February 24, 2021

Too Legit to Quit

I'll always remember staff meetings from my first internship in labor, at UNITE HERE Local 1 in Chicago. They were loose affairs, even raucous at times, with the union reps and organizers savoring the chance to be together after a week out in the field. The meetings were largely a chance for teams to report back on successes they'd had that week- contacts made, leaders trained, contracts and grievances settled. I'm not sure who started it, but it was a tradition for anyone with a major victory to receive a chant of congratulations from the group taken from a seminal hit by MC Hammer- "Too legit, too legit to quit" - over and over, with accompanying hand gestures. By the time I'd arrived in Chicago, the chant earned as many groans as cheers from the group, but it added a welcome moment of levity in the midst of very serious work.

Yesterday, I published a white paper that aims to help campaigns to expand funding for public higher education become "too legit to quit". Entitled Slay The Dragon: Using Strategic Myths to Defeat Austerity in Higher Education, it breaks down the stories that education executives and politicians have used to push austerity policies and outlines how unions can rewrite those stories so that they can drive their efforts to save our public universities and colleges from death by a thousand cuts. As I've written previously, now is the ideal time for big policy changes - as the maxim says, "Never let a good crisis go to waste" - but it's a sword that cuts both ways. Policymakers used to the Great Recession to further reduce public spending on higher education and shift the load to faculty, employees, and students. They are likely to reaffirm if not expand that policy during the current fiscal crisis states now face.

Many unions in public higher education have launched campaigns to expand funding for their institutions, and more will likely follow in next few years. As I document in Slay The Dragon, these campaigns have the advantage of clearly documenting how almost all states have started their educational institutions since the Great Recession, with funding levels failing to return pre-recession levels in 44 states by 2017. Despite this, I think that less than half of these campaigns will succeed to substantial reform higher education funding in their states. Why? Like a crowd pushing through a small fire exit, any group that receives funding from state governments is focused on protecting that financial support from cuts and potential growing it through new taxes when circumstances return to normal. These are dozens of worthy causes backed by savvy organizations that compete with higher education unions on why states should fully fund them. With so many needy interests scrambling to come on top, what will make the difference?

The campaigns that earn the attention of decision makers by appearing urgent and important - "too legit to quit" - will succeed; the rest will not. One potent way to do this is through writing a strategic myth of reinvestment. Strategic myth is a term I've coined to describe a story told by change makers that draw emotional conclusions from supporting research to persuade others to accept and support change. They build a narrative around proposed policy changes that presents a urgent problem, demonstrates what's at stake, and builds credibility for the solution. They're drawn from a careful study of the press releases and soundbites that education executives have used to push austerity policies in recent years.

As persuasive as these narratives have proven, however, they have numerous shortcomings - opportunities for unions and their allies to advance their own strategic myth to take their place. This includes enrolling allies in a common cause to move forward. Many education unions have embraced the best traditions of social unionism to build community coalitions and to extend to the strategy of "bargaining for the common good" to legislative and political campaigns. However, it is exceedingly difficult to organize the priorities of allies without the feeling of competition or exclusion. Creating a common strategic myth gives everyone a big picture in common that they can embellish with the challenges and goals of their own organizations, without diluting the main talking points of the campaign for the target audience.

I look forward to expanding my study of strategic myths to other challenge areas in public education. In the meantime, you can find a PDF copy of "Slay The Dragon" at this link.

May 21, 2020
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