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Faculty unionization and the legacy of Blackburn:

How Howard students helped win a faculty union contract after losing their battle

Howard University faculty members Sean Pears and Jacob Sloan describe how student militancy fueled struggle on the part of non-tenure-track faculty.

To commemorate Labor Day in September 2022, Howard President Wayne Frederick sent an email to the entire Howard Community. It begins:

Throughout global history, and all through American history, there has been tension between so-called labor and capital, between employees and executives. Here is a simplistic example that illustrates the point: Who deserves credit for the construction of a house? Is it the architect who designed it? Or the workers who built it?

Now that we have grasped the simple concept, Frederick can lay it on us: “As we commemorate Labor Day this year,” he mused ecumenically, “we would do well to acknowledge that the classification of labor and capital is both a real distinction and a false dichotomy… The truth of the matter is that the architect and the workers deserve equal credit for the construction of a house.” Credit, in this instance, clearly does not mean pay.

Frederick—one of the highest paid university presidents in the Washington, DC area with a salary of well over a million dollars—may have felt particularly compelled to muddy this distinction between labor and capital in the Fall of 2022. Just that spring, the distinction had no doubt felt palpably real for him, as non-tenure faculty threatened a strike with the broad support of students, tenured faculty, and alumni that would have effectively shut down the campus. The strike threat was effective: it sparked the first good faith bargaining the administration had done with non-tenure faculty after three years at the table. Non-tenure faculty won the first collective bargaining agreement ever negotiated for full time faculty on the campus.

This historic victory is inextricably bound up with the heroic actions of Howard undergraduate students and, more broadly, with a deep, longstanding imbrication between the Black radical tradition and a history of struggle at Howard.1 The university has been continuously shaped by radical student action from the rejection of ROTC requirements in the 1920s to the introduction of Black Studies in the 1960s to the removal of Republican operative Lee Atwater as a Board of Trustees member in the 1980s.

One cannot fully understand the faculty union’s victory without seeing it in relation to student protest, specifically, the occupation of the Blackburn building that occurred in Fall 2021, just a few months before the contract was won. The Blackburn protest–which wound down undramatically with a non-disclosure agreement and no public details on tangible outcomes–was seen by some as a relative failure, especially held up against the long tradition of struggle at Howard. But Blackburn must be understood in relation to what it inspired and the conditions it created. The administration’s retaliatory actions make it all too clear that they themselves understand this connection. Labor and student activists would do well to heed it too.

Blackburn’s demise: The non-disclosure agreement

While the protest was the product of persistent tensions and decades-long underinvestments, the acute events that lead to Blackburn began in the summer of 2021, when Howard’s Board of Trustees made the sudden decision to remove affiliate seats for students, faculty, and alumni. These affiliate seats were a vestige of the shared governance reforms that were fought for in the 1960s. But they had been under threat for years, as the board has increasingly shaped itself in the model of private-sector corporations. Announcing the removal of the affiliate positions over the summer, when much of the university was on break, was undoubtedly timed to dull the reaction. Unfortunately for the administration, the announcement was quickly followed by another acute crisis: the post-COVID-19 return to campus after virtual instruction in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Reopening a university campus after more than a year of dormancy was a challenge everywhere, but Howard’s aging and neglected infrastructure made this challenge particularly acute. A COVID preparedness plan had been formulated, but many of the milestones had not been reached. Responding to a groundswell of faculty concern, the week before the semester began, the Faculty Senate called an emergency meeting and voted unanimously for a resolution to allow faculty to choose their teaching modality.

The COVID preparedness crisis opened up the question: Where, ultimately, did the leadership of the campus lie? The administration rejected the Faculty Senate’s resolution. But they were not able to compel faculty to teach in person. The Senate had a standing vote of no confidence in the administration since 2018, citing “defaults in administrative leadership, fiduciary responsibility, and decaying infrastructure.” Notwithstanding the resolute actions of Faculty Senate leadership, the faculty’s refusal to be compelled to return to in-person instruction was less the outcome of an organized and directly confrontational push than the product of the awakening of individual survival instincts among instructors. While heroic, the Senate resolution was not a movement. At the same time, it threw the tenuousness of the administration’s authority into harsh relief. Here was Frederick’s ‘so-called’ tension on display: labor and management.

The first week of the semester, the campus felt like a ghost town. Then, in the third week, a ransomware attack shut down the technology infrastructure, rendering virtual instruction impossible, locking students and faculty out of email. For those faculty members who had just been hired–many of them contingent faculty–this was not a new state of affairs but rather an intensification of the status quo. At the time of the attack, some new instructors had only just received access to email and their learning management systems, not to mention pay and health benefits. Others were still out in the cold.

