In Higher Education, Neutrality is Not an Option

Cristina Viviana Groeger

We are in the midst of a historic surge of campus workplace organizing. In the past decade, over 140 new faculty, postdoc, graduate and/or undergrad student worker bargaining units have won recognition in the United States, including over eighty at private institutions. Education workers are a central part of the wave of labor militancy in the wake of the pandemic: in 2022, education services workers accounted for three out of every five employees involved in a work stoppage. These included the nearly 50,000 graduate student workers at the University of California who went on strike in late 2022, representing the largest at any college or university since 1990. In response to devastating budget cuts during the pandemic, Higher Ed Labor United has brought together half a million academic workers to “transform higher education into a public good operated in the public interest.”   

Institutions of higher education have never been neutral in the fight between capital and labor. While universities are still often popularly portrayed as radical hubs of leftist activity or out of touch ivory towers, my research in The Education Trap on the city of Boston reveals that colleges and universities have for most of their history been forces for the maintenance of the power of capital. This was especially true along the east coast, where private universities were among the first to be founded and dominated the higher education landscape. At the same time, the demand for free, accessible, democratically-accountable higher education centering the needs of working people has been a key demand of organized labor across the country since the nineteenth century. As a growing sector of employment, universities have also been sites of militant labor activism. Institutions of higher education, increasingly central to political and economic life, are both powerful tools to consolidate capital’s power and sites from which to challenge that power. Historically, students, faculty, and administrators have participated on both sides. Taking stock of these dual positions is essential for understanding our own roles as historians in relation to labor in the academy today.

Anti-Union Origins

Many institutions of higher learning originated as efforts to bust unions. A wave of technical institutes and private trade schools across the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were backed by employers as an alternative to the expensive, craft union-regulated apprenticeship process. As one supporter put it, a trade school could avoid the “poisonous” atmosphere of union rules and “teach a boy, not only the art of molding, but also good morals, and the art of the ‘open shop.’”[1] One such example in Boston was the “avowedly antiunion” private trade school, Wentworth Institute (which now offers bachelors and masters programs). Funded by a real estate and marble industry millionaire, the institute opened in 1911, offering workshop-based courses in specific craft skills: machine work, carpentry, electrical wiring, foundry work, plumbing, machine tool and design, and electrical construction. Most of these courses took one year or less to complete, explicitly so that students could avoid having “to spend two or three years as apprentices.” Organized labor, not surprisingly, opposed these types of schools. As Peter W. Collins of the Boston Electrical Workers Union put it, trade school instruction “makes an indolent worker, a novice without thorough knowledge and practice . . . [and] their graduates are willing members of the strike-breaking craft, whose influence is to lower the life of the community.”[2]

Engineering schools were also deeply imbricated in the anti-union project of new corporate managers. The professional identity of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), founded in 1880, was linked to its members’ position as businessmen and their opposition to trade unionism. By 1900, scientific management had emerged from the field of mechanical engineering, led by Frederick Taylor, president of ASME in 1906. Firms hired engineers to help with technical troubleshooting, sales and distribution, as well as mediating employee grievances with the goal of preventing labor disturbances. Beginning in 1895, Westinghouse recruited “executives and technical experts from among those who . . . enter the organization directly from engineering schools.” Among the nation’s leading technical institutes was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose graduates, since the school’s founding, overwhelmingly entered supervisory positions in industry as engineers, foreman, and managers, and aligned themselves against organized labor.[3]

The leadership of private universities was broadly unified in their hostility to organized labor at the turn of the twentieth century. As a sector, private higher education was materially dependent on enormous donations from major industrialists (Leland Stanford to Stanford University, John D. Rockefeller to University of Chicago, Andrew Carnegie to Carnegie Mellon, George Eastman to MIT, to name a few). In 1904, Charles Eliot, President of Harvard, infamously praised the scab as “a fair type of hero” and criticized unions for “destroy[ing] free competition” and “rotting the individual man’s moral fibre.”[4] O. M. Wentworth, one of the trustees of the Wentworth Institute, was known for his numerous antilabor columns in The Boston Globe

University students in the early twentieth century nearly always took the side of capital over labor. Undergraduates across the country, with the encouragement of their administration, regularly served as strikebreakers. UC Berkeley students replaced San Francisco dock workers in 1901; athletes from the University of Minnesota broke through a picket line of Minneapolis flour mill workers in 1903; during the Boston police strike of 1919, the administrations of Wentworth, MIT, Harvard, and Boston University allied with the state government to oppose the strike, and hundreds of their students served as strikebreakers. Before a threatened railroad strike in 1921, Princeton gave academic credit for strikebreaking, Stevens Institute suspended classes, and Harvard and MIT developed short courses to train student strikebreakers to operate railcars.[5]

