From Motor City to Mind City: Combining Union, Professional and Co-operative Association in Michigan Higher Education

Nation of Change published a piece this month by Matt Stannard, entitled, “Organized Labor, Public Banks and Grassroots: Keys to A Worker-Owned Economy,” that includes several observations I consider consistent with the aims of my alternative higher education model (a.k.a. PSA): a paradigm shift away from the current employer/employee capitalist labour arrangement in favour of labour arrangements more common to entrepreneurialism and the social economy.

First, from my perspective on higher education reform Stannard’s piece offers a constructive rather than complicit role for unions.  Second, his piece mitres nicely with one of the strategies I have been developing to put the PSA model into action.

Though I recommend a full read of Stannard, here are the points of relevance for this post:

1) The United Steelworkers [has had] discussions with Mondragon Cooperative Corporation;
2) Unions in Detroit launch union co-operatives regularly (see graphic below);
3) Sustainable sources of finance [are] integral to the creation and maintenance of sustainable workplace democracies;
4) Educators [are] experiencing disproportionate job loss; and
5) Municipalities with empty downtowns [should] open storefront public-private worker-owned partnership firms.

Keeping in mind the full discussion of PSA on this blog and partially linked throughout, here is the strategy in broad strokes – critical analysis and collaboration are most welcome:

The State
I have selected the state of Michigan and Detroit city as possible levels of government to approach with the PSA proposal, presented as a revitalization initiative.  It is common knowledge that since 2008 the state and the city are in a bad way as far as business/residential real estate, under/unemployment, and exodus are concerned.  States have constitutional control over education and since the PSA model requires nothing like the sort of public funding provided the current institutional model, all three levels of government might be attracted to this low cost initiative - while the federal government would be hard pressed to resist independent state action on the initiative since federal funding is eliminated or made nominal by PSA.

The Model
PSA is flexible enough to be grafted onto solvent higher education institutions (HEIs), introduced as a means to sustain insolvent HEIs, or operate independently in an array of, what Stannard refers to as, “worker-owned partnership firms” - what we might call academic-owned HEIs.  It is an entrepreneurial model that describes academic labour organized in professional association and individual or co-operative practice.  This is not the current capitalist labour arrangement of institutional employers and academic employees represented by unions – though a function for unions will be introduced.

The Open Doors
With the model in place some notable advantages accrue to Michigan and Detroit:

1) PSA opens the door for an attractive source of public revenue and economic stimulation.  The model only requires revenue equal to the national average tuition (or less) to operate – a figure of $8,893 for in-state students – which in the state of Michigan is a 57% reduction in the total revenue required by the current institutional model, where average tuition is almost double the national at $15,891 and state appropriations are $4,796 for total institutional operating revenue of $20,687 per FTE student.  Since international tuition must cover the full cost to provide higher education, under PSA Michigan can offer non-resident students at least a 57% reduction in tuition.

International students are a source of low-cost/high-revenue for states, while they encourage commerce in the form of service expansion from healthcare to entertainment, residence (re)construction, and product consumption – all of which is taxable.

Were PSA in place no one could compete with Michigan for non-resident students.  The state and particularly Detroit could become a true cosmopolitan region, with all of the benefits that this entails from a highly skilled (immigrant) work force to cultural diversity.

2) PSA opens the door for academic access to higher education.  Contested since Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights the professional licensure of PSA provides the opportunity for all qualified, interested academics to exercise their unenumerated right to earn a living.  The model does not employ academics but empowers and supports them in their personal pursuit of a respectable living as experts in education and research.  In doing so it removes unnecessary limits on the right to earn a living imposed by the waning and uncertain public finance of institutional employment capacity.

3) PSA opens the door for student access to higher education.  Since the current institutional model necessarily has limited employment capacity it necessarily limits the access that students and academics have to one another.  By removing institutional limits PSA allows academics and students to independently form education relationships at will and as the market demands, using the existing facilities made possible by public support of universities and colleges and the wider community infrastructure that stands in need of revitalization - consider this concept video on "scale-free schools."

4) PSA opens the door for (inter)national emulation of Michigan.  Such a higher education reform and revitalization strategy could become a model for other struggling regions of the world (e.g., Spain and Greece) that are even less averse to co-operatives, more familiar with them and surrounded by large existing co-operative support networks (e.g., Mondragon Co-operative of Spain and Legcoop of Italy) that among other assets include a university (Mondragon University), financial institutions and legal firms.

