Thursday, November 20, 2008

Valuing Academic Labor-Power

A very brief exchange over on Bardiac about the problem of low adjunct pay has been bothering me this week. Since it also touches on material from Marx I have been teaching this week, I decided to write a bit more on the topic.

In Marx's terms, the issue revolves around the difference between "labor" and "labor-power" and the way the wage tends to obscure this difference. I find this a difficult point to explain to my students. I find it an impossible point to explain to my colleagues. Here's why:

In the original post, Bardiac recounts baiting one of her lefty colleagues with the following provocation:

I was having a conversation the other day with Super Rad, one of my colleagues who's just too radical and cool for school, if you know what I mean. Super Rad talks a lot about interventions and commitment to revolutionary action. Standing in the hallway, leaning on the door jamb, Super Rad was complaining about how poorly the adjuncts are paid.

So I said that we could go a long ways towards solving the problem if everyone with tenure in our department (including both of us) agreed to take a 20% paycut and redistributed the money to the adjuncts. You should have seen the look of abject horror that passed his face. It was worth it.
Fine. Super Rad should be able to handle a little idle hallway banter, and the idea of spreading the wealth around is currently much in vogue. However, Bardiac then goes on to try to explain her own higher salary as compared to adjuncts in her department and concludes:
I think I bring significant skills and qualities to my work that our adjuncts don't bring. And so I think I'm worth my salary.
This bothers me. Beyond the fact that it seems to imply that adjuncts may be worth their miserable salaries too -- which is a very harsh judgment to pass on any fellow human being -- this remark also reflects a very commonly held misperception that one's wage correlates with one's labor. The more and better work you do, the higher your wage. In Marx's terms, this would mean you are paid for your "labor" -- for the actual work done. The form our wages take and the way our raises and promotions are structured encourages this view at every turn, but it is always wrong.

Instead, Marx demonstrates that what the wage actually pays for is our "labor-power" -- our capacity to do work. The wage pays a value equal to our means of subsistence -- our house, car, food, clothes, cable-tv, health care, and kids -- so that we can continue to come to work. This means that there is always a difference between the value of the wage paid and the value of the actual work done. The greater this difference, the better it is for the employer. This means that the difference in wages between tenure-track and adjunct faculty is not really about the amount or quality of work done, it is just about how well they eat.

Anastasia adds this eloquent comment to the original post:
Honestly, the original post says "I think I bring significant skills and qualities to my work that our adjuncts don't have" not "I do work that adjuncts aren't paid to do." Obviously, I know t-t faculty have responsibilities I don't have. But am I less qualified? Less skilled? Less worthy and that's why I'm paid $3,000/semester and I feed my kids government funded cheese?

No. Fucking hell.


  1. I mostly agree with you, L. I have to say, I read the "I bring stuff to the job that adjuncts don't" comment more generously (maybe because I didn't read it terribly carefully?), perhaps because in my head that means "I'm paid adequately to do x and adjuncts shouldn't be expected to bring to the table what people making tons more money are expected to bring." In other words, I didn't think that it was a comment that was intended to indicate that adjuncts are somehow less qualified and that's why they're adjuncts, but rather that the system allows people who end up t-t to develop skills and qualities that universities need in order to run, and adjuncts don't get to develop those skills/qualities. I'm not sure if that makes sense, or if I'm being an apologist for the screwed up system in reading it that way. Both may be the case.

  2. "The more and better work you do, the higher your wage." There's an even easier way to demonstrate the falsity of this statement: administration. Do administrators do work worth from 5 to 10 times more than the work of faculty members? Their wages say that they do, but as in corporate America, the high wages are more about keeping an administrator from being hired away than about the worth of the work.

  3. Some folk held an academic conference here in the aftermath of a big strike by the clerical, technical, and medical workers, to talk about academic whatsits. It was mostly par for the course academic conference stuff. One of the better talks was by one of the strikers, who said something like this "I think you academic people need to get unionized. And, I think you often come from a very different place than we do in the labor movement. Until you think your colleagues should get paid the same as you, even the ones who work less and not as well, then you're just not on the same as we are." I thought it was pretty awesome.

    Anyway, I think your point is dead on. It's about socially necessary labor time, not actual skills. Of course folk want to rationalize their pay (or their deserving more pay) by appealing to their own unique special important expertise, but that's just a self-serving exercise to help them sleep better.

    That said, I don't know that the suggestion of leveling tenure salaries is necessarily that bad. I mean, in some ways it fits with a very classically marxist view: proletarianization and massification eliminates hierarchies inside the working class, the resultant increase in commonality of interests facilitates more unity in collective action. I'm not sure I really believe that idea, but I do think that wealth tends to be distributed tremendously regressively within universities and I think pay restructuring to make wealth distribution more progressive might well include cuts for tenured faculty pay.


  4. Good points, thanks :)

    I think I do have skills that our adjuncts tend not to (a terminal degree, for example), and that has to do with where we are geographically, and the fact that we don't have many random phuds or ABDs hanging around, willing to work. I do actually think that earning a PhD suggests a level of knowledge in a specialized field(though I know there's all sorts of privilege tied in there, too).

    But I shouldn't have implied that I think I'm better than they are, of course. I didn't mean to imply that anyone deserves to be treated badly at work or otherwise, or paid a lousy wage.

    And I recognize that wages aren't about skills, but about market forces and such. And I realize that market forces are systemically nasty.

    Yes, capitalism sucks, but I don't see that changing very easily, do you?

  5. Thanks for all the thoughtful responses to this post. I do think it is extraordinarily difficult for us to wean ourselves from the idea that our wage represents the value of our actual work. The head of my local AAUP still speaks glowingly of the benefits of competition between faculty over scarce merit pay as a spur to academic excellence, so I know that this issue doesn't have wide support or understanding within the academy.

    The administrative pay scales brought up by undine are perhaps a clearer example for many of us. Most professors resent high administrative salaries because we simply don't value that work the same way we value scholarship and teaching. If higher wages are paid to more valuable work, then professors should be paid more than Associate Vice Provosts in charge of tedium. The flip-side of these arguments happen when professors end up having to justify their own higher salaries with regard to adjuncts by highlighting all the committee work they perform. It should tip off faculty that something is terribly wrong if they find themselves arguing that the first 10k of their salary is for teaching and research and all the rest is for time spent in department meetings. Subdividing our work in these ways simply perpetuates the damaging myth that the wage represents actual work done.

    I was heartened by Nate's comments about a union worker saying to an academic audience that they needed to start thinking of their colleagues as people who ought to be paid as well as they are themselves. It's a very hard mindset for many of us to cultivate, but one that will help our desperate need for wider unionization.

    Like Bardiac, I'm reasonably certain capitalism will weather the current crisis, and so I'm not advocating some version of socialism-on-one-campus. Supply and demand will continue to create wage differences and administrative pay will continue to be higher than faculty salaries. However, I do think we should resist lending our support to the very worst pay inequalities and resist repeating the lies used to justify those inequalities -- that wages reflect an individual's actual work. I would much rather see us all engaged in vocal support of a living wage for all university employees.