Friday, December 05, 2008

Random Bullets on Academic Labor

There's been an unusually wide assortment of blog posts, discussions, and news items on academic labor issues this week. Due to the conditions of my own academic labor, and the size of the stacks of papers and exams to grade on my desk, I can't do more than briefly list them here:

  • Dean Dad takes umbrage at the AFT report. It calls for paying adjuncts significantly more for the work they already do. Dean Dad notices this would be bad for budgets. LumpenProf takes umbrage at Dean Dad's umbrage. When workers are paid below the poverty line the way to fix this is to pay them more, not work them harder. This always hurts budgets. And just as unions managed to cut the work week in half and keep their pay the same during the depression, look for academic workers to aim at increasing wages while keeping their hours the same during the coming depression. Never waste a good crisis. Academic labor needs to come out of this crisis stronger and better organized than ever.
  • And I've been having an intriguing, if somewhat vexed, discussion over on Dead Voles about the status of the lumpenprofessoriat. When you can't even get the Marxist profs on board with the idea of unionizing, it starts to look like a long row to hoe.


  1. Dear Lumpen Prof,

    Thank you for linking to my blog. Good luck completing your end-of-semester work.

    Best wishes,

  2. LP, having trouble with marxists - and vice versa - is nothing new for syndicalists. See e.g. Lenin in What Is to Be Done:

    "We said that Social-Democratic consciousness could not exist among the workers. But it could be brought to them from without. The history of all countries testifies that workers left exclusively to their own strength can cultivate only a trade union consciousness-- that is the belief in the need to unite into a union, struggle against the bosses, press the government to pass needed labor legislation, etc. The doctrine of Socialism grew out of philosophic, historical, and economic theories which were worked out by the educated representatives of the propertied class, the intelligentsia. The founders of modern scientific socialism, Marx and Engels belonged themselves to the bourgeois intelligentsia. Just as in Russia, the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose quite independently from spontaneous growth of a workers movement, but arose rather as a natural and inevitable result of the development of ideas among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia."

    Note Lenin identifies socialist intellectuals as members of the bourgeoisie, as Marx also did. And although I'm not a vanguardist, Lenin is right that fiddling with details of compensation and workplace conditions is no part of the transformation of labor from alienated to unalienated (a cage in which the shavings are changed and the water is refreshed more often is still a cage).

    You'll even find marxists who think that improving conditions for workers is counter-revolutionary because it depressurizes the more fundamental class struggle. I think that's silly but it's a big debate in marxist history. And of course there's the whole 'labor aristocracy' problem, that the gains achieved by some workers through unionization elevate them to a point of enjoyable superiority in the class structure such that they sell out the larger movement. I certainly saw this from the fatcat tenured faculty with respect to adjunct issues in the Cal State union.

    There's also the complication that marxism is primarily attractive in the U.S. to two distinct psychological demographics: the failed joiners, as a source of alternative identity (rather than, say, get guns and shoot up the school); and the crabby loner non-joiners (who become marxists only because they probably found Marx before they found Nietzsche).

    Point being marxists are not your natural constituency, despite some overlaps, so you can safely hoe the liberal do-gooder rows and look for opportunities to make little contingent alliances with us when conditions are just right.

  3. "...make little contingent alliances with us..." Dang. Have I been booted out of the ranks of Marxist professors now? Because I think that unions may help adjunct faculty? And for wishing my colleagues could cultivate a little of that "trade union consciousness" that Lenin believed so easily acquired? Wow. That really is a long row to hoe.

  4. Oh dear, I shouldn't look at the links, I have too much to do. But it is in the air. I fell asleep last week thinking about the tenure issue again, and salaries.

    Thinking about how we need to turn every adjunct position into a tenure track one, and have people come up for tenure in the third or fourth year. And pay everyone the same. Yes. It does not upset me if new people are paid as much as I (more would be unfair) so long as I get the raise I would have gotten anyway.

    Why: it is just not convenient for curricular and other administrative and teaching reasons to have there be such huge pay, status, and workload differences among faculty. It is not just un-socialist, it is inconvenient. Meanwhile, big stars or whatever could still get prizes, bonuses, and so on.

    Meanwhile: just read carldyke's comment. Hm: does it mean he is willing to give up tenure and so on?

    Also: what about that IWW proposition, 4 hours of work a day, 4 days a week, and no reduction in wages?

  5. Ja ja, Der Kommissar's in town and I vill do all the booting! Raus mit du, backslider and renegade! Harrumph.

    Of course unions will help adjunct faculty. The ones who end up with the more secure and better-paid jobs will be helped as workers. The ones whose lines are eliminated by the concentration of inelastic personnel resources in fewer but better-compensated workers will be helped to move along to the next phase of their lives. And about time.

