Contingent Academic Labor: Flexibility for Them, Insecurity for Us

Contingent Academic Labor: Flexibility for Them, Insecurity for Us
An Interview with Reclaiming the Ivory Tower Author Joe Berry
The Graduate Voice, Vol. 18, no. 4, February/March 2006

Joe Berry is a third-generation educator, a teaching-union member and organizer, and a veteran of the civil-rights and anti-war movements. He teaches history and labor studies, and is currently an adjunct faculty member at the University of Illinois-Chicago and at Roosevelt University. His new book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (Monthly Review Press, 2005) scrutinizes the rise of contingent labor in higher education and offers a strategic vision for organizing part-time faculty. He sat down with The Voice after a talk he delivered at UMass Boston on October 26.

Voice: What is contingent labor, and how has it come to occupy the place it currently does higher education?

Berry: Contingent labor basically means we are the “just in time” labor force. That was the term used in manufacturing for having the stuff come to the assembly line just when you need, not out of warehouses or big piles of stock on the shop floor, but “just in time.” The thing to remember is that every bit of our contingency, precariousness, or insecurity is flexibility for our employer. That’s their incentive, flexibility. It translates to us as insecurity – of employment, of income, of content, of being able to plan our courses.

The thing that unites us is our contingency, our casualization, whether we are working by the year, by the course, whether we get benefits or not, whether our pay somewhat approximates the full-time tenure-track faculty or is less than a third of theirs, which is the case with most of us, for the same amount of work. The thing that is really different for “part-time” faculty isn’t how much we work, but under what conditions. The key to those conditions is the lack of security.

The casualization of the labor force in higher education is the cutting edge of the transformation of higher education since, say, the mid-70s. It is becoming more and more responsive to and more and more like corporations and the capitalist market. That takes the form of viewing our students as customers, instead of as potential citizens that we’re training, and also viewing our students as products that we’re producing for the capitalist employers. It influences what research gets done. But casualization is really the cutting edge of that transformation, because it means that we don’t have job security, and without tenure it’s much harder for the faculty as a whole to put up resistance to any administrative initiatives imitating the corporations and serving the corporations.

It’s not unique in higher education. This casualization of work is taking place in both the private and public sector out there. What’s unique about higher education is that they did it, in the majority, in one generation. Teaching in colleges became, from one of the most secure, not super well-paid but fairly well-paid, and certainly well-respected jobs in the society, pre-1975, to a mostly causalized, bare subsistence, unbenefited, and certainly extremely unstable existence, all in just thirty years. There are very few other vocations in society where the rollover has been that extreme. Taxicab driving is another one, actually. But in most it’s been somewhat more gradual, both in the private and public sector. So it’s an extreme example of this dynamic that’s going on throughout the whole workforce, and extreme because it’s dealing with some of the most formally educated people in the society, virtually all of whom have advanced degrees, and many of whom have Ph.D.s.

Voice: Part of what makes contingent work contingent is the exposure to insecurity of not only income, but also health and retirement. Is the answer, in the age of contingent work, fighting for social benefits that are not tied to employment?

Berry: Humpty-Dumpty is not going back together again. It ain’t gonna happen. Just like “Cadillac” benefits with employer-paid whole-family coverage. Never gonna happen. Just like retirement systems where people could retire, like my father, and actually make more money the first year of his retirement than he made his last year of teaching. Never gonna happen again.

I think academic workers have a particular role to play in the fight for universal benefits because we talk to other working people for a living, and because we’ve had this experience in one generation. We are in a strategic position to fight for health-care coverage that is not tied to employment, for either single-payer national health coverage or a government health service, something either like Canada or like Britain, because anything that is tied to employment is going to leave us, or a substantial portion of us, falling through the cracks.

We’re a flow-through workforce. It’s more stabilized here at UMass-Boston because they’ve been able to improve the conditions. But in general, we’re a flow-through workforce. We aren’t tied to a particular employer. We’re tied to a geographic area, but people even move around the country, too. One of the key issues of the contingent-faculty movement, then, is the fight for universal health insurance, for universal pension coverage, getting rid of this thing where one pension gets subtracted from another pension even though they’re both inadequate because you’ve been a contingent employee with multiple employers for your whole career. That was originally plan to keep rich people from double-dipping, and is now keeping many of us in poverty as retirees.

All of those kinds of issues are key issues that we have to play a role in fighting for in the broader unions where we’re not a majority. That’s why the existence of Campus Equity Week [a “coalition of faculty organizers and organizations throughout higher education”] raising these issues, of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) conferences, and of other networks is so important. These grassroots phenomena are developing across organizational lines, across regional lines, now even across national lines between the United States and Canada – and soon reaching out to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe, because these trends are everywhere, or virtually everywhere.

