Jill Monroe Fankhauser: “It’s fairly common knowledge that it’s financially beneficial to the university that part-time adjuncts don't cost as much as full-timers.”

Charlene Crupi: “The myth is that the key to success is education, because here we are, highly educated, so America’s dispossed are taking on a whole new face...and our dedication is the very thing that makes us exploitable.”

Sarah Heath: “I figured out once that at 70 hours a week, I'm really not earning that much above the minimum wage. I might as well be working at McDonalds.... The university is making a lot of money from us. I'm convinced of it.”

[University administrators] are really operating a business for profit under the guise of a non-profit education, are setting this up and abusing and exploiting us for profit.”

Structural causes

Not only are the problems faced by part-timers structural, but the causes of these problems as well. I have pointed to one cause above in linking the structural unemployment of faculty to the decline in new tenure-track jobs. The overproduction of PhDs has become endemic in the humanities, but it now extends as well into engineering and the sciences. In these fields, successive low-paid postdoctoral fellowships now routinely last for five years or more for new PhDs who are unable to find good jobs in a bad market, and even “postdocs” are organizing to improve their deteriorating working conditions.22 Just as the adjuncts in Degrees of Shame compare their situation with that of farm workers, here we see striking parallels to graduate assistants and part-time faculty

Organizing in the 90s at an accelerating rate, graduate assistants increasingly recognize themselves as employees and cheap labor rather than as paid apprentice-students, which is how they are described by university managers seeking to mystify their work and avoid unionization.23 Graduate assistants organize because they lack health insurance, don’t make a living wage, and need tuition waivers and adequate grievance procedures.

But they also organize because of a deteriorating job market. They can think of themselves as apprentices, sacrificing for future careers and the love of knowledge, only as long as the goal, a good tenure-track job, remains a reasonable expectation. But more and more in recent years graduate assistants see their own futures foretold as they see that PhDs from their programs only get jobs as adjuncts and postdocs – more of the same grind with little prospect of improvement. Even for those in the humanities, often socialized to mystify their work as preserving the quasi-religious essence of civilization against the invading barbarians, this can be too much. As Andrew Ross has suggested, the reality of these graduate students’ own labor emerges from behind the ideological cult of work which sustains their own exploitation.24 They begin, unevenly, to see the systemic features of their situation within a deeply flawed market structure. Analytically or intuitively, more and more of them understand that they have little to lose but their middle-class illusions. They connect their own experience analytically to larger structures. Likewise, when a critical mass of adjunct faculty forms, many experience a similar consciousness-raising, and some start to organize.

The overproduction of PhDs is a good example of the systemic determinations behind the increasing exploitation of faculty and the eroding social commitment to quality higher education. Why not produce fewer PhDs and reassert control over the market by reducing the labor supply, thus improving labor’s bargaining power over wages and working conditions? The simple cynical answer is that many administrators would rather let the students teach one another before they’d surrender any market power. A better, more complex answer is that the overproduction of PhDs (and other graduate degrees) responds only partially to the oft-cited selfish desires of tenured professors to teach only their narrow specialties. Such an accusation, in fact, now serves mostly as an ideological decoy for downsizers and right-wingers.

Behind the limited market power of seemingly “pampered” professors lies a much stronger structural demand, the institutional need for graduate assistants as cheap labor. After numerous calls for voluntary and radical enrollment reductions, especially in marginal programs, the continuing overproduction of PhDs demonstrates that many doctoral programs cannot change their admission policies even if they wanted to. Especially in liberal arts departments driven by the need for large numbers of graduate assistants to teach lower-division undergraduate requirements, these doctoral programs produce PhDs less in response to the demands of any outside job market and more as a by-product of their own need for cheap labor. Increasingly, exploited non-tenure-track faculty and postdocs form a structural unit along with exploited graduate teaching and research assistants; the graduate students often ascend to the same roles a few years later.

Thus a superficial cause masks a deeper one. Institutions respond to the limited market power of a relatively few senior professors, but only because those professors’ goals – to teach graduate students and to have time to do their research – happen to match the institution’s own needs.

Another superficial cause put forth is the need for “flexibility” in hiring. Academic administrators argue that uncertain funding from state legislatures and large fluctuations in student demand for courses and programs necessitate having some faculty who can be laid off during a financial crisis without threatening tenure-track faculty. The problem with this argument is that especially at the less affluent and prestigious institutions—community colleges and state colleges—the percentage of part-time and other non-tenure-track faculty far exceeds the requirements for such flexibility. In fact, when more than half the faculty are adjuncts, we’re no longer talking about “flexibility.”