As the college degree became a coveted credential in the world of business, universities increasingly trained the managers and business executives responsible for anti-union practices. According to one national survey, in 1900 fewer than one-fifth of American business leaders were college graduates. Of those who assumed leadership positions between 1921 and 1940, over half had secured this credential. The marriage between elite universities and business was an active and mutually beneficial arrangement. The changing composition of the upper class, the influx of women and immigrant populations into the workforce, and the expansion of high school and collegiate education provoked a reaction among traditional elites and university leaders. Business leaders saw the benefit of aligning with the prestige of universities to buttress their own authority, while leading colleges and universities hoped to attract the children of the nouveau riche. Through alumni networks and university placement offices, universities helped channel their students into the top firms. ​​At Harvard, for example, the minority of college graduates who entered business grew into a majority with remarkable speed: in 1897, under 20 percent of college graduates obtained positions in business; by 1908, a full 50 percent did. After 1920, a quarter of Harvard graduates entering business went into finance and banking jobs; at Harvard Business School, over 40 percent of the 1929 graduating class entered positions in banking and finance, the majority as investment bankers.[6]

Labor for Higher Education

Against the overwhelmingly hostile landscape of colleges and universities stood the labor movement. Across the country, organized labor proved to be a consistent champion for the founding and expansion of public higher education. In 1888, the Boston Central Labor Union (BCLU) “most heartily and unqualifiedly” endorsed a proposition to introduce university-level courses into the public school system “so that our children may have the same educational advantage now only attainable by rich men’s sons and daughters.”[7] For organized labor, access to higher education was not simply about affordability, but about who controlled these institutions and the interests they served. ​​On April 14, 1905, in the midst of heated debate over private trade schools, Peter Collins of the local electrical workers union declared, “Organized labor will have its own university of labor before long—one not dependent on false-natured philanthropists, such as Carnegie and Rockefeller.”[8] In the long fight to open a public university in the city of Boston, organized labor was the primary and most consistent champion.[9]

The repeated setbacks to public higher education led the BCLU to found its own Boston Trade Union College (BTUC) in the spring of 1919, among the first trade union colleges in the emerging national movement for workers education. Operating out of a public high school building, the BTUC offered free evening courses to any wage worker or their family members. Despite the conservatism of their university administrations, some faculty members at Boston-area universities were sympathetic to labor and offered courses. Women unionists, especially members of the Telephone Operator’s Union, participated in these classes. The BTUC catered primarily to labor activists and was never intended as a mass training institution, but until its closure in 1931 it was a counterweight to the landscape of private colleges and universities in Boston.[10] Many labor colleges—including Brookwood Labor College, Trade Union College of Philadelphia, Trade Union College of Pittsburgh, and the Workers University of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in Cleveland, Ohio—sprung up in the 1920s, especially in centers of strong craft unions in the Northeast and Midwest.

Faculty typically took the side of their administrations, but beginning in the early twentieth century, a small number of faculty began organizing unions themselves. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was founded in 1916 to defend the rights of faculty to express political views without fear of retaliation, although the AAUP opposed unionization. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) amended its constitution in 1918 to allow college faculty unions, and the first faculty union nationally was created that year at Howard University. Most new teacher and faculty unions in the 1920s, however, did not survive the backlash of the post-World War I Red Scare. A second wave of faculty unionization in the 1930s, reaching 30,000 members nationally, was decimated during WWII and the second Red Scare.[11]

Campus Organizing After the Golden Age

The postwar academic “golden age”—when public funding for higher education received its peak and university enrollments surged— reinforced the importance of this sector as a site for class struggle. Universities continued to maintain their role in training future executives, performing scientific research for industry, and were increasingly large employers. At the same time, organized labor’s power reached its peak in the United States, and not only were some of labor’s key educational demands finally met, but labor organizing decisively reshaped campus communities. 

The expansion of public higher education fulfilled a major demand of organized labor. In a hostile, private-university-dominated landscape, it took nearly a century of struggle to found a public university in the city of Boston, realized in 1965 when UMass Boston opened its doors.[12] Across the country, federal funding led to an enormous growth of existing institutions and the creation of new public institutions: city campuses became state universities, teacher colleges became regional comprehensive universities, urban private colleges converted to public ownership, and  dozens of new community colleges were founded. In the 1960s, by one estimate, one new community college opened every week.[13] Undergraduate enrollments doubled between 1960 and 1970, an increasing share of them from working-class backgrounds. At many public universities, tuition was free (although typically limited to in-state students).  

Organized labor also entered the university curriculum. Industrial relations programs first emerged after WWII at large flagship state universities and several private universities to foster labor-management cooperation. These programs recognized the prominent role of collective bargaining in postwar economic life. Harvard’s Trade Union Program, founded in 1948, was hosted by Harvard Business School, with the rationale that managers overseeing highly-unionized industries needed to understand unions. In the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of labor centers were established, overwhelmingly at public universities, including UCLA and UC Berkeley (1964), UMass Amherst (1964), Wayne State (1966), Hunter College, CUNY (1972), University of Oregon (1977), and UMass Boston (1979). These institutions served, and continue to serve, as centers for labor education, union leadership training, and policy research. 

While 1960s student movements had an ambivalent relationship to labor unions, student activists of the New Left and antiwar movements challenged the complicity of universities in the military-industrial complex, and resisted the model of universities as knowledge factories churning out efficient workers for the knowledge economy. Students also protested against tuition hikes and rising student fees.

