Once again reinforcing the view that unions and much of their memberships believe doing things as inefficiently and ineffectively as possible somehow creates sustainable jobs or is in anyway considered "an investment in the future" especially when it comes to education.


The specter and promise of online education is perhaps nowhere more deeply felt than in California, where campus administrators and instructors are faced with a bloodletting. University of California officials have suggested that the system will have to innovate out of the current financial crisis by expanding online programs. (State house analysts agree.) Instructors, meanwhile, are terrified that this is code for cutting their pay, or increasing their workloads, or outsourcing their jobs to interlopers, or replacing them with online teaching software.

The system’s corps of lecturers feels this threat sharply. “We believe that if courses are moved online, they will most likely be the classes currently taught by lecturers,” reads a brief declaration against online education on the website of UC-AFT, the University of California chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, “and so we will use our collective bargaining power to make sure that this move to distance education is done in a fair and just way for our members.”

Now the California lecturers, who make up nearly half of the system’s undergraduate teaching teachers, believe they have used that bargaining power to score a rare coup. The University of California last week tentatively agreed to a deal with UC-AFT that included a new provision barring the system and its campuses from creating online courses or programs that would result in “a change to a term or condition of employment” of any lecturer without first dealing with the union.

Bob Samuels, the president of the union, says this effectively gives the union veto power over any online initiative that might endangers the jobs or work lives of its members. “We feel that we could stop almost any online program through this contract,” Samuels told Inside Higher Ed.

And stop it they would. Regardless of any data administrators trot out to argue that students learn just as well online as they do in the classroom, the union would do whatever it could to block the university from moving courses online if it decides the move would make life worse for lecturers, says Samuels. Because some of the important social benefits of classroom education are hard to quantify, Samuels says he distrusts those who argue for the equivalency of online learning based on "the evidence." "I don’t think you’re going to find any conclusive analysis or study of that," he says. "I think it’s [always] going to be a judgment call."

The union president says he thinks the university, which would be bound by the deal for the next three years, did not grasp the implications of the online provision.

“We feel we got something that the university didn’t really understand,” he says.

But the university says it grasps the implications of the pact quite well — and that Samuels and his cohort are the ones who seem to misunderstand it.

“They do not have the power to block the university from implementing new online programs,” says Dianne Klein, a spokeswoman for the Office of the President.