When I was in graduate school, some of my fellow grad students decided to unionize. I wasn’t excited about the idea. We did teach for wages, but I didn’t think a union was the right vehicle to manage our several-faceted relationship to the university and the profession. When the aspiring unionists staged a job action, I moved the class I was teaching off campus. I take picket lines case by case, but in general I try not to cross them. When the university gave us a modest raise, I made a donation to the unionists’ organization in an amount equal to membership dues. I hadn’t asked them to get me a raise, but I figured they were entitled to some of it. Still, I let them go their way, and I went mine.
So I don’t exactly have a rich history as an academic union firebrand. But I am in favor of the current movement for adjunct, part-time, and other non-tenure-track faculty at colleges and universities to unionize. They’re essential to the enterprise of higher education, which has never been more important to more people in this country, and they frequently get a raw deal from employers who depend on their work. Like fast food workers and Walmart employees, they can improve that deal by combining their individually negligible leverage in the labor market.
Like many other businesses these days, universities rely heavily on disposable workers to deliver their product to paying customers. They pay a growing class of highly educated academics a bare minimum to teach necessary courses, typically with no job security or benefits. (I restrict my definition of this class to teachers with advanced degrees who aren’t on the tenure track, and I exclude grad students, whose paid teaching on the way to a degree is part of a larger apprenticeship.) It’s now entirely normal for a scholar-teacher who has invested a large part of her life in acquiring an advanced degree to persist for years and even an entire career in a limbo state of pickup work, patching together a precarious living out of underpaid part-time gigs.
Even very accomplished grad students earning PhDs from prestigious institutions must now plan for this limbo as a probable outcome, since the chances of landing a tenure-track job have shrunk considerably. And the system of academic hiring is not efficient enough to ensure that the talent always rises to the top. Plenty of eminently qualified people, just as good as or better than those on the tenure track, can’t get out of the contingent labor pool. They’re the academic working poor, and they need to get together to stand up for themselves.
Because I direct Boston College’s American Studies and journalism programs, a better deal for adjuncts would make life more difficult for me, by limiting my flexibility in hiring, firing, and stretching my budget. Such changes could make already-expensive higher education even more costly unless cuts were made somewhere else — by curbing the proliferation of non-teaching academic bureaucrats, for instance, or by paying administrators, coaches, and tenure-track faculty like myself a little less.
It would appear, then, that supporting the unionization of adjuncts goes against my narrow self-interest. But not against my broader self-interest. A university is a community of inquiry in which all sorts of people meet one another’s needs in pursuing the vital work of learning, teaching, and discovery. Like a society, it functions better for everyone if it’s not designed expressly to use up and crush the many in order to serve the privileged and increasingly isolated few.
In our union-hating moment, organized labor is routinely reviled for protecting bad workers, making things more expensive, and inhibiting the sacred action of the free market by curtailing the freedom of job creators, who can do no wrong. But all a union does is give people with little economic power a way to do what corporations do: pursue their interests more effectively by securing the best return on what they’re selling. Unions are every bit as imperfect as corporations, and often in similar ways — but the more unequal our society gets, and the more that upward mobility turns from social fact to nostalgic myth, the more we need good unions.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’