Meanwhile, students returned to a housing situation that made concerns over instruction seem paltry. Students reported finding mold covering dorm walls, spreading into their clothing and bedding, and in the HVAC systems. Some were hospitalized with allergic reactions. They reported rodents. The dorms, seemingly, had been prepared for reopening in a similarly reckless fashion to the academic buildings, but with compounding risks to students’ health.

In October, the shoe dropped. A coalition of student groups met to strategize how to address the housing issue. They decided to occupy the Blackburn Building, a student center on the Yard. The demands that they formulated were ambitious, and recognized the interrelation of infrastructure investment and shared governance. They demanded the reinstatement of the affiliate positions on the Board of Trustees and a comprehensive plan to address the housing issues.

This action turned into the longest occupation in Howard’s history, well outlasting the victorious occupation of the university’s administration building in 1989. While the 1989 occupation lasted only three days, students in Blackburn held strong for more than a month.

On the right, nine tents occupy green space of Howard University’s campus and are surrounded by fall foliage. On the left, a flier by HU students highlights Howard University’s contract with student housing landlord, Corvias. The flier’s title is “BREAK UP WITH CORVIAS.” It has two portrait photos: one of Wayne Frederick, Howard University’s president, titled as ‘Selfish University President.’ And the second of John Picerne, Corvias CEO, titled as ‘Greedy Slumlord.’ The flier is broken up into two sections. The first says “Corvias is a known corporate slumlord that is tied up with multiple controversies across the country” and highlights Howard University students’ moldy dorms, North Carolina military families suing Corvias for unsafe housing, and the UCWGA Union citing Corvias as pressuring universities to open during the Pandemic. The second section says “FOLLOW THE MONEY” and highlights its 40-60 year contracts with Howard and University Systems of Georgia, lobbying, and using public funds for housing in bad faith.
A flier by HU students highlighting Howard University’s contract with student housing landlord, Corvias. Right: Tents occupy Howard University campus for the Blackburn student protest of 2021. Photos courtesy of the authors.

There is a sense in which the Blackburn occupation was lost the moment that it began. Without a clear escalation strategy, the administration could just concede the building to the students and the normal operations of the university could continue all around them. If you set up the camera in front of Locke Hall, you could still get a beautiful panorama of the newly renamed Chadwick Boseman College of Fine Arts building, stately Douglass Hall, the Chapel, Founder’s Library, the manicured lawn of the Yard: the Mecca in all its glory. You would never see the tent city where undergraduates were sleeping on concrete. The signs and posters and crowds of students standing in solidarity with the occupation. The classrooms taken outdoors to engage with the student protest as an act of radical pedagogy. The building itself, in which the administration turned off the heat to try to make it unlivable for the occupying students.

And, eventually, the holiday break would come, as it did. Nearing Thanksgiving, the student leaders decided to make a deal. The administration insisted that the students sign non-disclosure agreements, and the details of the agreement remain unknown. Students on the periphery of the event, even some close to it, felt confused, betrayed, deflated, which was without question the purpose of the NDAs.

But if Blackburn was effectively crushed by the administration and its own internal tensions, it created the conditions for the faculty’s success. As the protest went on, faculty had been moving in parallel, inspired—if also slightly embarrassed—by the courage of the students’ action and in the face of their own long standing hesitance. As the student protest deflated, faculty went into motion.

The spirit of Blackburn and faculty unionization

The faculty pushing for a full-time faculty union at Howard were also following a long tradition at the university. Higher education faculty unionization in the United States began at Howard. The first union of higher ed faculty in the United States was founded in 1918, in part as a response to the hiring of President Stanley Durkee, Howard’s last white president. The union only lasted two years under pressure from reactionary forces in Congress. As historian Timothy Reese Cain writes:

In January 1920, congressional pressure on the institution increased when Senator Reed Smoot (R-Utah) endangered Howard’s financial standing by threatening to block any further appropriations to the institution unless Albert Rhys Williams’ Seventy-Six Questions and Answers on Bolsheviks and Soviets was removed from the library. The tract, which had been donated to the library by a student, justified the Soviet government and exaggerated its successes. Durkee immediately removed the offending material, apologized for it ever appearing in the library, and wrote to Smoot that he believed that the government should suppress such publications.2

While Durkee’s pandering to reactionary forces contributed to the dismantling of the first faculty union, then, as now, the students showed far more courage and tenacity when they confronted the administration just a few years later, in what resulted in a student strike in 1925.

