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.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:
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.
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.