Contrary to the widely and weirdly disseminated belief that a Trump presidency and Republican control of congress will usher in a new halcyon era for the American worker, employees of every stripe are about to face an unprecedented attack on their wages, safety, autonomy, and the right to organize.
Let’s leave aside for the moment that the incoming fast food Labor Secretary is a catastrophe for workers rights and pay or that OSHA regulations meant to protect worker safety will be rolled back or left unenforced or simply that the incoming president believes adamantly in stiffing the people he’s hired. Let’s look at the historical argument.
More than “bad trade deals,” automation, or regulation, the decline in real wages has followed lockstep with the decline in unionization. In 1970, 34% of the workforce was unionized. Now it’s just 10%. This de-unionization directly impacts the wages of non-union workers. A recent EPI study found that the wages of non-union men with only a high school diploma would be 9% higher if the rate of unionization was still at 1979 levels. It’s a simple effect: the disappearance of unions even for jobs that cannot be outsourced, like trucking or construction, leads to a decline in wages for workers in those fields because companies do not have to worry about their workers finding higher-paying union jobs.
American labor—ignored by its supposed champion, the Democratic Party, and decimated by Republicans, who couldn’t be more hostile to the rights of workers if it they were rotating each wage earner individually over a spit roast—has not faced such a hostile environment since the 1920s. What’s worse, it is highly unlikely that we will see a true reversal of wage loss, job decline, or a narrowing of our staggering income inequality without a revival and reinvigoration of unions. It’s also difficult to see how a country can have a healthy egalitarian democracy without a steadfast and competent labor movement, but let’s come back to that.
While there is no easy way to accomplish this Herculean task, there is one group of workers in American life who are overdue for a little organized labor radicalization.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve been to a four-year college. If you’ve been to college, you’ve certainly been taught by a graduate student or adjunct professor. These are two distinct types of higher educator, but they represent the same phenomenon: pitilessly exploited labor.
According to the American Association of University Professors, 73% of the academic workforce is “contingent” and non-tenure-track, and while “adjunctification” has been driven by for-profit schools (for-profit schools being a corporatized abomination we don’t have time to get into here), for decades traditional four-year schools have been increasingly reliant on adjuncts to teach the majority of undergraduate courses. Meanwhile, graduate students comprise an additional 12% of the academic labor force.
In other words, adjuncts and graduate students basically carry the load at most public and private colleges and universities, yet these people have much more in common economically with Walmart workers than they do the Ivory Tower Elites the media, from Rush Limbaugh to Nick Kristoff, caricatures and inveighs against.
But don’t take my word for it. Adjuncts, as described by a 2014 report by the U.S. House of Representatives are “the working poor.” According to the AAUP, last year “the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718.” However, that’s only if that adjunct is lucky enough to secure four classes each semester. If one of those classes gets canceled on a whim (and this regularly happens on the first day of class) a person who spent six years getting a PhD might have a $3,000 hole in his or her budget. If this person has children or other dependents, this can be a financial disaster on par with a major illness. Sixty percent of adjuncts report holding more than one job. Though they carry full-time teaching loads, adjuncts rarely have a say in faculty senates and are not treated as a part of the university community. They do not have health insurance through their jobs. And from my experience as an adjunct, they even make you pay more for using the fucking rec center.
My institution was the University of Iowa, where I taught for two years as a graduate student and one as an adjunct. These issues returned to my attention in October when Kevin Birmingham, author of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, became the first adjunct professor to win the distinguished Capote Prize for Literary Criticism from the University of Iowa. In his address, citing the same 2014 congressional report, he delivered a blistering critique of the situation:
Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, Medicaid or food stamps. One English Department adjunct who responded to the Congressional survey said that she sold her plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daughter’s daycare. Another woman stated that she teaches four classes a year for less than $10,000. She writes, “I am currently pregnant with my first child… I will receive NO time off for the birth or recovery. It is necessary [that] I continue until the end of the semester in May in order to get paid, something I drastically need. The only recourse I have is to revert to an online classroom […] and do work while in the hospital.” 61% of adjunct faculty are women.
You have asked me to speak to you today about literary criticism, and so we might note that the conditions ravaging our profession are also ravaging our work. The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security. By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular and conformist.
Even as tuitions skyrocket, parents pay mostly for these overworked educators who cannot possibly devote the necessary time and attention to their students. Nor is this phenomenon about shrinking university budgets. Harvard, as Birmingham points out, has steadily increased its adjunct faculty despite having an endowment of $35 billion. Universities spend less and less money on actual teaching than they do on bloated administration, athletics, and amenities like rock climbing walls. Meanwhile, a glut of PhDs in some fields creates a labor surplus, depressing wages. “Academia is uniquely culpable,” Birmingham noted. “Unlike the typical labor surplus created by demographic shifts or technological changes, the humanities almost unilaterally controls its own labor market.”
In other words, this crop of teachers is utilized in the same manner as Walmart cashiers: they serve as interchangeable, abusable, replaceable labor.
Yet this overreliance has also created an enormous opportunity. Because from Harvard to Iowa, these schools cannot function without adjuncts and graduate students. These groups possess greater political power than they have yet been able to exercise.