5) PSA opens the door for investment in Michigan.  As a result of increases in government tax revenue, local commerce, academic/student access, and global emulation Michigan and Detroit will present a more favourable investment portfolio.

6) PSA opens the door for free higher education.  The term ‘free’ in this context means students would not be charged tuition or fees to attend a Michigan HEI – now or in the future, as the Pay It Forward plan requires.  This outcome is not a necessary aim or implication of the PSA model but opens the door for Michigan to comply with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requiring progress be made toward free higher education.  Beyond this narrow definition of “free higher education” the anticipated public cost reductions and revenue/investment increases might well be enough for PSA to not only eliminate tuition but fully fund the living and learning expenses of students, from room and board to books to healthcare and childcare.

The Assets
This strategy has to reach what Stannard calls the “source of untapped energy and creativity in the building of a new economy,” namely the “unemployed and underemployed ‘indentured educated class’.”  In other words, it must reach adjuncts.

This is where unions come in, with their “financial resources and community support,” existing networks and skills in organizing – particularly of the adjunct population that I believe would jump at the opportunity to become respected, well-compensated professional entrepreneurs in private or partnered practice, as opposed to exploited and disrespected employees who are not in control of their own labour.

However, as Stannard’s interviewee, Richard Wolff, points out there are barriers in attitude that must be overcome.

“Union rank-and-file may be skeptical of the seemingly unconventional economic and cultural values of cooperative supporters, and workers in cooperatives may believe they don’t need unions since they have a voice in running their own enterprises.”

Stannard continues, “…overcoming those barriers is mutually beneficial.  As John Clay points out, union partnership adds financial resources and community support, increased worker benefits, and an ally when the cooperative model is under attack by retrograde capitalists. And proponents of cooperatives need union leadership to check what one activist has called ‘the inherent capitalist tendency of individual cooperative businesses’ through sustained worker solidarity – which will link workers across various cooperatives.”

The diverse history of collaboration between unions and co-operatives leaves open the door to a higher education model such as that of PSA.  The United Steelworkers union in collaboration with Mondragon Cooperative Corporation has introduced the “union co-operative” as a means of combining what seem like fundamentally distinct forms of worker organization and representation. 

As with traditional co-operatives workers still own their labour and through a “one worker, one vote” democratic process control the company, including election of management and board members, but now there is a “Union Committee” to be elected and vested with devising and advising on guidelines regarding “the day-to-day interests of worker-owners as workers” such as wages, benefits and working conditions.  In this way, as a resource beyond organization and finance union experience with measurement and negotiation of working conditions can aid academic labour in establishing and maintaining PSA.

In addition to the union and financial backing that Stannard identifies as necessary for the PSA strategy to be successful co-operative building requires legal backing.  There are many attorneys that work in support of the social economy and worker rights, some of whom have come from a law school that might be a good place to start a search for such backing, the Peoples College of Law, in California – another state that is seriously struggling with higher education.

The Next Step

My hope is that PSA and this strategy will at least get a hearing if not gain traction among social activists, governments, unions and adjuncts.  For this to happen those more knowledgeable and connected than I am need to step up.  For my part I will continue to work on its development and promotion, as best I can, inspired by signs of support from people like Arik Greenberg and Rebecca Schuman, who have expressed interest in founding a co-operative university.


  1. As founder and director of the Adjunct Faculty Union, I fully support and would help Greenberg, Schuman, and so many others establish the first cooperative online university in the United States. I was author and coordinator of the City College of Fort Lauderdale Institutional Effectiveness Plan, and I think this is a seriously needed and workable business model for higher education in the twenty-first century.

    1. Hello Reid,

      I am pleased you endorse the PSA model. It is a viable online or offline (face-to-face) alternative to the current circumstance. In an online form of PSA the use of technology remains in the hands of individual (associated) academics, which keeps the teacher/student ratios much lower than the now favoured institutional MOOC response to rising costs and reduced access, while it allows many more academics to earn a living and control their own work. In a face-to-face implementation of the model the advantages to academics remain, while local tax-base and commerce stand to increase in ways not really possible with an online implementation.

      With PSA there are options, possibilities outside the institutional box. If you decide to run with the model and there is any way I can help, please do not hesitate to contact me.



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