One of the more than 1,000 workshops featured at the Social Forum this past week was our UPTF-sponsored offering, entitled "Voice for the Voiceless: Organizing Part-time Faculty." About twenty attendees, coming to the issue from different perspectives, packed the room: unionized adjuncts, those working on organizing, grad students thinking about their futures, and others who just care deeply about the state of higher education in this country. Two Turkish colleagues joined us, making it an international event: yes, there are adjuncts in Turkey!
After intros, I focused my part of the presentation on what's happening out there in higher ed these days, and where the biggest challenges to faculty exist. We discussed the pitfalls of the "Anyone Can Teach" mantra put out there as higher ed continues to corporatize and casualize our profession. We discussed the extra challenges adjuncts face in today's corporatized schools and why unionization is almost essential if we wish to make the living we deserve and preserve the dignity of teaching--at any level!
Importantly, we discussed the need to reframe the mixed messages adjuncts send to school administrations when we speak with an incoherent collective "voice." Every survey published seems to indicate that at least 40-50% of adjuncts are "satisfied" (more or less) with the status quo. Unfortunately, these surveys are mostly engineered (consciously or not) to generate responses that overplay the importance of "flexibility" and underplay dissatisfaction with our typical conditions of employment. School administrators can study these surveys and feel assured they're giving us what we want, based on our love of "flexibility." As we discussed, "units of flexibility" (as one community college v.p. calls us, according to Joe Berry) equal units of disposability! So we discussed the need for a more positive, unified message out there:
"Fair Treatment for Adjuncts is Good for Higher Ed!" What would fair treatment look like? A handout listed several ideas--unfortunately, no one in the room could check off many items from their current experience!
UPTF president Susan Titus then took over and led everyone in an exploration of the major features of organizing a local union. Locating and striking up a conversation with potential members is the first, sometimes difficult step. The painstaking, labor-intensive process of motivating everyone to collective action was another issue discussed: several attendees had great ideas, but it was clear that organizing is not for the faint of heart. Even so, the time is ripe, it is achievable, and worth the effort!
Thankfully, we concluded on a hopeful note: Dan Kukuk from Central Michigan U's organizing team related the challenges CMU adjuncts have been having with including all adjuncts in their newly-forming union, and he asked for everyone's support for a June 30th action. Everyone signed "We Care" postcards to send to CMU administration, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and the EWU Chancellor who recently fired all adjunct staff when they tried to form a union. The other Big Message that emerged that day was: we're in these challenges together, and solidarity will win the day!