While a grad student at the University of Iowa, I was part of UE Local 896, the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students. The difference our union made vividly demonstrated to me just how frighteningly powerless most non-unionized workers actually are.
“The difference is extraordinary,” current COGS president Landon Elkind told me. “Trying to set minimum standards for grad students across campus tends to be very difficult. The union clears that up. It can say, ‘Here’s what counts as a fair deal. You can’t go around it, you can’t dispute it, you can’t stonewall. That is so powerful, that legal amplification of our voices.”
University of Iowa grad students unionized in 1996 largely over the issue of health benefits, and it has made an enormous difference.
“People are so busy with research and teaching, and so they ask, why organize?” said Elkind. “Well, if you don’t have health insurance, that’s a pretty good reason. It’s much harder to finish your PhD if you get cancer in the middle of it. Or if your kid gets sick or you have an emergency room visit. These are the life and death issues our members face. That’s the difference organization makes.”
Back in September, student assistants at Columbia University won a crucial case with the National Labor Relations Board, which overturned a previous 2004 ruling by deciding that graduate students at private universities had the right to establish unions. This was a crucial ruling because it exposed the legalese people use to deny workers rights by utilizing the designation of “student.” If you are paid to teach, research, or grade papers, you are an employee, a worker, and thus have a right to organize despite “whatever sophistry opponents can come up with,” as Elkind put it (“I’m in philosophy so I have to use that word at every opportunity”). Columbia joined 60 public universities like Iowa where state law already allows for unions.
Yet the climate in Iowa and the nation at large has shifted very abruptly. “More crucially, the NLRB will flip with this fella about to take office,” said Elkind. “Probably by December of 2017, the board will become hostile to grad student unions. My advice is: Organize while you can.”
In Iowa, right-wing governor Terry Branstad will likely try to use Republican majorities in the state legislature to remove the right for public employees to bargain over health insurance. The rhetoric is always the same—“We can’t afford it, the budget’s exploding, all of us have to tighten our belts”—and so supremely ludicrous and so thinly veiled that it insults everyone’s intelligence.
“It’s unfortunate because the taxpayers, the citizens, and voters are the ones who are going to suffer because Iowa’s universities will suffer,” said Elkind. “These benefits bring talented people to the state, which is trying to train them for the jobs of the information age. These universities want to attract talented people. That’s the whole idea.
“By doing this we’ll be eating our seedcorn, as we say in Iowa.”
As for adjuncts, in the last three years 35 private colleges and universities have watched as their adjunct faculty have unionized, and adjunct unions have prevailed in 80% of their NLRB elections. These efforts to organize have been highly successful in a friendly (or friendlier than normal) labor environment. There is no reason to slow down now. Adjuncts have the same window—roughly a year—before the NLRB flips to a reactionary stance. The more adjunct faculty organizes the more it will force all higher ed institutions to grapple with the piss-poor way they treat their employees.
Furthermore, labor organizing efforts offer a way for some of the displaced, banal activism that has dominated campuses for the past five years to actually focus on an issue that materially effects people’s lives. Rather than starting a firestorm over a building named after Woodrow Wilson, it would be nice to see students take on a pretty glaring injustice that exists right under their noses (or across the classroom as the case may be).
A muscular labor activism on campus would have knock-on effects because, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, there is more at stake than how much your English TA gets paid.
Labor used to be the backbone of finance for the Democratic Party, and one of the reasons the assault on unions over the last thirty years has been so voracious is because moneyed interests saw the two-birds-one-stone advantage of attacking Democrats’ financial base. As unions declined, Democrats increasingly turned to Wall Street for financing, thus ensuring that the only ideas Democrats could safely proffer would be technocratic diddling on the fringes of an inequitable economic system.
The disappearance of unions then spilled out into the wider economy. Non-union workers likely did not realize that the benefits and safety they enjoy in the workplace were the result of generational struggles for fair treatment. From unpaid interns to student-athletes, from Uber drivers to office drones, from freelance writers to factory workers, the slow degradation of the rights of labor has been a driving force in our economy since the early Seventies. With greater technological displacement on the way (think self-driving cars and big-rigs, which will render a huge number of people’s jobs obsolete), it is more important than ever for workers to have their voices heard.
The decline in unionization contributed directly to a depoliticization of the electorate. Though propaganda makes us fearful of “union bosses” and “Big Labor”, these are institutions that represent ordinary people—teachers, nurses, factory workers, farmhands, electricians, auto workers. Into the void they left behind spewed corporate financing, billionaires investing in politicians to get favorable laws passed, and deregulation of the campaign system so that ever more private interest money might spill in like so much raw sewage.
Therefore, unions and collective bargaining in and of themselves are necessary not only for heading off exploitation, for fair wages, benefits, and treatment, for creating a class consciousness so that the Trump-voting Walmart cashier and the Bernie-voting grad student understand what they have in common—they are necessary for a healthy democracy.
As we search for ways to fight back against the oligarch that now occupies the Oval Office, his administration of plutocrats, and his army of craven congressional hucksters, let us not forget that the seedcorn of a larger, more robust resistance is likely at this very moment in a poorly lit basement classroom teaching an introductory composition course.
Stephen Markley is the author of Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book and Tales of Iceland. His fiction, journalism, and musings can be found scattered across the dark terrain of cyberspace.