Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Training for What?

Should a public college partner with a private company to train scabs?

Anya Kamenetz has a thought-provoking piece about the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s agreement to run welding programs for Caterpillar.  Caterpillar is expecting a strike, so it wants the local technical college to train its managers and non-unit staff to be able to do union jobs if its welders walk off the job. MATC is responding to employer need, offering training in an employable skill and thereby supporting the local economy.  Now the Steelworkers’ union is petitioning MATC to refrain from what it considers pre-emptive strikebusting.

It’s an ugly, sticky issue.  

There’s nothing objectionable about a technical college teaching welding.  It has done that for years, and I assume has done it well.  And there’s nothing unusual about a college contracting with specific private employers to run classes or training workshops for its employees.  Community colleges have done that for decades.  It’s a longstanding practice that frequently offers benefits to all involved: the employer gets good training at a reasonable cost; the taxpayers get a productive workforce and a strong economy; and the college fulfills its mission and makes money to support its nonprofit activities.  (Some of the faculty who object the loudest to workforce training on the grounds that it’s “impure” don’t seem to understand that it materially subsidizes their purity.)  Since noncredit workforce classes have to be economically self-supporting most of the time -- grants aside -- the benefit of working with a single employer is the guarantee of a critical mass of students at a given time and place.

In this case, the union is essentially asking the college to take a moral position that training these workers in this skill at this time is wrong.  

It reminded me of a discussion I had on my own campus recently.  It’s hardly news that Massachusetts is planning to legalize casinos, and that it’s soliciting proposals from various developers for locations.  Community colleges in relevant areas are preparing programs to train workers in the various skills for which casinos hire.  In conversation last week, a respected professor suggested to me that the college should take a moral position that casinos are bad for communities and simply refuse to participate.  

For that matter, I think there’s a serious argument to be made that graduate programs in many humanities and social science disciplines should either shrink or be shut down.  The employment prospects for their graduates at this point are so poor that the idea of spending taxpayer money to send the next wave of recruits into the wall doesn’t make sense.  But there, too, the people being asked to take a moral stand are the people whose livelihoods would be affected if they did.

It’s easy to condemn any or all of these activities, but thinking through the consequences of taking a self-consciously moral position gets complicated quickly.  Suppose MATC told Caterpillar to go away.  The governor of Wisconsin isn’t known for being particularly union-friendly; I can imagine severe political (and therefore budgetary) consequences for the college far beyond the loss of the contract.  Something like that is going on now in Michigan, where some public colleges are trying to sign long-term contracts with unions to beat the “right to work” deadline, and legislators are threatening budgetary retaliation.  

In the context of casinos, if the public sector training providers walked away, private sector training providers would happily pick up the slack.  The “pure” academic side would lose the cross-subsidy, and the political cost to the colleges would probably be substantial.  And the casinos would still be here.

As far as graduate education goes, I think the record is clear.  Graduate programs continue to admit because they need the t.a.’s and they like the prestige.  They’re caught in a variation on the tragedy of the commons; shutting down any one program would do great harm to the people in that program, but would barely make a dent in the larger problem.  The “you first” temptation is so strong that nobody goes first.  

The Milwaukee case struck me as an usually clear example of an issue that we face all the time.  Mixed motives are a fact of life, and political consequences can be very real.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would you do?  If you ran MATC, would you honor the union request, or would you run the program?    

Perhaps its the cynic in me, but I can see nothing but good coming from MANAGERS learning to weld. That is not, to put it mildly, desk work. How many will want to drop out? Will they learn the job requires more skills than they have?

Could be fun to watch if the companies negotiators were among those ordered to go to welding school.
I'm from "MATCH" so my insight comes with an extra "h."

Great question. It feels over the line. Essentially, "neutrality" on this one would seem "don't get involved." Training the scabs puts the institution on one side. MATC organizing its students and staff to join the picketers would seem to be the roughly equivalent version of "the other side." I'd avoid both.
There hasn't been a strike yet, therefore there are no "scabs" to be trained. One could easily make the argument that the college is merely contracting with the employer to provide services for potential future employees. I think it's incredibly problematic for a public (or any) institution to try to anticipate union/labor actions ahead of time.

I'm certainly not anti-union (despite how the above may read to some), but I do think that an awful lot of union behavior has shifted from its historical raison d'etre (worker safety, establishment of a working wage, and yes, workers' rights) to sort of a protectionism against ANYone (management) using non-union labor or preventing anyone else (skilled non-union worker from entering particular labor markets.

Not a Wisconsin case, but here's an example of some of the tactics some unions have recently gone to:
"Should a public college partner with a private company to train scabs?"

In a word, no.
Physicians ask medical schools not to train more than X amount of MDs (and, more importantly, residents) every year. Why shouldn't unions ask community colleges to not train more than X amount or type of welders every year?

I don't want my tax dollars subsidizing Caterpillar pulling these hijinks. The only sane reason Caterpillar would contract a state funded CC and not a for-profit is that the CC is cheaper. Thus, in a sense, even if contracting with the private company is normally a net win in the way you described, it's still a tax payer subsidy of private industry.
In other words, if we allow this school to provide this service, the public is CHOOSING to provide scabs.

Screw Caterpillar. Let them train their managers to weld at University of Phoenix, if they can.
I see no problem with continuing a program they already have, but I would be sorely tempted to require a class in fair labor practices and workplace ethics.
Interesting issue and question posed, which I appreciate you raising. But I have to agree this just seems wrong for the state to get involved with -- a for profit, so be it, but a state entity should not be helping to weaken unions.
Quote: Essentially, "neutrality" on this one would seem "don't get involved."

Wouldn't "neutrality" then also require that the school not offer courses to Union members? Otherwise, they'ed be "on the side" of the people looking to hurt those employers by leaving for other jobs.

Acting in a manner which benefits one side to the determinet of the other is rarely listed as a definition of "neutral."

In addition, having the managers actually know the tools and processes they're managing will serve to improve the company in the long run. They'll be able to intelligently comment on and review worker suggestions, since they will have first-hand knowledge of the work involved, rather then opinions. For that matter, the proposals the managers make will be better-grounded in the workplace reality, and therefore less likely to inadvertantly make the overall process worse.
They'll be able to intelligently comment on and review worker suggestions, since they will have first-hand knowledge of the work involved, rather then opinions. For that matter, the proposals the managers make will be better-grounded in the workplace reality, and therefore less likely to inadvertantly make the overall process worse.

Most tech companies have management that is mostly engineer and other techies. Doesn't stop them making bone-headed decisions. Back when I worked in the tech field I had a lot of engineer/managers making silly technical decisions.

Hell, every management position in my school board, clear up to the director, is filled by someone who was once a teacher. Doesn't stop them jumping on every educational fad going on, boosting our workload as teachers.
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