    And of course I'm all for a flat compensation distribution, and also for using 'raise' money to hire more faculty instead if that's what's needed. That's actually how the President does it from the top down at my non-unionized school (where none of us make much but which also uses very few adjuncts and regularizes lines whenever possible). However, if my experiences at Temple and Cal State are any indication, this particular agenda will be a hard to impossible sell to the senior union rank and file.

    As for tenure, if I was a worker in a union of course I'd be willing to give it up. It's a bargainable item like any other; you prioritize what you want and trade the horses. Lifetime guaranteed employment is not usually a feature of the workworld, so it's nice but might be something to give up in exchange for a little more bling or more full-time lines.

    If on the other hand I'm not a worker but a member of an ancient guild, for which the character of the profession is a sacred trust, I might think tenure is to be protected at all costs; and I and my colleagues might have the moral authority to make that stick.

  6. heya Lump,

    I'll have to read those other things later, I've been enjoying the discussion at Carl's.

    re: current marxists and unions, in my experience in and out of academia people's political ideology is a poor way to measure their interest in and utility for collective action and organization. Anger over conditions is way, way better as an assessment tool.

    re: historical marxists and/on unions, that sure is a big debate. Many of the founders of the IWW were marxists and believed that building unions was a way to abolishing capitalism. They didn't put it this way exactly (though Antonio Negri did in the 70s) but it could be explained in Marxist categories as the increase of socially necessary labor time against possible surplus to the point that surplus becomes impossible. Others, including Lenin, have argued that participation in mass organizations and struggles provides a form of training for workers, both radicalizing them ideologically to become anti-capitalist revolutionaries and preparing them in terms of practical know-how to run their own affairs. (That idea is compatible with the IWW idea I mentioned above, a lot of IWW members held both, but the two are logically independent.)


  7. Aber Herr Dyke:

    "If on the other hand I'm not a worker but a member of an ancient guild..."

    What if one is is that you're both?

    "You'll even find marxists who think that improving conditions for workers is counter-revolutionary because it depressurizes the more fundamental class struggle. I think that's silly..."

    But you do say that anything above subsistence wages is lagniappe, and you seem to think adjuncts can afford to buy necessary tools of the trade out of their $18K salaries. I know you're not independently wealthy, but it still seems to me one has to be rich, or never have had concrete experience of being poor, to say those things.

  8. Correction of

    What if one is is that you're both?

    I mean

    what if one is both?


    I would say that you're both.

  9. I am not persuaded by this talk of guilds. It may be true that I dress up in medieval robes and wear a funny hat a couple of times a year. The trappings of my profession bear the marks of its history. So what? This does not make the conditions of my labor feudal. I am not paid by church or king, nor coins dropped into my hood by students, nor supported by my family estates. I get a wage. The argument that tenure isn't something a union could defend, but that tenure can be defended by ... what exactly? force of will? a guild? moral authority? nothing? ... is very odd. In fact, the increasing use of adjuncts is an attack on tenure, and that attack is being increasingly successful as adjuncts now make up the majority of the professoriat. In the face of our circumstances, these very abstract reasons to resist unionization seem misplaced.

  10. Hi! Sorry to be away so long, grades were due yesterday.

    LP, as you know I've elaborated my thoughts on this at much greater length in the post and comments you link above (and thanks again for that). One of my central points is that defaulting to 'union' any time there's work trouble is a remarkably narrow and uncritical approach for people who define themselves as critical intellectuals. I'm interested in how the situation looks from various perspectives; 'guild' is a convenient leverage point for that project. Of course our employment is no longer feudal. By that logic, tenure is a dinosaur. There are plenty of more efficient ways than guaranteed lifetime employment to protect academic freedom.

    Similarly, PZ, I have been arguing throughout that discussion that academic work can be understood as fundamentally hybridized with education, status, moral values and so on across its developmental trajectory. I won't rehearse those arguments here, and I know they're vulnerable to powerful critiques. But I don't think it's productive to have a fairly complicated discussion venue-shifted and set up as a straw man here.

  11. Carl, congrats on being finished with grades. I'm still in the midst of grading, but I'll take a break to comment just briefly.

    I still think you've set up something of a false dichotomy with unions on one side versus tenure on the other. A unionized faculty does not entail the end of tenure. And my own experience of discussing unions with faculty colleagues has tended towards the uncritical rejection of unions much more often than their uncritical embrace.

    However, a discussion of the ways academic work may, or may not, be something more than work probably deserves a post of its own. That will have to wait until after my grades are finished though.