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Europe’s oldest surviving college was formed out of a strike 1,000 years ago by scholars demanding better pay, one of England’s ‘hip young historians’ says

December 12, 2021

Dan Jones, a journalist and historian, details higher education’s socialist origins in a new book.

His new book explains how the University of Bologna was created by scholars going on strike.He argues in it that collective bargaining has been a core part of academia ever since.

Unions are having something of a moment as workers across the country fight for better pay and working conditions, sparked by the extreme conditions, layoffs, and physical and emotional distress of the pandemic.

Nine centuries ago, a group of students in Italy had the same idea. Without them, the world might not have higher education in its current form.

In a new book called “Power and Thrones,” which aims to reveal how the thousand years of the Middle Ages is still shaping society, the journalist and popular historian Dan Jones writes with the kind of voice that got the Guardian to call him one of England’s “hip young historians” in 2009.

Jones explains how the oldest surviving university in the west, or Europe, the University of Bologna, wasn’t quite created for the pursuit of education in its own right. It was something that’s familiar to workers in the tumultuous year 2021: a strike for equitable working conditions and fair pay.

That legacy lingers, as education remains one of the most unionized professions.

It started with a desire for fair treatment and ‘collective rights’

The typical scholar at the beginning of the 12th century was, Jones writes, “connected to an institution whose sole purpose was something other than the pure pursuit of knowledge”: religion.

At the time, there were strong ties between education and monasteries or cathedral schools. But leading up to the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088, another type of scholar arose that was more professional.

Many of those students came from outside Italy, eager to analyze Roman law, which was the basis for medieval contracts and conducting business in the formative days of what would become capitalism. (Another chapter details how the Byzantine emperor Justinian overhauled Roman law in a way that would eventually form the basis of the Napoleonic Code of the 19th century but Justinian’s reign was disrupted by a pandemic.)

Many of these scholars were foreigners, though, and subject to laws that punished all students of a nationality if one broke the law or defaulted on debt. In other words, if your fellow student owed money to someone, Bologna would charge you for it, too. They unionized.

“Thus banded together, students were able to negotiate their collective rights and liberties with the city’s authorities with the implicit threat that they would all walk away from the city and deprive it of their economic custom if they didn’t get what they wanted,” Jones wrote.

Those students also negotiated with their teachers about what they would be taught and how much lecturers would be paid, and if the lecturers did not meet their students’ standards of teaching, they could be censured or even fired. While it took some time for the students’ union to be officially recognized, it gave rise to the “elemental features of the medieval university” structure that took shape across Europe, Jones wrote.

Now education is one of the most highly unionized industries

In the US, workers in unions make more than their nonunionized peers: The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2020, nonunion workers had median earnings of $958 a week, 84% of their union peers’ median earnings of $1,144 a week.

Education, training, and library occupations are among the most highly unionized professions, with a 35.9% unionization rate in 2020, the agency said.

For decades, union membership has been on the decline in America. But organized labor has experienced a revitalization as workers face down unemployment and exposure to a deadly virus while companies reap record profits. In October alone, over 100,000 workers voted to authorize strikes. Gallup found this summer that approval ratings for unions were the highest they’d been since 1965, with particularly high ratings among Americans ages 18 to 24 and those earning below $40,000.

Labor activism remains strong in education. Thousands of graduate students at Columbia University are on an indefinite strike the country’s largest active strike, according to The Guardian. They’re asking for higher pay; the university earlier this year changed its payment schedule for student stipends, leading to late payments for seven students who spoke with Insider’s Phil Rosen. Student workers also want healthcare plans with dental and vision coverage, and stronger harassment protections.

If labor leaders have any say over it, the movement will grow even stronger in the coming years.

Liz Shuler, the first female president of the country’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO,told Insider in Novemberher hope was that “if we look back 100 years from now, it’d be, like, this was the moment that we organized like never before and brought the opportunity for a union to every working person in the country.”

They’d be continuing a tradition dating back a thousand years.

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