Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Adjunct Walk-Out, Long Overdue

The academic labor situation has been a wretched garbage fire for some time now, one of the many reasons that I got out.  Things were bad even before the crash of 2008, with departments not replacing tenure-track lines and adjuncts becoming the norm.  The crash then allowed conservatives to slash hard at higher ed budgets, and to give university leaders cover for hiring more part timers, and treating the full timers like dirt.  I went from being a "visiting assistant professor" to a tenure-track assistant professor in 2008, right at the point the crisis hit.  Suddenly professors were told they weren't getting any raises, and that we were lucky not to be furloughed, as others were in states like Georgia and Illinois.  Travel money and library funding, meager to begin with, got the axe, while enrollments increased without additional hiring, meaning bigger classes and more grading.  Adjunctification is part of this larger story, and casualizing labor and driving wages lower via adjunct labor does few favors for those on the tenure track, even if many of them cling to lifeboater status.

Of course, adjuncts are the laborers who've suffered and continue to suffer the most from the big squeeze in higher ed in the past forty years.  They work for ridiculously low pay, often sub-minimum wage if they calculate their hours, as a friend of mine once did.  They take this pay without health benefits, job security, or a place at the table when it comes to shared governance.  I once worked in a department where contingent faculty like myself taught a majority of the classes, but were barred from faculty meetings.  All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, I guess.  This happens to them despite being highly educated individuals with all kinds of talents, those talents being squandered because they are not seen as having anything to offer beyond cheap labor.  It is a disgusting, rotten, intolerable system.  When I tell people outside of academe about it, they are seriously horrified, unaware that a PhD teaching four classes of college students a semester could be getting paid less than a student work study.  (This was the experience of another friend.)

Tomorrow adjuncts at several universities will be walking off the job for National Adjunct Walkout Day, a day that is long overdue.  The only way that the current exploitative system will change is through direct action.  Politicians in both political parties have been slashing higher ed, and only care about cutting costs, while the general public is mostly unaware of the academic labor situation.  The most powerful thing a worker can do is withhold their labor, and if enough academic workers do this, the world (and their employers) will have to take notice.

It's not that far-fetched.  As a graduate student I participated in a walkout to secure a union for TAs and other graduate student workers.  We faced lengthy court battles and an intransigent administration, but once we stopped working and picketed the campus for two days, that completely changed the dynamic, and they eventually caved.  Just as with adjuncts, we did not have even close to complete solidarity, but if you get enough people out there downing tools and making noise, that doesn't matter.  My participation in that walkout thirteen years ago was probably one of the most meaningful things I ever did in my life.  It was tremendously liberating to feel like my peers and I were actually having our voices heard, and actually making the upper administration listen to us.  I wish the adjuncts who walk out tomorrow all the best, and hope that those who aren't adjuncts respect the picket lines.  The future of academic labor, and academia itself, depends upon it.

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