in 1969 on the grounds of a former Catholic monastery, the school, which has a $21 million budget, began granting degrees in 1997. The college receives $5 million from the AFL-CIO each year. The balance of its funding comes from fundraising, tuition and conference services.

The only accredited higher education institution in America serving a student body composed solely of union members, it offers bachelor of arts diplomas in majors such as labor studies, labor history and the political economy of labor. It also offers a bachelor’s degree in technical/professional studies.

About 1,000 students are enrolled in the college each semester, with 250 of them pursuing degrees. Most of the classes are “hybrid,” involving online course work that is supplemented by one-week visits to campus each semester.

In addition to those pursuing degrees, students walking across the school’s green lawns may be there to take part in union-skills training courses, where they learn the basics of organizing and negotiating.

Others may be there because their union came to the campus, which is just outside the Capital Beltway and not far from the White House, to develop strategies for its next bargaining or campaign effort.

“We’re becoming the brain of the labor movement—the place where people come to discuss ideas,” says Scheuerman, who was appointed to head the school in December 2007.

Previously, Scheuerman was president of the United University Professions, the country’s largest public higher education union. He also was a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Under Scheuerman’s leadership, the labor college curriculum is evolving to give students a better grasp of the larger forces shaping the workplace. For instance, everyone in a degree program is now required to take a course in political economy.

Previously, he said, students learned all the technical skills, but there was a vacuum when they went back to work. “They didn’t understand the larger issues of the economy, the larger issues of power,” he says.

Another offering that will be added to the course catalog responds to the increasing emphasis on sustainability. The college is developing a four-week program called Green Workplace Representative.

Students who earn the certificate in that area will be able to conduct workplace audits of energy usage, waste production, recycling, health and safety. They also will be able to advocate for a “greening committee.”

Nearly every union is doing some kind of “green” project, says Thomas Kriger, vice president for academic affairs and vice president of the National Labor College. The school is not only tapping into that trend, it’s also trying to shape the idea of “green jobs.”

“Our contribution to that debate is you have to think of people as sustainable,” says Kriger, who arrived at the school in December 2008. “Any of these new green initiatives have to have labor standards built into them.”

While developing new courses, the college is seeking to get more rank-and-file union members to attend. The goal is to have 30,000 to 40,000 students online in six or seven years.

When they’re on campus, students get a sense of the breadth of union activity. A pipe fitter from Alaska may find himself having lunch next to a teacher from Alabama at the cafeteria in the Lane Kirkland Center.

“We’re the crossroads of the labor movement,” Kriger says.

Students will return from campus to work not as union rabble-rousers but as constructive leaders who have had “ideological blinders” removed by education, according to Scheuerman.

“They’ll have their feet on the ground,” Scheuerman says. “They’ll know the laws. They’ll know the rules. Hopefully, they’re not going to shoot from the hip. Good union leaders make for good management.”