Many blame decreasing public support for the financial problems that generate abuses of the adjunct system. While it is true that taxpayer revolts like California’s Proposition 13 have been a major cause of public higher education’s money problems, we seldom hear about the underlying reason for those revolts. In fact, individual taxpayers have increasingly had to make up the revenue lost from a growing variety of tax breaks and other forms of corporate welfare. Just at the federal level, welfare for corporations and the rich amounts to at least $448 billion a year, and corporations’ share of the tax burden has dropped from 31% in the 1950s to 11% today.25 At state and local levels, where public education gets most of its public funding, governments compete against one another in a “race to the bottom”—for example, in handing out huge tax breaks for businesses such as sports stadiums.26 If corporations and the rich paid their share, public college and university budget problems, not to mention a whole host of even more pressing public deficits, would disappear instantly.

Most public colleges and universities have always lacked institutional autonomy, and capitalist globalization increasingly assimilates them to corporate models. Why should professors have the lifetime job security of tenure when no one else does, says the new conventional wisdom. Casualization and “outsourcing” of the workforce, widening gaps between tiers of more and less skilled workers, instrumentalization of labor, and privatization all constitute large, long-term trends, now imported into colleges and universities. And these trends have recently intensified with the global domination of multinational capital over the nation-state.27

To understand the degradation of faculty and graduate assistant work structurally, we need to see it as the application to contemporary higher education of a practice developed by nineteenth-century capitalists, which was originally called the “Babbage principle.”28 As analyzed by Harry Braverman in his classic Labor and Monopoly Capital, capitalists learn to commodify labor and extract maximum surplus value from it by pushing beyond the conventional social division of labor to a establishing a detailed division of labor.

Here the capitalists break down the whole production process into smaller and smaller units, and they divide workers into isolated and atomized tasks, categories determined by skill level. Thus the capitalists can increase profits by paying workers only the minimum amount, calculated on the basis of the particular narrow tasks assigned, and thus reducing the number of workers doing highly skilled and highly paid work. Combined with automation, the whole process of fragmenting production makes each task less skilled and less valuable, each worker a cog in a machine that only owners and managers understand. Workers are deskilled, their knowledge and command of the larger production process eroded, and their relation to the finished product alienated.29

It is not difficult to see the alarming relevance of this analysis, originating from the battles between industrial workers and bosses for over more than a century, to academic labor today. Is the smallest unit of teaching labor the individual course? How little is it worth? Or is it the individual student paper, graded in a large lecture course perhaps by an anonymous moonlighting adjunct or teaching assistant from another university? Is the most efficiently produced and consumed higher education commodity the low-quality course, with minimal reading and writing, forced on adjuncts or TA’s by overwork, lack of resources, and at lower-tier schools the resentments of disadvantaged students who must finance college with long hours at low-paid jobs?

What is the smallest unit of academic research labor? Perhaps humanities faculty, still writing long discursive articles and books, could learn from our more advanced cousins in science and engineering. There the process of quantification as commodification has gone much further, and the cynical concept of the “least publishable unit” routinely generates multiple publications from the same research by breaking down reports of results into artificially small segments. Thus science and engineering faculty maximize their rewards, based on numbers of publications, for the same expenditure of (mostly postdoc and research assistant) time and energy. It is admirable efficiency and entrepreneurship, but while those at the top of the faculty food chain learn to commodify their research, and those at the bottom to commodify their teaching, faculty deskill themselves, and shared democratic governance withers. Faculty get rewarded for thinking about means rather than ends, parts rather than wholes, for thinking technically and “professionally” rather than critically and holistically. Too few have the time or ability to attend to the whole institutional process of the production and dissemination of knowledge, so that technocratic administrators assume more and more control.

June Nash explains the consequences of deskilling on faculty and graduate assistant teaching and research:

The principle is simple: segment the workforce in jobs where subordinated workers undertake the denigrated, low-paid portions of the task structure, thereby preserving the privileges of a core group who monopolize the prestigious, more highly compensated sector. But in the case of academia, a method that has proved counterproductive in the U.S. industrial scene, with the debasement in the organization of work and the alienation of the workforce, is now being tried with faculties charged with instilling the highest levels of aspiration in training future generations who will undertake the most responsible roles in the society.30

Yet the faculties and students at elite schools remain largely protected from the overuse of part-timers, which occurs mostly at schools with more disadvantaged students. Combined with the disproportionately large number of women among part-time faculty, this produces a growing class, gender and racial hierarchy among both faculty and students during a period when higher education has become ever more central to social power and economic success. “The American system of higher education since the nineteenth century has had a reputation for its egalitarian character and openness, especially when compared with its European counterparts.”31 Such growing inclusiveness culminated with the open admission policies initiated in the 1960s. But the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, growing out of those open admissions and the tax revolts grounded in a diminishing corporate tax base, led to (among other things) an expanded use of part-time faculty.32 Although groups formerly excluded from college have gained access, the expansion of the higher education system has come at the expense of inscribing a new class hierarchy within it. The “future generations who will undertake the most responsible roles in the society” now seem limited largely to those at elite colleges and universities, while the rest will learn to follow orders, mostly for technical tasks and mid-level service jobs.