Higher education workers unionized in previously unprecedented numbers in the 1960s and 1970s, facilitated by the broader context of rising K-12 teacher organizing, white-collar unionization, and state legislation allowing public employees to collectively bargain. By 1979, approximately 30 percent of all faculty in the United States were covered by collective bargaining contracts.[14] Non-faculty university staff—including clerical workers, library staff,  dining service workers, janitorial staff, groundskeepers—also successfully organized unions.[15]

Since the 1970s, policies of fiscal austerity have once again transformed universities in the United States. To cut costs, both private and public universities are streamlining their own workforces, programs, and services. Universities are stressing their function as providers of workforce development, which represents less a new departure than a doubling down on their historic role as training ground for future employees. For a brief period, the Boston Central Labor Union vision of a tuition-free public university was realized in many states. After the 1970s, however, most public universities shifted costs onto students through higher tuition and fees. Labor centers are suffering from budget cuts and understaffing. To reduce faculty labor costs and maximize administrative flexibility, universities are relying on adjuncts and graduate students for a growing percentage of instruction. In 1969, approximately 78 percent of faculty held tenure or tenure-track positions; in 2016, only 27 percent of all instructional positions were tenure track. Compared to tenure track faculty, contingent faculty are typically denied employee benefits including health insurance, contracts are made on a semester by semester basis and cancelable at the last minute, and an unfavorable job market for recent Ph.Ds has provided a ready and exploitable labor pool. 

Through these developments, universities have also grown as sites to launch challenges to the university-as-business model. The 1996 labor teach-ins contributed to a wave of student-led labor initiatives across the country, including United Students Against Sweatshops; Scholars, Artists and Writers for Worker Justice (SAWSJ); and campus living wage campaigns. Since the early 2000s, campus unions have engaged in renewed contract campaigns and even more unions have been newly organized, representing graduate students, adjunct faculty, dining hall workers, and undergraduate workers, among others. Through their rallies, walk-outs, and strikes, campus unions have provided political education for labor demands and connected their struggles to broader concerns, including pushing back on the abuses of university police departments and challenging campus sexual assault and university policies that protect abusers. Labor unions at public institutions are also fighting fiscal austerity and the antilabor policies of state legislatures. In 2023, organized labor continues to fight for a university that is free, with a curriculum reflecting the full scope and breadth of human knowledge, and accountable to the people rather than the bottom line.

In a very material sense, the history profession is bound up in the struggle between capital and labor. The possibility of historical research work and meaningful pedagogy is to a great degree determined by the labor policies, funding models, and curricular priorities of institutions of higher education. Just as these institutions have not been neutral, neither can we. 


Cristina Viviana Groeger is an assistant professor of history at Lake Forest College. Her research explores the history of work, education, and migration in the modern United States. Her first book, The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston (2021) was awarded the 2021 IPUMS USA Research Award and the Harvard University Press Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize for best first book.


[1]J. L. Ketcham, “Education of the Apprentice,” The Bulletin of the National Metal Trades Association, 12 (Dec. 1904), 548.

[2]Cristina Viviana Groeger, The Education Trap: Schools and the Remaking of Inequality in Boston (2021), 111-116

[3]Groeger, The Education Trap, 103-108; Monte A. Calvert, The Mechanical Engineer in America 1830-1910: Professional Cultures in Conflict (1967).

[4]“President Eliot on Trial by Labor,” The Boston Globe, Feb. 8, 1904, 1.

[5]Groeger, The Education Trap, 114, 122; Stephen H. Norwood, “Student as Strikebreaker, College Youth and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century,” Journal of Social History, 28 (Winter 1994), 341–343; Livia Gershon, “The Checkered History of Colleges, Unions, and Scabs,” JSTOR Daily, October 12, 2016.

[6]Groeger, The Education Trap, 222-249; Cristina Viviana Groeger, “A Good Mixer’: University Placement in Corporate America,” History of Education Quarterly, 58 (Feb. 2018), 33-64.

[7]Groeger, The Education Trap, 36.

[8]Ibid., 116.

[9]Cristina Viviana Groeger, “The Fight for a Public University in Boston: Making a Public-Private Educational System,” History of Education Quarterly, 62 (May 2022), 161-190.

[10]Groeger, The Education Trap, 196-198.

[11]Timothy Reese Cain, “Campus Unions: Organized Faculty and Graduate Students in U.S. Higher Education,” ASHE Higher Education Report, 43 (2017), 26-33; Groeger, The Education Trap, 198.

[12]Groeger, “The Fight for a Public University.”

[13]Arthur M. Cohen and Florence B. Brawer, The American Community College (1996).

[14]Cain, “Campus Unions,” 26-33.

[15] John P. Hoerr, We Can’t Eat Prestige: The Women Who Organized Harvard (1997); Toni Gilpin, Gary Isaac, Dan Letwin, and Jack McKivigan, On Strike for Respect: The Clerical and Technical Workers’ Strike at Yale University, 1984-85 (1995); Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, Beneath the University: Service Workers and the University-Hospital City, 1964-1980 (PhD Diss., New York University, 2015).