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November 21, 2018

Why does the head of a NY labor studies center get no job protections? SUNY has some explaining to do

May 25, 2018
Empire State College, SUNY (D Penfield / Wikimedia Commons)

For several decades, the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College (part of the State University of New York system) has provided associate and bachelor degrees in labor studies for union members in New York City.

The Van Arsdale Labor Center is named after the legendary man who led the New York City Central Labor Council from 1958 until his death in 1986. After leading the electrical workers IBEW Local 3 and the Building Trades Council, Van Arsdale played a key role in organizing the New York City’s taxi drivers and hospital workers. It is fitting that the labor center is named after such a seminal figure in city’s rich union history.




The Van Arsdale Labor Center is currently hiring a new associate dean, which is the most senior position at the center. I recently interviewed for and was offered this position.

Somewhat reluctantly, I turned it down after I was informed that the university leadership wants to make the associate director an “at will” position who serves at the pleasure of the president of Empire State and who could be removed at any time and for almost any reason. Employment at will, which prevails as a legal principle in the United States but not in most other rich democracies, is the legal doctrine that employees can be hired and fired at the will, and perhaps at the whim, of their employer.

It is understandable that the university hierarchy would want to appoint someone they could dismiss at will, even if that severely limits the pool of qualified candidates. (It does do that: This is at least the second time that a tenured academic from another university has turned down the associate dean position because of the university’s refusal to offer tenure, not to mention its failure to make clear that it had no intention of offering tenure from the outset.)

What’s more puzzling is why New York City and national unions would continue to support a program whose head is being treated as a second-class citizen by the university hierarchy. Virtually all of the college’s other associate deans enjoy the protections and security of tenure.

Many other New York universities have labor studies programs, and most treat their heads with equal respect to that provided to other faculty, offering tenure and job security.

At-will employment represents everything the labor movement opposes, and the unions that support the labor center would not accept at-will employment for their own members. The center is able to exist only by virtue of its partnership agreements with a handful of local unions and one national one.

IBEW Local 3 (Van Arsdale’s old local), Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 1 and International Association of Machinists pay to send their members to Empire State College. In return, the college’s leadership treats the head of its Labor Center as a disposable employee.

Having a head who serves at the will of the president, moreover, does not bode well for the future of the Labor Center. If instructed by the university’s president or provost to take actions that were contrary to the interests of the labor center, its faculty or students, the associate dean would face two choices: comply or face dismissal.

At-will employment is the norm for most non-union workers in the United States. This is one of several aspects of employment law under which U.S. workers lack the protections enjoyed by their counterparts in other rich democracies.

In most of Europe, legal safeguards ensure that employees cannot be dismissed without good cause. The United Kingdom, for example, has a law of unfair dismissal that regulates employer behavior in this regard.

Yet employment at will, a practice that stands in direct contrast with everything the U.S. labor movement has struggled to achieve over the past century, is at the Labor Center. Harry Van Arsdale Jr. would be turning in his grave.

Logan is a professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.




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