Durkee had pushed through a four-year compulsory physical education requirement that included a mandatory R.O.T.C. program for male students. For the first two years, the administration and faculty took a lax approach, allowing students multiple absences, in part because the university’s facilities were inadequate to administer the program. Then Durkee organized a faculty vote for more stringent rules. Suddenly, mid-semester, there were students facing suspension, ex post facto, for attendance in a program that had been inconsistently administered from the beginning.

The Student Council swept in, threatening to strike if the suspended students were not reinstated. In the middle of negotiations between students, faculty, and administration, Durkee left on a trip to Boston. The exasperated students added to their demands, including exemption from military training. The faculty refused to negotiate. Students struck.

One can hear echoes of this 1925 strike in the Blackburn occupation. Students were again responding to unilateral changes made by the President and Board of Trustees. The President’s own absence from negotiations prolonged and intensified the struggle. The conditions that students were responding to were created in part by the underdevelopment of facilities, and in another part by lax and inconsistent administration.

One key difference was that, unlike President Durkee, in 2021 President Wayne Frederick was not able to drive a wedge between students and faculty. Much of this can be credited to the students themselves, who framed their demands in solidarity with faculty concerns. Much of it is due to the work of the Faculty Senate, who voted in support of the rights of students at Blackburn to protest.

At least some of the solidarity between students and faculty came as well from the organizing of the Teaching Faculty Union. Indeed, what we know now is that if there is one clear beneficiary of the Blackburn student protest it is the SEIU Local 500 union members.

Local 500 had initially come to Howard in 2015, and had followed a familiar playbook for large business unions in the United States: Organize minimally, press a few overdue concessions on pay out of the administration, and start collecting dues. It was quick work, in part because adjuncts were so woefully underpaid that concessions were easy, and in part because a disaggregated group of people—most of whom spent a few hours a week on the campus at most—posed little organizing threat.

When Local 500 tried to repeat the trick with the non-tenure full-time faculty in 2017, it was a different story. These faculty’s concerns pressed more palpably on the contradictions of the decades-long project by administrators to erode the institution of tenure and undermine faculty governance. Unlike adjuncts, whose blatant exploitation could be swept aside with rationalizations that many of them necessarily held other full-time jobs, the exploitation of full-time non-tenured faculty was harder to justify. Why was it again, that they should be paid less to teach more classes, and then arbitrarily terminated in spite of outstanding performance?

For three years, Howard’s non-tenure faculty found themselves between, on the one side, a hostile and intransigent administration and, on the other, a union that, from the beginning, showed itself uninterested in building the organizational and combative capacity for a necessary strike.

To a great degree, the administration’s anti-union strategy had worked: the effort languished. Faculty who had been organizers early on now doubted whether something like a full-time faculty union was even possible at a place like Howard. In spite of long-standing support from the Faculty Senate, other tenured faculty would come to them to say that President Frederick was a nice guy, and had always given them everything they ever wanted. Or would make the outrageous claim that keeping teaching faculty precariously employed and unpaid was an important part of “protecting tenure.”3This was the situation faculty organizers were facing in the Fall of 2021.

But the spirit of mass disruption that Blackburn inaugurated shook things loose.

Faculty, both tenured and non-tenured, began organizing solidarity events. They slept in tents outside of Blackburn. They raised money for and delivered food and other necessities to the protestors. They sat outside Blackburn in the cold, making sure that, if the Howard cops returned, somebody would be there to intervene. They gathered signatures for petitions demanding the administration return to the table. They re-opened negotiations.

In the forefront, a yellow and beige tent stands with various cardboard signs leaned against it. One sign reads “LIVING CONDITIONS = LEARNING CONDITIONS = TEACHING CONDITIONS = WORKING CONDITIONS.” Another reads “NON-TENURE FACULTY TENTS.” And the last reads “WE LOVE OUR STUDENTS!”. Several orange tents are in the background.
A non-tenure faculty tent joins the Blackburn occupation in solidarity with the protesting Howard University students. Photo credit: HUNTT Faculty Union.

Even though Blackburn ended—perhaps, in part, because of the sense of confusion and betrayal that accompanied its end—the spirit of Blackburn felt very alive on the campus going into the second semester. In December 2021, a group of alumni filed a lawsuit arguing that the removal of the affiliate seats on the Board of Trustees had violated the university by-laws.

