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Power despite precarity blog

This is a blog about our new book, Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education. The publisher is Pluto in the UK and we expect it to come out in August 2021.

We’ll start with some background. This should set the mood:

Rally at Civic Center Plaza

Joe is holding the boom box so that people can hear the speaker at this rally. The rally is organized by AFT 2121 at City College of San Francisco, where about 165 full-time tenure line faculty have just received March 15 layoff letters. This means that over 500 contingent faculty will for-sure lose their jobs, because they are the cushion onto which tenured faculty fall.

The dominant mood is angry.

What is professionalism?

The person at the microphone is Malaika Finkelstein, president of AFT 2121. In the Troublesome Questions section of our book, we discuss the use of the word “professional” in our profession: what do people mean by it? For example: Do you think that it is very professional of Malaika to be wearing a bougainvillea-pink wig and a dress over her blue jeans to be addressing a rally at City Hall? Yes/No? Is it very professional for the faculty to be doing a rally in the first place? And how about doing a rally during COVID-19 shutdown? See the rope with all the hats on it? Those are the hats of six people who could not be standing in line right there because of social distancing requirements. Nonetheless, the faculty holding the line did some line-dancing, choreographed by a professor from the dance program.

Do you think that line dancing in Civic Center Plaza is professional behavior?

If you answered “No” to the above question, be sure to propose some alternate ways to get the attention of the folks in City Hall who have the power to restore funding for classes.

Items (a), (b) and (c)

In future posts, we will keep track of things that look like a) ways that the pandemic has fast-forwarded trends that have been oozing and grinding forward since the 1970s, b) ways that disaster capitalism trying to sweep up the value accused in public higher education (and since virtually all non-profit private higher ed receives and depends on public finding, we’ll include that as well) and c) fight backs, including potential fightback opportunities.

(a) Mills College is going under

This is an example of (a). Mills College, a private women’s college in Oakland which has been around since the 1850s, is no longer going to award undergraduate degrees. The announcement said that it finds that it is no longer financially viable. It will become an Institute.

What will happen to the faculty?

The website says:

In addition to developing transition pathways for our students, it is our intention to discuss transition opportunities for faculty and staff with our Human Resources Department and our unions. We expect many faculty and staff will stay on and support students throughout the transition; others may also find opportunities with a future Mills Institute or with other institutions. We will keep faculty and staff informed as more details are available.

Lots of words that probably sound familiar to contingents: “we expect”, “our intention”, “keep faculty informed…”

Turns out everyone is contingent.

(b) But Google sees an opening…

This is an example of (b). Google is going to offer non-degree related classes in “job ready skills you can put to work.” No college necessary! The March 18 SF Chronicle had an article about this, and here’s a quote from the article:

Higher education has been ripe for disruption for a long time. And while Google’s recent announcement may not be the final nail in the coffin, it’s a move with major potential to change the future of education and work.

More about this at https://grow.google/certificates/#?modal_active=none

The point is that we’re looking at a rapidly shifting landscape. Hoping that it will calm down and turn out fine is not a strategy.

(c) That’s why we wrote this book.

And here is how we actually wrote it:

This is Joe up in the room in the barn which our friend Mike who can do this kind of thing built for us, specifically to be able to lay out this book. The post-its on the wall are the chapters called Troublesome Questions. You can see the numbers — that’s the number of the question. There are seven of these questions.

Joe and I spent 8 years working on this book. It began in 2010 with Joe and John Hess just sitting around in John’s back yard in Oakland talking about what it was like to organize contingents in higher ed. Naturally, that evolved into “let’s write a book.” But then John came up with Parkinson’s and so eventually I stepped in, since it was so far along already, with all the thinking and planning that had gone into it. But that was 2014. We kept having to go do other things, and then come back and start up again, but finally we were trapped in the house in Berkeley, CA with the pandemic, and could wrap it up.

John Hess

Here’s a picture of John — he’s in either a very dark bar or a parking garage somewhere, and we don’t know who took this picture, but it gives an idea of his spirit. The T-shirt shows that it was taken while the Lecturers in the California State University system were building up their strike threat — it says: “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

Stay tuned. Joe and John are both old white guys with beards and bald heads, but you’ll be able to follow the story in the book. There is not going to be any kind of lack of material to work with as we go along.

In a different world, think like an immigrant

Without crossing the ocean, we’re in a different world. So think like an immigrant.

On both sides our grandkids have grandparents or great-grandparents who were immigrants.  Not one of them came to this country and got a job like what they were educated for in the old country. A medical student and journalist became a maker of dental appliances; a scholar became a guy behind the grocery deli counter.  They crossed the ocean, found themselves in a different world, and figured it out. They worked their tails off.

The border crossed us

Without crossing the ocean, our grandkid who is a junior in high school has found himself in a different world. Our colleague in Chicago, Francisco Montalvo  from Brownsville, Texas, used say that he never crossed the border; the border crossed him. The border has crossed our grandkid. 