Time to organize

I emphasize the structural dimensions of the problem not to overwhelm you with how much needs to be done but to demonstrate how seemingly discrete issues – casualization, GA exploitation, privatization, tuition increases, tenure – form a pattern also visible elsewhere in capitalism’s contemporary mutations. We’re all in this together, all the tiers of the academic workforce, including tenured, tenure-track, full-time non-tenure-track, and part-time faculty and graduate assistants. What they can do to one of us or to one tier, they can and will do to all.

Realizing this, the most exploited lead the way. During the last few years, graduate assistants and non-tenure-track faculty have started organizing in earnest, and unions and other associations are spreading rapidly. “Twelve campuses, including three at the State University of New York, had T.A. unions three years ago, according to the A.F.L-C.I.O. Today, there are 23 unionized campuses, with serious movements under way at institutions like Yale, Temple, Oregon State and New York University.”33 Organizers’ biggest victory has come in California, where T.A.s at eight University of California campuses voted in the spring of 1999 to unionize. Representing nearly 10,000 graduate-student employees, the unions are affiliated with the United Auto Workers. T.A.s at Berkeley have been fighting for collective-bargaining rights since 1983; Ricardo Ochoa, union president there, gives credit for the victory to “a strong union, a system-wide T.A. strike in December [1998], legislative pressure, and a favorable ruling by PERB,”34 the Public Employment Relations Board.

Not to be outdone, part-time and other non-tenure-track faculty are organizing as well. On campuses countrywide, they are raising consciousness, drawing attention to problems, and signing up members to new organizations. Since a critical mass of non-tenure-track faculty often forms in large cities with multiple colleges and universities, the first concerted action has taken place in urban academic markets. In New York, CUNY Adjuncts Unite! organizes non-tenure-track faculty and links their struggle with the assault on public higher education, which is particularly vicious there. “CUNY’s full-time faculty declined from 11,300 in 1974 to 5,300 in 1998; the university system’s 7,200 adjuncts now comprise 60 percent of the faculty but make up only 10 percent of the faculty union, the Professional Staff Conference (PSC).”35

In Boston, national activity and organization has promoted local activism. The AAUP and other faculty and labor organizations have helped to plan and fund the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), a national network of activists which brings together part-time and non-tenure-track faculty with graduate teaching and research assistants. At the Third National Congress of COCAL in Boston in April 1999, faculty from a number of campuses in the Boston area founded the Boston Organizing Project to improve the working conditions of adjunct faculty and defend the integrity of higher education.36

The AAUP’s Richard Moser describes the activity in Chicago and elsewhere:

In Chicago, the NEA, after winning an NLRB representational vote among part-timers at Columbia College, has launched a citywide campaign aimed at part-time faculty. The AFT has registered similar success in organizing part-time faculty particularly in the New Jersey state system. In California, part-time faculty have organized the California Part-Time Faculty Association to lobby for legislative relief. North of the border the Canadian Association of University Teachers has also launched a drive to bring “sessional” faculty into the union, claiming that their “inclusion is long overdue.”37

In these organizing, lobbying, and educational drives, Degrees of Shame has become an important tool. Hundreds of copies of the video are circulating in at least 40 states, and Barbara Wolf is making a follow-up tape to be released in 2000, looking at the organizing and other activities spreading around the country.

Goals for adjunct unions include a minimum wage and improved benefits. At the University of Massachusetts-Boston, unionized part-time faculty have won half-time status and full benefits.38 Here it has become clear to many that their long-range goal must be to remove the financial incentives administrators have for hiring non-tenure-track faculty in the first place: all faculty must be paid on a prorated basis, with benefits, for every course they teach. Administrators’ complaints about tight budgets lose credibility as faculty and others examine institutional priorities, including subsidized commercial research and soaring administrative costs.39 As Brodie Dollinger of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students puts it, “I will believe them about the budget when they hire the first part-time dean.”40

The wave of adjunct and graduate assistant organizing is also creating other new institutions and prodding established ones to action. The National Adjunct Faculty Guild, founded in 1993, offers its members a job list, a magazine, the adjunct advocate, an e-mail discussion list, and an annual conference. 41While about 23% of full-time faculty are currently represented by unions, the figure is only about 10% for part-timers,41 so that the Guild has been debating whether adjuncts should form their own national labor union.42