President Frederick’s attempts to win back the support of the campus fell flat. Spring 2022 semester reconvened, he sent a university-wide email commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which quoted King’s final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and called for a vague “togetherness.” The faculty union organized its own tribute to MLK, reminding Frederick that:

King delivered his final speech in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis; that his vision of “togetherness” was not some abstract incantation but was rather the solidarity of striking workers and the activists and community members that stood with them; and that King’s call for “dangerous unselfishness” stands in contradiction to policies that put profits over student and faculty well-being and in the way of the administration’s decision to call in the famed anti-union law firm Jackson-Lewis in order to fight against the implementation of a fair contract for non-tenure faculty.

Blackburn had brought together faculty, students, and alumni. It had articulated in clear and simple terms their shared interests, and had articulated them across national news media, and to the highest levels of government. It left these groups standing, together, in anticipation, with a clear understanding of the administration’s tactics of intransigence and intimidation, on a Zoom call celebrating the legacy of MLK. Following King’s legacy, the faculty’s solidarity was growing.

On Wednesday March 16, having stalled entirely in their negotiations, the faculty called a strike for the following Wednesday at a rally outside of the Administrative Building on the campus. When they attempted to enter the building to meet with the Provost to settle the contract and avert the strike, they were met with campus police, who physically restrained faculty members.

The following day, new negotiations were scheduled. Coming hard on the Fall semester that had begun with a de facto walk-out over working conditions, cascaded into a cyber-attack, and then foundered in the longest student occupation in university history, the administration could not allow another cycle of headlines. The Vice President of the United States was, after all, an alumni. Mayor of Newark and 1989 protester Ras Baraka had delivered a speech at the flagpole in support of the Blackburn protests. Howard was in the spotlight.

The faculty contract and the legacy of protest at Howard

After the strike was called, the tone at the negotiating table was a complete reversal. Gone were the intransigence and harassment that faculty had faced for three years. And in their place were, suddenly, proposals, compromises, and alternatives. The following week, at 3:00 in the morning on the first official day of the strike, a tentative agreement was reached, falling short of the initial demands but improving pay and job stability substantially for hundreds of faculty across the campus.

While faculty celebrated, the administration initiated hearings for students who had attended the March 16 rally. Three students were suspended, had their scholarships revoked, and were forced to reapply if they wished to return. Their reapplications have since been rejected. All three of them had been involved in the Blackburn protest. Faculty members who attended the hearings and explained to administration that the entire event was organized and executed by faculty as a labor tactic were confronted by a kangaroo court that refused to even explain what the students were being accused of.

This, then, is the legacy of Blackburn. A group of heroic students did what faculty had been unable and unwilling to do for decades: to not simply register discontent but to use force in pursuit of livable conditions, shared governance, and justice. In a sense, they failed, as such attempts so often do. But they created the conditions, and they paid the price, for a historic victory.

There are many lessons that can be taken from these events. For one, there is a valuable practical lesson: Howard students are serious and bold organizers, often outpacing their instructors at the interrelated levels of systematic and institutional analysis and on-the-ground confrontation. If the occupation of Blackburn failed to produce decisive and radical change by way of its own momentum–and if it was ultimately hamstrung by a mix of administrative recalcitrance from without and a lack of democracy from within–it put the very idea of struggle, and not just by way of scheduled negotiations, Faculty Senate votes, or petitions, but rather by way of direct confrontation back into the minds and mouths of faculty and their allies at Howard. It also made this idea of mass disruptive struggle in pursuit of justice a material reality on the ground, showing those who would call for a strike how to bring the collective force of bodies and voices to bear on institutions that seem locked in unchangeable patterns.

For another–as we saw again recently at the New School–a coalition of students, alumni, and faculty, willing to threaten and engage in mass disruption and creative aggression, can be a powerful force for change, even in the atomized and isolated conditions that organizers often must confront on campuses. Such action is not without risk, of course. And its success, however that is measured, is in no way guaranteed. But it is also the antidote to isolation and apathy. It not only creates openings for change but also necessitates the forging of precisely the forms of experimental collectivity–the forging of alliances between students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members–that proved integral to the success, however incomplete, of the non-tenure-track faculty union at Howard.

By both unveiling their moldy dorms to the world and also reaching beyond and beneath this most immediate reality to disclose its underlying causes, students at the center of the occupation of Blackburn blew an analytical, rhetorical, and organizational hole in the wall through which non-tenure faculty would blaze a path. The slogan most often repeated by non-tenure faculty during bargaining and moments of protest was integrative and totalizing in precisely the way that the Blackburn struggle had been. Variations of “Living and Teaching Conditions are Learning Conditions” were plastered on signs held high at rallies.

