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The Challenge of Precarious Labor in Higher Ed

The December 5 event, organized by the Albert Shanker Institute and co-sponsored by AFT, focused on thinking beyond the standard employment paradigm to help those standing outside of it. In her keynote remarks, national union president Randi Weingarten (above) said “the issue of precarious labor cuts right through the Rust Belt.” 
 
Weingarten’s comments refer to a swath of disenfranchised America that voted for president-elect Donald Trump on November 8. Historically, that area was thick with well-paying industrial jobs and unionized workers, but since industry has declined, the paradigm has changed. 
 
Click here to watch Weingarten’s keynote speech.
 
Academic labor has seen a similar paradigm shift; 40 years ago, 70 percent of higher education employees were tenured or on the tenure track. Today that figure is flipped; 70 percent are non-tenure, and many are in more tenuous positions with low salaries and no employer-provided benefits. 
 
Of our national union’s 230,000 higher education members, 80,000 are contingent and 25,000 are graduate employees. Weingarten noted that we will continue to organize this workforce, despite anticipated changes in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and a possible shift in policy regarding graduate workers’ union rights.
 
Contingent faculty numbers have risen in part because, as states disinvest in higher education, universities find the paths of least resistance to make up the difference. Cutting costs by hiring cheap, temporary labor is one way administrators do that. 
 
Click here for reporting on the rise of contingent faculty in America’s colleges and universities.
 
But the “human cost” is high, said Weingarten. She described the anxiety of cobbling together multiple teaching assignments to make ends meet and the demeaning of professors who have no offices and must meet students in coffee shops. She called attention to the havoc unpredictable schedules can wreak on family life and the stress of being “one illness away from bankruptcy because you have no health insurance.”
 
Continent faculty are “the highest-educated low-wage workers in America,” said Hamilton Nolan, who authored a series on adjunct faculty for Gawker. Low pay — between $1,500 and $3,000 per class — is the biggest problem, he said. Adjuncts frequently work second and third jobs babysitting, bartending or performing other low-wage work. 
 
Adjunct faculty get little recognition — one told Nolan he felt like a ghost with a plastic mailbox in the department’s main office. And they often have no benefits, which means one woman was teaching just a week after her baby was born.
 
Click here for Nolan’s reporting on the “educated underclass.”
 
Add to these poor working conditions an unsupportive political environment and the picture is grim. 
 
The challenge is to come up with labor advocacy that addresses the problem and is also effective in a new work world. Weingarten admitted that some of the union’s organizing structures, conceived decades ago, don’t work well for precarious labor. 
 
“We need to try and find a different way,” Weingarten said. “The question becomes what do you organize around? What is the glue that binds people?” she asked. 
 
Organizing contingent faculty across institutions is one possible solution; the United Academics of Philadelphia (UAP), which represents faculty from several institutions in the region, is leading the way in that regard. The Freelancers Union is another example that is not centralized around a particular employer. The “Fight for 15 and a Union” campaign has been innovative in organizing low-wage workers across multiple and diverse job categories, from fast-food to healthcare to airport services.
 
For contingent faculty, organizing with students is crucial. 
 
“We have seen a tremendous alliance between students and labor,” said Angus Johnston, an adjunct professor at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Hostos Community College in the Bronx and a member of the AFT-affiliated Professional Staff Congress (PSC CUNY).
 
Students’ support helped win better pay and working conditions for dining hall workers at Harvard, for example; they were allies in the lockout of CUNY faculty at Long Island University (LIU). 
 
Click here for reporting on student support for locked-out faculty at LIU.
 
Full-time, tenure-track faculty are also crucial allies for their contingent colleagues. “It’s critical that teachers who do have leverage help those who do not,” added Nolan.
 
Click here to watch Nolan’s remarks at the forum.
 
These and other issues facing contingent faculty will be a significant focus of a daylong series of events next month at the State Capitol in Hartford. The “Day of Action for Public Higher Education” will bring together advocates and activists to urge lawmakers act to reverse service cuts and tuition hikes and address rising student debt.
 
Click here to learn more about the January 26th event.
 
Join members of our three affiliated locals representing employees at the University of Connecticut (UConn), Connecticut’s community colleges and UConn Health in their fight to preserve our state’s quality of life.
 
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