Seventeen professional and disciplinary associations have organized the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW). This group seeks “to persuade accrediting agencies to articulate recommended ceilings for percentages of non-tenure-track faculty in specific departments,43 a variation on a strategy faculty unions have used at the bargaining table with limited success. In addition, CAW seeks to delineate more precisely the crisis’ dimensions in particular schools and departments with a nationwide survey in a wide range of disciplines. Since the extent of teaching by faculty and graduate assistants who do not make a living wage can be embarrassing to colleges and universities, administrators often view it as a public relations problem. They are not anxious to collect, let alone publicize, exact current information about their exploitation of academic labor. As Virginia Wright Wexman, representing the Society for Cinema Studies on CAW, put it in an online letter to SCS members referring to part-time faculty, “Up until now, we have had no reliable data comparing the number and nature of such positions at various institutions, and criticisms of prevailing practices that rely on anecdotal evidence in the absence of such data have had relatively little impact.”44

Graduate assistants have founded Workplace: the Journal for Academic Labor online, published by the Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association. Impressively militant and incisive, its April 1999 issue includes a telling analysis of mainstream faculty unions’ often complacent response to the crisis of academic labor. In a critique of a recent article in On Campus, published by the American Federation of Teachers for its higher-education members, Guest Editor Bruce Simon unpacks the paternalistic assumptions of even many faculty union members.45 The point is not to attack allies but to show that faculty unions are not immune from the “prevailing model of business trade unionism which tends to focus on pacting with management rather than on broad mobilization.”46

Organizing by contingent faculty should be seen in the context of new energy and militance in sections of the larger American labor movement. There are attempts to reverse nearly half a century of atrophying union power since the A.F.L.-C.I.O. expelled communists and other leftists from its ranks in the fifties and accepted a secondary partnership in the mid-century social contract now broken.47 A great opportunity will have been lost if the organizing energy of exploited faculty and graduate assistants does not reinvigorate the established faculty and education unions, the AAUP, AFT, and NEA, who need to put more resources into organizing the unorganized.

Finally, these beginnings in forming an academic labor movement can connect with student activism and town-gown coalitions to produce new synergies. The Center for Campus Organizing, a national organization of students, faculty, staff and alumni, unites progressives from many campuses around struggles against sweatshops, against homophobia, and for affirmative action, organizing all campus workers, and a variety of other issues in an international context.

And the widely-publicized TA organizing at Yale, temporarily culminating in the brutally broken grade strike of 1995-96, taught important lessons about affiliations with low-status campus workers. The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale affiliated with the university’s clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers in Locals 34 and 35 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and thereby confronted the long-term strategy of Yale’s trustees, the aptly-named Yale Corporation, to drive down wages and bust the unions in New Haven. As the largest employer in New Haven, Yale exploits its near-monopoly position in regional labor markets, driving local workers to emigrate for better jobs while buying up cheapened property in the depressed industrial town; it is preparing to turn New Haven into “an Ivy League theme park for tourists to gawk at and for upper-income Connecticut to colonize.”48 In a letter circulated to all members of the Modern Language Association in February 1996, Yale Professor Annabel Patterson wrote, “Yale is not prepared to negotiate academic policy, such as the structure of the teaching program or class size, with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union...who draw their membership from the dining workers in the colleges and other support staff.”49

At moments like these the brutal class structure of hypercapitalism emerges from behind the bland and pseudocollegial face of the contemporary university. In order to build real solidarity, faculty, graduate assistants and students are going to have to abandon the illusions of status and prestige that compensate for a lack of power. If they build technocratic unions that only protect their own interests, they fail. They can build education-labor coalitions not only by seeing themselves as workers, but by representing the labor movement as educators and intellectuals. A union should have something to say about academic policy, about diverse political issues, and can itself be a public educator; historically, unions have done so.50 The new national academic-labor coalition, Scholars, Artists and Writers for Social Justice, is one good start in this direction. And just the thought of unions running Yale is inspiring. Get a copy of Degrees of Shame, look for its sequel, and use the tapes to organize.

Resources and contacts

In addition to sources listed in the notes, the following are useful:

Order Degrees of Shame from Barbara Wolf Video Work, 1709 Pomona Court, Cincinnati, OH 45206. Phone (513) 861-2462, fax (513) 861-6723, or e-mail br_wolf@hotmail.com. Prices are $15 for adjuncts, $20 for other individuals, $50 for institutions, and $60 for institutions using purchase orders.

The Coalition of Graduate Student Employee Unions, e-mail cgeu@mgaa.org.

The Center for Campus Organizing,165 Friend St., #1, Boston, MA 02114, phone (617) 725-2886, fax (617) 725-2873, e-mail cco@igc.org and web site http://www.cco.org. The Center publishes an excellent magazine, Infusion.

Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), c/o Labor Relations and Research Center, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 125 Draper Hall, Box 32020, Amherst, MA 01003, phone (413) 545-3541, fax (413) 545-0110, e-mail sawsj@lrrc.umass.edu and web site http://www.sage.edu/SAWSJ/

The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, 207 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, D.C. 20003, phone 888-88-NAGPS, e-mail nagps@netcom.com and web site http://www.nagps.org


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