SILVER SPRING -- For JoAnn Johntony and Davida Russell, a college education always appeared out of reach. Finding the time and money for education, while balancing work and family, seemed impossible for the school custodian and bus driver for developmentally disabled children, respectively, from Ohio.
But here they were at the National Labor College last weekend, beaming with pride and posing for pictures in their caps and gowns. With financial support from their union and the college's focus on working adults, each woman now has a bachelor's degree in labor studies.
"Had this school never been here for working men and women, many of us would never have been able to get a degree," said Johntony, who is in her 60s and was one of two student representatives who delivered a commencement speech.
The graduates are among about 1,000 students who have earned degrees at the National Labor College during the past 10 years that it has operated as an independent institution.
Here, card-carrying union members-turned-students learn how to bargain effectively, how to lobby and how to organize workers in an increasingly competitive global economy.
The school's tenure has been marked by a continuing decline in union activism and membership, and its leaders acknowledge that they face a weakening climate.
Workers, unions members in particular, have seen plants close and jobs cut or outsourced abroad in the past few decades.
Union membership has steadily declined for decades; from 20.1 percent of U.S. workers in 1983 to 12 percent last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite such malaise in the labor movement, college officials see the school's mission of grooming future union leaders and educating rank-and-file members as more relevant than ever before. They hope the school will help to increase membership and strengthen the labor movement.
"For most of the 20th century, there was an alternative pathway to the middle class and that was ... the union factory work," said college President Susan J. Schurman, a former bus driver and union organizer with a doctorate in education, who is stepping down after leading the institution for 10 years. "That pathway is not there anymore. So, we have to find a different pathway for people to make decent wages. We don't have the kind of quality of life for all of us. Therefore, you have to see access and completion of postsecondary programs as fundamental."
The 47-acre campus is nestled in the suburban bustle of a nearby strip mall and a busy intersection outside the Capital Beltway. Founded by former AFL-CIO President George Meany in 1969, the Maryland campus opened in 1974 as a training center. For the first two decades, students were issued bachelor's degrees through a partnership with Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
In 1997, the school received authority from Maryland to grant degrees as an independent college. Schurman was named president the same year. (The college is also accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.)
Many graduates have gone on to better jobs, received promotions or sought leadership positions in their local unions.
In the past 10 years, the school has grown. It added graduate degree programs through partnerships with the University of Baltimore, American University and University of Massachusetts.
Officials also spent money to refurbish and expand campus facilities, including building a new residence building. Last year, they opened the $26 million Lane Kirkland Center, which features an auditorium, classrooms and administrative offices. The college has an operating budget of $15 million, funds that are generated by the AFL-CIO, through private donations, and revenue from tuition and conference services.
Two years ago, the college launched a marketing campaign to create brand awareness and recruit more students. It saw record student enrollments in the past year; 165 and 150 bachelor's degree-seeking students in the winter and spring semesters, respectively, officials said.
"We're beginning to see our marketing and communications efforts gain traction," said Matt Losak, the college's director of communications.
Bill Barry, director of labor studies at Community College of Baltimore County, credited National Labor College officials and its administration of expanding the school despite the current climate. He said labor studies programs in the traditional higher education marketplace have dwindled.
But with ever-evolving dynamics of the marketplace, Barry said union members are increasingly looking for leaders with the education and best labor practices to push them forward.
"In the global economy and the new technology and the cultural changes in the country, the demands on union leaders are greatly changed," he said.