Unionizing Adjunct Faculty Can Help Save American Higher Education Economy
When one thinks about people working for poverty wages, college professors traditionally don't spring to mind. But over the last four decades tremendous structural changes have remade the face of American higher education. And most would agree that these changes are not positive for our students or our society. It has been remarked in many reports and broadsides that one of the greatest right-wing victories of the last generation has been the transition away from the Great Society goal of offering every qualified student a taxpayer-subsidized higher education, and towards a market-based system that forces students into what usually becomes a lifetime of debt-bondage so profound that it cannot even be removed by declaring bankruptcy. The key to this victory lay in simply cutting state and federal spending on higher education to the point where students have to accept ridiculous amounts of debt just to attend college.
Still, student debt is only part of the equation that's killing American higher education. The other part is that college professors - most of whom go into heavy debt to get the advanced degrees necessary to teach at the university level - can no longer expect to find regular employment in their chosen field. Instead, over 70 percent of American professors are now so-called adjunct professors. The migrant workers of the academy. People with high social capital, but low capital capital, so to speak.
Adjuncts were once the top students in the nation, and wished to devote their lives to educating the next generations, but now have to go begging for classes at any institution that can pay them roughly $2,000-$5,000 per course. Most adjuncts can't teach more than four courses a semester. So you can all do the math. Many adjuncts end up making less per hour than fast food workers ... especially if they don't have another job, and if they don't get enough courses every semester to make ends barely meet. I am now also an adjunct professor. Fortunately, not one who relies solely on teaching to make a living, but someone who would like to teach at least a couple of courses a semester and make a decent wage in the process.
Which is why I was excited to hear about the first Boston area victory of the Service Employees International Union's Adjunct Action campaign this week. Tufts University adjuncts just voted to unionize with SEIU. Bentley College adjuncts voted but won't hear whether they won or lost their union drive until the unconscionable shutdown of the US government is over - since the National Labor Relations Board has to lay off most of its staff due to the resulting budget cuts. The school where I teach, Lesley University, also has a drive going on. I've definitely signed my union card and many others have too. So we'll have to see how that goes.
But the important thing is that adjuncts are finally being unionized at private universities - joining longstanding adjunct unions at many public universities. Because unionization is probably the only way to force college administrations nationwide to stop saving money on the backs of adjunct labor. And push those administrations to join active students, staff and faculty in demanding that this nation start putting money back into higher education.
Shifting the costs of higher education onto individuals has created a massive debt bubble - much like the housing bubble that resulted in the great recession of 2008. It should be taken as given that the best possible universal education system is a requirement for the furtherance of a democratic society. But is should also be understood that America can ill-afford the massive collapse of the student debt bubble that's looming over us. With 13 percent of student loan debtors officially in default, and more than 20 percent unofficially in default, the end of the market-based system of higher education is near.
So here in Massachusetts, as elsewhere, it is necessary for people to fight on two fronts for a revived universal higher education system: demand an immediate and major increase of public higher education funding, and support all efforts to unionize adjunct professors and turn their precarious jobs into good jobs once again.
Failing to do that will result in far worse outcome than destroying American higher education. It will result in putting another big nail in the coffin of the US (and therefore global) economy. Something we can ill afford at this moment in history.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston. Full disclosure: Pramas is an adjunct professor at Lesley University, and has signed a union card with SEIU's Adjunct Action. In the past, he helped organize the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor as a staff member at the Campaign on Contingent Work and as a founding member of the North American Alliance for Fair Employment.
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