Contingent and Powerful

Against the Current No. 225, July/August 2023

Kay Mann

Power Despite Precarity:
Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education
By Joe Berry and Helena Worthen
Pluto Press, 2021, 289 pages. $26.95 paperback.

OVER 75% OF of all college and university courses in the United States today are taught by contingent faculty. Job security is non-existent. Employment is often offered on a semester-by-semester basis, dependent on the needs, often last minute, of department chairs. This creates uncertainty and makes planning for basic needs difficult and stressful for contingent faculty and their families.

While some contingent faculty are paid livable salaries and are offered health care insurance and 401k-type retirement benefits, salaries are low and health and retirement benefits are not offered for the large numbers of faculty who work part time, often at several different colleges or universities to make ends meet, the so-called “Roads Scholars,” a pun on “Rhodes scholars”-holders of a prestigious research grant. Despite holding advanced degrees contingent faculty, particularly part-timers, work therefore in the same secondary labor market as other low-wage workers and part-time workers.

In Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education veteran higher ed faculty union organizers Joe Berry and Helena Worthen share their personal experiences and lessons learned as longtime contingent faculty organizers. Berry is also author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower (Monthly Review Press), a handbook on contingent faculty organizing.

Power Despite Precarity is based on the history of the contingent faculty union movement in the California State University (CSU) system. The book is part practical organizing handbook, part organizational history of the California Faculty Association (CFA), part labor history, part oral history.

Berry and Worthen’s perspective is broad, both practical and theoretical and grounded in a broad socialist perspective that analyzes faculty organizing in the context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. They situate highly detailed accounts of organizing in the CSU within the context of the history of the U.S. labor movement as a whole.

Nuts and Bolts of Organizing

This is a book that will interest labor scholars and historians, and anyone interested in the practical challenges and potentialities of contingent labor organizing. Its great merit is the way the authors draw on their extensive experience involved with faculty organizing, and the clarity in which they connect these to broader social issues and the experiences of the labor movement.

Published by Pluto press as part of its “Wildcat: Worker’s Movement and Global Capitalism” series during the pandemic in 2021, the book has a pressing timeliness as contingent and non-contingent faculty organize (the AFT and the AAUP merged in May of 2022) and struggle and strike, like those who led a successful faculty strike at Rutgers University in the spring of 2023.

Power Despite Precarity, offers long stretches of discussion of the nuts and bolts of organizing and bargaining from a rank-and-file perspective, complemented by clear explanations of the broader social dimensions and political economy of contingent faculty work and organizing.

As administrators pushed issues of cost and profitability to the fore of decisions regarding hiring, curricula and programs, the use-and abuse-of part-time faculty steadily increased.

Hiring of part-time faculty began to take off in the 1970s under a constellation of several political and economic trends. During this time, the government and employers began to roll back gains that unions had made in previous decades and weaken the legal standing of unions.

The Reagan government responded to the 1981 air traffic controllers strike by crushing the strike and decertifying the PATCO union, which encouraged public and private-sector employers to move aggressively against unions. The year before the PATCO strike, the Supreme Court issued its Yeshiva ruling that faculty in private universities are administrators, and therefore do not have the right to bargain collectively.

Neoliberal austerity drives also began at this time, which involved sharp cuts for education, including state colleges and universities, as well as community colleges at both the federal, state level, and local levels.

Recession and Part-time Hiring

The economic recession in 1981 drove the unemployment rate over 10%, which resulted in increased higher ed enrollment — during periods of unemployment, higher ed enrollment rates increase as some workers hope to gain employable skills and credentials though higher education courses and degrees.

This made planning for adequate teaching staffing difficult because enrollment patterns had become more irregular. College and University administrators responded to these developments and trends by sharply increasing the use of part-time, contingent faculty.

In California, however, some countertrends including the 1979 Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (HEERA) strengthened the legal standing of public sector faculty unions and gave contingent faculty lecturers the right to union representation and resources. This created a favorable terrain for the faculty to struggle for and win significant gains, resulting in a rich set of experiences.

There are three different public college and university systems in California, the California State University (CSU), the University of California (UC), and Community colleges. Much of the book involves an account of contingent faculty organizing in the CSU system by the California Faculty Association (CFA), and the legal environment in collective bargaining rights in which organizing took place.

