May 2, 2023

GUEST ROOM | The Case for Keeping Labor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations

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In 1943 the world was at war, union leaders had given up the right to strike, workers were striking anyway and plans were established for a college of Industrial and Labor Relations. In ILR’s first year, more American workers were represented by unions than ever before or since, income inequality was at its lowest and organized labor was a competitive force against industry. In this context, ILR’s emphasis on arbitration, mutually beneficial labor/industry relations and good faith collective bargaining made sense. 

The yawning gap between the industrial democracy of ILR’s embryonic years and today’s landscape of corporate tyranny reflects a systematic crusade against organized labor. Politicians and private-sector actors have worked together to expand poverty and stifle democracy  — all the while siphoning egregious sums of wealth to the already-egregiously wealthy. High-profile strikes made 2022 an exciting year for labor, but the share of workers in a union was the lowest on record, a fact that should profoundly disturb anyone who cares about poverty, inequality or justice. 

And yet, rather than renew its commitment to industrial democracy and shared prosperity, the ILR School has followed in the footsteps of — or perhaps helped lay the groundwork for — the national movement to exchange a large middle class for a small wealthier elite. While America was busting unions, doubling down on corporate power, and casting aside embedded legacies of labor struggle, the ILR school was deemphasizing collective bargaining and labor history, directing students toward finance and business, and morphing slowly but surely into a glorified business school. 

I do not wish to discredit the many students, professors, librarians and researchers who, through their teaching, writing and learning, through the Worker Institute, the Labor Action Tracker and the many extension programs, make critical contributions to labor every day. Leaders at the center of today’s labor movement came to Ithaca for this semester’s Union Days, engaging in discussion so inspiring, you almost forgot you were in PepsiCo Lecture Hall. 

But efforts by a small and mighty labor-inclined few don’t outweigh the vast majority of students fundamentally apathetic to social struggles, tunnel-visioned on establishing the networking connections and accumulating the arbitrary qualifications that form the straightest path to Wall Street. This apathy is not the sign of a curriculum failing, but rather one producing exactly its inscribed priorities.

After the core curriculum, an ILR degree is made up mostly of ‘ILR Electives’. Of the 111 in and out-of-college electives offered last spring, 82 (74 percent) were management, business, finance or economics, and three (2.7 percent) were history. Eligible electives represent a mere fraction of the 4000+ courses offered at Cornell. 

Despite the death of labor history, dozens of labor-related courses in history, Africana, gender or Indigenous studies departments outside ILR get no elective credit. One outlandish idea is that students might receive credit for learning about slavery — the very system upon which this country’s labor economy was founded. Instead, students are flooded with courses like “Actualizing Your Startup,” “Investment Banking Essentials” and “Innovation and Corporate Renewal.” ILR boasts that 82 percent of 2021 graduates landed private sector jobs, and in case you thought that left a sixth of the school bound for labor, think again — a mere 3 percent of graduates end up in the labor movement. 

Carson Taylor brilliantly articulates the rhetorical somersaults ILR performs in order to tout, in one breath, commitments to workers and connections with Amazon, BlackRock and Proskauer-Rose (the most notorious union-busting law firm). 

The point is, as much in classrooms as in the Office of Career Services, finance and management have little risk of losing hegemonic status. The least they can do is let those of us still interested in workers and their livelihoods take classes in other departments.

One could levy other critiques against Cornell writ large — its high tuition, profit-maximization, union-busting, property tax avoidance, treatment of indigenous land. Still, there is something uniquely devastating about the steady commodification of education at ILR — an institution that boasts Frances Perkins and Betty Friedan as former faculty, presidents of UNITE HERE, the American Federation of Teachers, the NFL Players Association and the Freelancer’s Union as alumni, and a deep legacy of strengthening organized labor and supporting workers in New York State.

Every morning, I walk beneath the gate on Eddy Street that reads, “so enter that daily thou mayest become more learned and more thoughtful. So depart that daily thou mayest become more useful to thy country and to mankind.” At some point during the day, I usually enter the Goldwin Smith foyer inscribed, “Genuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being.” It is difficult to fathom how lucky I am to live guided primarily by these obligations, to think and learn, so that I might leave school more thoughtful, useful and enlightened. The irony of my lamenting the plight of workers from atop my Ivy League campus is not lost on me.

Nevertheless, every year, money leaves the paychecks of tax-paying New Yorkers on the condition that ILR will “improve the quality of life in the state, the nation, and the world,” and we are straying significantly from that vision. I know there are students, parents, alumni and donors who still believe there is value in learning about this country’s most enduring social movement, about the only demonstrable challenge to corporate power in a world burning at the hands of that power. America has thousands of business schools. There is only one undergraduate college dedicated entirely to the study of industrial and labor relations. I believe it is worth saving. 

Katrina Hanauer Cassell is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.