Academic Proletariat

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Claire Goldstene:

"Contingent faculty constitute an academic proletariat, where a lack of workplace control, negligible job security, and prevailing low wages define the conditions of employment. As more students than ever attend institutions of higher learning and the corresponding demand for teachers grows, temporary professors comprise an abundant supply of qualified labor seeking too few decently paid, permanent jobs.

In response to these conditions, previously solitary academic laborers are joining together in an attempt to speak with a collective voice. Despite the logistical obstacles to organizing a scattered and temporary workforce, and unresolved questions about the legality of union membership for various categories of contract faculty (a result of the 1980 Supreme Court ruling in National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University), unionization campaigns have taken hold from Washington State to Washington, D.C., from Colorado to Ohio, and from California to Massachusetts, in private and public colleges, as well as in for-profit institutions. New associations have formed to advocate on behalf of adjunct and other temporary college teachers, among them the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor and the New Faculty Majority. COCAL has forged alliances with contingent workers across national borders and occupations, while NFM has conducted research, including a 2012 report “Who is Professor ‘Staff’ and How Can This Person Teach So Many Classes?,” and launched educational and outreach efforts to raise awareness about the links between faculty working conditions and student learning conditions.

Recently, the major teacher unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—have ramped up their commitment to organizing adjuncts, while the Service Employees International Union, following successful campaigns in the Washington, D.C. region, has expanded its work among nonpermanent faculty nationally. Following the “metro-organizing strategy,” SEIU seeks to unionize the majority of adjuncts in a given metropolitan area in order to secure greater bargaining leverage, with a long term goal of securing equal pay for equal work, thus eliminating the financial incentive for employing contingent labor. While the implementation will vary according to locality, elements may include the negotiation of a shared contract for a given region, establishment of a hiring hall that would also offer workspace for members and opportunities for professional development, and additional programs and resources to alleviate the isolation often felt by adjuncts. In this manner, the success of the metro-organizing plan depends on strengthening the relationship between the union and its members, thus imagining it as not merely a bargaining agent, but as an institution that embraces and fulfills a social need in the community.

As contingent faculty endeavor to improve their working conditions and pay, students have become important allies. For, while the majority of university teachers struggle to earn a living, tuition rates and student indebtedness continue to soar, a circumstance that belies administrative claims that improved salaries for adjunct faculty require increased tuition. Rather than accede to such divide-and-conquer tactics, students have begun to ask how their tuition dollars are being spent, if not to pay their teachers a livable wage, and have demanded more input in university governance, where boards of trustees are largely comprised of representatives of the banking and financial industries.

In the United States, student debt now totals over one billion dollars, exceeding that of credit cards. By 2012, the average student loan debt had reached $27,000, and well over 60 percent of students attending college are expected to secure a loan to pay for their education (the number approaches 96 percent for those enrolled in private, for-profit schools). And, under current regulations student loan and consumer debt differ in regard to the lack of protections afforded debtors and the greater collection powers granted creditors. Personal bankruptcy offers no relief from the obligation of student loans and creditors can garnish not only wages, but also tax returns, Social Security payments, and disability income. Beyond this, there is a lucrative business in defaulted student loans. In this case, 20 percent of all payments can be appropriated by the creditor for processing costs before any money is applied to the loan principal or interest, and borrowers are compelled to participate in “loan rehabilitation” programs that involve significant fees and that extend the length of payments and, hence, increase the overall debt. Guaranty agencies derive approximately 60 percent of their income from fees alone. Among those subject to these predatory practices, it is worth noting, are many adjuncts who carry the burden of substantial student debt. (