This is told in part through the organizing work and occasional voice of John Hess, a lecturer and for a time tenure-track professor in film studies, who began contingent faculty organizing in the 1970s.

The authors emphasize both the importance of the “political space and the legal right to organize” a union, usually though Labor Board recognition, and that what is won “in collective bargaining, both the scope of bargaining, and the content of our agreements, is a temporary truce” which is “merely a reflection of the relative power between us and the employer at that moment.” (92)

They outline the key issues facing contingent faculty which should serve as priorities for faculty unions: salaries, a key demand given the exceedingly low pay of contingent workers; support for research such as the sabbaticals that tenured and tenure-track faculty receive; health care, sick leave and maternity leave, as well as job security and academic freedom.

Abolish Contingency and Precarity

Berry and Worthen argue that the ultimate goal of contingent faculty organizing is to “abolish contingency and precarious work as a condition of our lives and the lives of all workers.” (89)

This forward-looking goal starts with the real condition of contingent faculty and non-faculty workers and sets it in a broad social context on the basis of a radical democratic vision connecting work and social rights. They see contingent faculty organizing as a struggle for the “common good,” an expression they trace to the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, which has also been called social movement unionism.

A brief chapter, “What about Leftists,” points out the important role that leftists have played in many labor struggles including the 1934 Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco strikes, the 1937 sit-down strikes in the Flint, Michigan auto industry, and more recently the 2012 and 2019 Chicago Teachers strikes and the 2018-19 Red for Ed strikes.

At CSU John Hess, who identified himself as a socialist, worked with the “Ruckus society,” a group of seasoned activists who conducted organizing workshops. They led contingent faculty in simulating various possible union actions, with ascending degrees of audacity and personal risk, which Berry and Worthen see as an example of what activist and scholar” Jane McAlevey calls “structure tests.” (64)

Berry and Worthen discuss the tricky fault lines of alliances across faculty employment status with considerable nuance, balance and insight. Many tenured faculty and their organizations long considered themselves “Professionals” as opposed to workers.

This was a barrier to defending their own interests and recognizing their common interests with contingent faculty. As the authors point out, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Association of University Professors (AAUP) resisted calling themselves unions until the 1990s. (181)

Historic Parallels

A section titled “One Big Union” discusses issues of the organization of tenure/tenure-track and contingent faculty. Should all faculty be in the same union? If so, should contingent faculty have their own caucuses within that union? How should they be represented?

Such questions in higher Ed organizing parallel those seen in other industrial sectors, such as two-tier pay and benefit schemes seen in auto manufacturing and other sectors. Berry and Worthen offer an extended quote from John Hess that sets this question in the larger context of the history of relations between skill levels in the U.S. labor movement that is worth reproducing here:

“The history of the American Labor movement is the sacrifice of the unskilled by the skilled, of the lower paid by the higher paid. . . if full and part-timers are in separate units or even unions, the administration is able to whipsaw them-divide and conquer. If they are in the same unit/union, the Lecturers . . . are generally ignored. The only way we can avoid that is by having a strong Lecturer’s group, an independent power base.” (136)

Berry and Worthen see this as a version of an Inside/Outside strategy, when a “sub-group organizes itself as an independent power group within a more powerful group in order to create a safe space where they can have a significant impact on the more powerful group.” (135)

They cite as precedents the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and Miners for Democracy (MFD) in the 1970s, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) formed in the 1960s by militant Black auto workers fighting against racism in the UAW, and on a larger scale the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). (139)

The authors conclude by pointing out that institutions of higher learning will most certainly continue to try to eliminate tenure and universalize contingent faculty labor. They point out that faculty can “control our own power, which we create through organizing and deploy when it’s time to make our move,” and express their hope that this book will contribute to that power. (239)

Those who wish to build a powerful contingent faculty movement in this age of budgetary and ideological assaults on higher education will find his book’s tone inspiring, and the union organizing wisdom it conveys practical.

NOTE: This online review has been edited and therefore slightly differs from the one that appeared in the print edition.

July-August 2023, ATC 225

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