This is neoliberalism come home to academia, and maybe it can have the impact of broadening academics, not within the bounds of their own little specialties, but in the society as a whole, to play a role in transforming not just their own lives, but society. The way things are now, the two will have to happen together, or they won’t happen at all.

Voice: One can imagine at least two different models of labor organization for the contingent academic workforce. One would be organizing the workplace, and making what is now contingent labor more regularized, longer tenure, more secure, and so on. Another one would be organizing the worker wherever she or he may go, so the worker is a union member and the process of getting jobs by happenstance, connections, or what amounts to a “shape-up” process is replaced by a union hiring hall, and so forth. Is either of these the way forward for contingent faculty?

Berry: The answer is both. In the book, I put forward a strategy – party inspired by the experience here in Boston, which I’ve studied enthusiastically – a metropolitan strategy that would both assist people in founding bargaining units for individual workplaces, but also build a metropolitan organization that would be appropriate to the shape of the actual labor force. As a labor historian, which is another hat that I sort of halfway wear, successful organization of workers has always cone when the organization form was developed that matched the reality of that workforce – its edges, its motion, its work, and its consciousness. That does not come from the top. It doesn’t usually come from the previous generation of worker organizations, although they in turn are forced to change to accommodate it as it emerges from the bottom.

A new kind of organization is now emerging though efforts like Campus Equity Week, the COCAL movement nationally, and the experiences of what I call intermediate organizations – like the local and state COCAL groups – where most people are already in unions, but in different unions, so they’re not the majority in any of them. California COCAL is the coalition of all the organizations that have contingent faculty members in them. Therefore, the coalition functions to raise the profile of those folks within all those organizations, but also with an independent voice. It is part of an “inside-outside” strategy. So that’s my way of answering your question. We need both, but also with an inside-outside strategy, being members of unions and developing independent organizations.

And we need a consciousness of social unionism, that we can’t just be organized on the job, that we have to organize as members of communities. Scratch most community organizations and you’ll find teachers disproportionately represented in them, and especially teacher-unionists, all over the place, exercising leadership in democratic, popular community organizations. We need to help the labor movement broaden its own consciousness back to where it was in the ‘30s. There’s a whole movement of workers’ centers organizing everyone from day laborers to permatemps at Microsoft. NAAFE is part of that labor movement. We need to be a part of broadening that consciousness that the labor movement is more than just the unions, and that the unions have to be more than they have been in the past. That encompasses both of the alternatives that you describe, and more as well.

Voice: You prioritize in your discussion the issue of contingent faculty organizing themselves, rather than thinking primarily of their relationship with “regular” faculty, but we come up against those boundaries in the workplaces in which we exist. We’re on one side of the faculty-staff divide, and there are also divides with permanent full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty, and with graduate students. Are there examples of organizations transcending these divides?

Berry: There are some examples, both in theory and in practice. The standard-bearer of the theory are the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who still exist, have a few thousand members nationally, and actually have done some organizing in this sector in the Boston area and in other places. In fact, the current editor of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the IWW, is actually an academic, and has been involved in this very struggle. So that’s one example.

There are a few cases, very few, one of which I mention in my book, where people have actually organized wall-to-wall, where every employee in an institution is a member of the same union. That was not a place where anybody had tenure, though. It was a private, for-profit vocational college, so there wasn’t as extreme a difference between the professionals and the non-professionals in terms of their conditions of life and work.

Other examples have been the coalition that was developed at UMass to fight against the cuts, where all the unions representing all the staff and faculty were able to work together to a certain extent. I know that contingent faculty were very much involved in sparking and pushing forward that effort, and in the formation of what was sustained for a while as the University Organizing Project in the Boston metro area, with the aim of organizing all the workers at different universities.

I think it’s an idea whose time has come, but it will happen only when people come together out of some positions of strength, especially the “non-professionals,” or people on the lower end of whichever of the divides you want to look at. That applies to the tenured-nontenured divide as well. Ultimately, morally and ethically, those on the top side should be extending their hands more than fifty percent across the divide. In real life, that often doesn’t happen. Individuals do, though, and some individuals are crucially important.

I think that all those barriers are bridgeable, but we will need more than a consciousness of the labor movement among contingent faculty, or a labor movement in the university. We will need a consciousness of more that even just the labor movement as a whole. We will need a consciousness to develop of a transformation of the society, such as was brought by the political left, by the socialists, communists, anarchists, IWWs, and others in the 1930s. So in addition to everything else on our to-do list, we have to rebuild the left in this country.