Echoing the Blackburn protestors, who had connected the university administration’s neglect of its infrastructure and the well-being of its students to the present history of the crackdown on faculty and student governance and the prioritization of an austerity agenda, the non-tenure faculty articulated not only its own narrow demands and goals but also pulled in questions of student living conditions, community and alumni wellbeing, and faculty governance at Howard.

Rather than presenting these concerns as a host of fragmented crises, the non-tenure faculty union followed in the footsteps of those who had occupied Blackburn and supported the occupation, drilling down below the chaotic surface of these multiple crises and finding their roots entwined in a historic tension that has long troubled a school like Howard.

We could articulate this tension as a still ongoing struggle between two distinct visions of Howard, HBCUs more broadly, and the university as an institution. Professor Joshua Myers’ work on the 1989 occupation provides a template for thinking about this tension, its simmering below the surface in times of normalcy, and its recurrent explosion into the open in various moments when students and, more rarely, faculty actively oppose themselves to the conservative and often openly reactionary course of the Howard administration. Moving across different moments of activist upsurge on Howard’s campus, Myers highlights radical imagination as a red thread. Just as in 1968, he writes,

[I]t was imagination that underpinned the force that swept through Howard University at the close of the 1980s. To imagine that a university, languishing under the weight of a complex history, could in fact change, could in fact be the dream sequence of our freedom–this is what emboldened and enlivened the moments of confrontation that occurred on March 3, 1989. 4

Occupiers in 1989 were, then, “extending a tradition,” actively taking into their hands and joining up with

[A] long genealogy of Black renegades who resisted the notion that people of African ancestry would remain wedded to the ideals of American universalism. Rather than pursuing détent with an inherently oppressive political regime, this genealogy of Black radical pursued self-defined norms and self-determined actions for securing a just society for their group and for humanity.5

This is the struggle into which the Blackburn occupiers wove themselves. In actively struggling for student well-being at the material level, for the prioritization of student social reproduction, and in opposition to the University’s austerity measures, these students also resurrected the tradition of radical imagining that Myers articulates above. This resurrection didn’t stop dead with the end of Blackburn. It was taken up as a project by the non-tenure-track faculty at the university, revivifying and enlarging the bounds of their struggle.

Howard students weren’t fooled by the university administration’s gestures to King or attempts to deconstruct and rhetorically equalize labor and capital. They saw a Howard that was refusing to live up to its mission, that intentionally failed to measure up to its ideals and to the ideals that they had for it. Blackburn put a different definition of Howard on the table–one that would prioritize its students and faculty, its mission of education and equality and its history of activism. That’s the Howard they fought to bring into being.

Becoming, though, is a process. The Blackburn occupation collapsed before it could realize its loftiest goals. In its confrontation with a recalcitrant administration–and its refusal to back down from confrontation as such–it put both the necessity and the vitality of mass disruptive struggle back on the table. Too, in measuring Howard’s rhetoric against its practices, it opened up a capacious vision of anti-racism on campus.

At the end of the day, Howard’s credibility as an institution that promotes racial justice was strained by the reality of its neglect of its students and faculty, the cops that it sicced on its protesting students, and its decision to spend money on the union-busting services of Jackson Lewis instead of on paying faculty. At the institutional level, the administration’s anti-racism and commitment to democracy, then, was revealed to be little more than what Olúfémi O. Táíwò has brilliantly described as “elite capture,” the hijacking, narrowing, and redeployment of radical concepts by those in power in order to cover their asses, perform inclusivity while veiling the material reality of inequality, and demobilize movements for justice.

The spirit of Blackburn, in this sense, continues to animate struggle on the campus. The alumni lawsuit is still working its way through the courts. The Faculty Senate continues to push for improved share governance. The union will renegotiate its contract in 2024. And students continue, as they do, to debate, explore, study, question, and organize.

This act of taking up and building on is as much part of Howard as all of its flaws. As Myers writes, we should see the history of student (and perhaps even faculty) activism at Howard as one in which “historical antecedents, contemporary adherents, and future activists” are “intimately connected by a vibrant, though multilayered, tradition of Black struggle.” In his book, this means, as he says, centering the “voices of the students, not because they . . . were without contradictions or flaws, but because they were.”6

Featured Image credit: Photo courtesy of the authors; modified by Tempest.

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Sean Pears and Jacob Sloan View All

Sean Pears is a member of the Howard University Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Union. His dissertation focused on Reconstruction poetry, and his articles have appeared in English Literary History, Arizona Quarterly, and elsewhere.

Jacob Sloan is a member of the Howard University Non-Tenure Track Faculty Union and the Tempest Collective. His writing on the global working-class novel has appeared in Mediations.