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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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His work, Boldt says, has helped draw increased attention to the issue and generate energy around organizing for better working conditions among adjunct faculty. It’s sparked conversations outside of higher education, too, as the Project has been featured on NPR, CNN, and other major news outlets. Locally, individual groups are forming to discuss options for organizing, and on a national level, agitation among adjuncts is on the rise. His goal, he says, is to frame this as an “all faculty” issue, erasing the dividing line between tenured and adjunct faculty and bring all faculty together to embrace the issue as their own. Some tenured staff members he’s in contact with have indeed indicated support for his campaign, though he wishes tenured professors, on the whole, would be more outspoken on the issue. Because their contracts are constantly up for renewal,“[adjuncts] run the risk of not being rehired whenever we talk like this,” Boldt points out. Tenured faculty, of course, have the security from which to speak – but they do so far too rarely for his liking.

Professors, instructors, lecturers, and teaching assistants aren’t the only people facing poor working conditions at colleges and universities. Many support staff -- including janitors, cafeteria workers, clerical personnel, groundskeepers, and housing coordinators—also work for low pay, and are often forced to commute long diastances from satellite locations because they cannot afford the cost of living near campus. When benefits are provided to these workers, they are typically less than adequate, and services like employer-provided childcare -- which might be affordable on a tenured professor’s salary -- remain out of reach for people like janitors and healthcare workers: a janitor makes an average of $22,000 a year versus the  $127,000-$157,000 average for full professors at doctoral institutions.

Demographics about support personnel also reveal that the population is heavily racialized and gendered, which adds an element of complexity to their labor organizing. Many people in support positions are women, and people of color are overrepresented in low-ranking, low-paying positions. People like groundskeeping staff and cafeteria workers are often immigrant laborers who can be endangered if they attempt to organize on the job. At California’s Pomona College, for example, cafeteria workers recently involved in labor organizing were intimidated and later fired.

Jacob, a web designer for a California university, tells AlterNet that union membership at his university is not available to all personnel; eligibility depends on what department you are employed by and your employment status. As a student employee and non-union member, Jacob faces limitations on working hours, given a cap by the university which he cannot exceed in a week. He is also paid at a lower rate when compared to other staff; when he chose to return to school, he was obliged to take out student loans to cover his expenses.

Jacob says: “My pay is good considering I’m a student, but wouldn’t be competitive if I was looking for similar jobs in the private sector.” Moreover, he points out, “it's hard not to feel that your work is undervalued when you've already reached the pay cap as a student assistant and you still need to take out loans to get by.”

Universties and Labor Organizers Go Head-to-Head

As labor organizing on college and university campuses has increased, so has the pushback against it. Boldt noted that attempts to unionize on college campuses across the United States have been suppressed, most recently in Chicago. One tactic is a concerted effort from the top to pit those on the bottom against each other: “One of the real talking points now is trying to suggest that adjuncts in power will hurt the full time faculty.” These kinds of tactics are designed to keep workers from joining forces to unionize or support those who are attempting to form unions.

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