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Disposable Professors? How the Labor Crisis Threatens Higher Education

Adjunct faculty and grad students across America have had enough of service cuts and low wages. Should we expect an "Adjunct Spring"?

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One particularly troubling instance can be seen among religious colleges and universities, which have been faced with a tough mandate from the National Labor Relations Board. Schools wishing to claim a religious exemption to prevent workers from organizing are being ordered to prove that they are truly religious, rather than secular institutions. The result, some fear, might be increased conservatism at traditionally liberal religious campuses as schools attempt to meet NLRB scrutiny in order to suppress labor organizing on campus.

In addition to following the general trend across the US toward cheap, disposable labor in the workplace, colleges and universities have also followed the unfortunate track of promoting anti-worker and anti-union sentiment on campus. In addition to fighting labor organizing tooth and nail, many institutions of higher learning actively malign unions in an attempt to get workers to abandon organizing attempts.  Columbia University has made unions a target as it fights its clerical workers, who are resisting the university’s attempt to reduce their compensation and implement the use of biometric scanners for tracking employees.

Despite what the universities are teaching through their actions, there’s no doubt that ensuring safe, secure and fair working conditions for university workers across the board is the ethical thing to do. As costs of attendance rise and students express dissatisfaction with their educational experiences, solving this problem will be complex – but one element of the solution must be fair wages for college and university personnel. Educators and staff who are fairly paid, in secure jobs, stand a much better shot at continuing our long tradition of academic excellence in the United States, educating the next generation of innovators and thinkers. 

Organizers have noted that labor organizing on college campuses tends to be most effective when people reach across the aisle to cooperate with each other. When faculty support each other as well as support staff, a united force of laborers can push for better working conditions overall; this support can take the form of refusing to cross picket lines, joining union actions, and supporting employees who are fighting for the right to organize or join unions, among other measures.

L., who works in a para-professional capacity in library settings, notes that union involvement has made her workplace safer and more pleasant, with actions like preventing layoffs, assisting with accommodations negotiations for disabled employees, and helping personnel file grievances. As a union member and alternate steward, she is grateful to be in a labor-friendly setting with contracts “above the industry standard.” And she is optimistic about the future of labor organizing on campus. “I keep hoping,” L. says, “that our graduate students will someday get together enough momentum to unionize.”

Jane, who is making her transition from adjunct to tenure-track faculty, concurs with L.’s positive sentiments about union presence. “The independence of this career in terms of oversight, hours, etc., can make it feel a bit lonely,” she notes. “Without the union, I would have felt pretty intimidated had I needed to stand up for my own interests.” Involvement in a labor-friendly workplace has made it easier for Jane to concentrate on what she loves doing most: teaching.

Every educator should be so lucky.

Editor's Note: Some names in this story have been changed.

s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.

 
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