The border of the “different world” from our grandkid’s point of view, is, compared to my experience or his mother’s, the impossible cost of tuition, the risk of intolerable debt, and the whopping amount of competition (applications up 30% over last year at the public colleges and universities in CA). From the faculty point of view, there’s the layoffs of contingents, the dismantling of tenure, and the desperate struggles to keep some colleges even open. These were trends already in motion, but now they’ve gathered into a perfect storm. Not to mention that right now in spring 2021 of the pandemic year, we’re all starting from zero. This is the year kids sat in their bedrooms clicking from one class to another and teachers struggled to get past the little black windows on their screens.

Our daughter called me to say that the price for a 5-day group seminar for our grandkid to help him apply to college would cost $6,000, and that all the sessions currently set up were full. Which leads one to ask, what’s it for?

What is it for?

Let’s pause to remember the various uses of public higher education. These apply to both students and faculty. The purpose of higher ed is:

1. To learn and teach something, to carry out research, to prepare the next generation, to curate, share and protect the culture and knowledge that no one individual can encompass but which is necessary to our collective survival.

2. To create a cohort of people you will stay in touch with as you make your way in the world. 

3. To signal your position, high or low, in a capitalist society.

4. To certify you to do a certain kind of work. 

My humble opinion of the way that $6,000 5-day seminar mentioned above satisfies the appetites of families willing to pay for it is as follows: Number 3 comes first, followed by # 2.  Then #1 and #4. So these are families that want their kid to go to a name college (#3), where they will meet a cohort (#2) that will network them into the upper levels of society. Only third comes what we would call “really learning” (#1).  And fourth is (#4) which is not too important to them because they think that with friends in powerful places and a name college behind them, they will always be able to get a job. This kind of thinking is behind the scandals about admissions bribes we read about last year. 

To which I say, “Not in this different world.”  For $6,000 you are buying advice about how to get ahead in the old world, the previous world, the world that is not going to come back.

In this different world I’d rank the uses of higher education as #4, then #1, followed by #2 and #3. Number 4 can be the point of the needed that gets someone into #1, as they follow their interest. Number 2 will be something you create yourself based on what you’re interested in, not on what the admissions people think will be good for you (or them). And #3 comes last.  

In this different world, we make the road by walking, as Miles Horton and Paolo Friere say. Like an immigrant, figuring out the new world as you go along.

In the meantime, we’re fighting back

In the background as I write this is the state-level California Federation of Teachers (CFT) convention. It’s on zoom and Joe, a delegate, is watching it at the kitchen table. There is a debate going on. Apparently there was a resolution in support of lowering tuition costs at public higher education in CA (that is, all the places my grandkid wants to go). The resolution said community colleges should be free but the state colleges and universities should be “affordable.” The body is not buying it. Speaker after speaker stands up and points out that all higher education up through grad school in the University system used to be free, consistent with the 1960 California Master Plan. So everyone wants the language changed to “free” or “no-cost” instead of “affordable.” They vote, it passes, the resolution goes back to the Executive Board to fix the language. I love this.

There’s a part of me that wishes I were not retired and could go back and teach at our local community college and get involved in the union. Imagine being in the same room with 600 people you agree with, for the most part!  

Strategies: Places where we fight

We fight in different places. Each place has an appropriate strategy, if not two or three. A good strategy in the wrong place is a bad strategy. Strategies should be coordinated, so what is going on on one level supports what is going on elsewhere.

Examples of places we fight are:

Individuals fighting for our own jobs. Each of us, protecting our job, our students, fights for our individual right to do our jobs well. If a class gets cut back, we don’t just take it lying down. We complain. We ask around and see if it happened to anyone else. We make sure the union knows. If we get laid off, we file for unemployment. If we get denied, we appeal. We communicate with our students to educate them about the conditions their teacher is working under. We go and have that hard talk with our department chair or whoever it is who makes the schedule, and we make sure they know what a bad idea it is to hurt us.

But it doesn’t stop there.

We fight in our departments, faculties, disciplines, professional organizations. As individuals, we join professional organizations and speak up in department meetings and become part of a group. We form or join caucuses and committees for contingent faculty and support each other. We put pressure on our departments to provide professional development funding and on our professional organizations to recognize our work. We fight to keep our departments and faculties healthy and funded.We get official bodies (like caucuses in disciplinary organizations) to to put their official heft behind our goals and use them to organize and educate. We get seats on the academic senate and use that space to deal with academic freedom issues (we deal with them elsewhere, too).

What about unions?

Of course, we fight in our unions. We form caucuses or committees inside our unions to create a “safe space” among ourselves what we need and why. We carry the messages and authority of these caucuses into the main body of the union to push for them. We do our share of the unpaid work that is required. We organize other people to join us. We make food, design buttons and T-shirts, call people up and find out why they missed the meeting. We run for office. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle.

But some things that affect us are decided at the state level or above.

The fight at the state level. The majority of us work in public institutions, community colleges and state universities. Our right to bargain and many of the decisions about our working conditions happen at the state level. Therefore legislatures are a place where we bring our fight. However, it is a mistake to think that this is a good place to start. Sure, it would be great if the state passed a law requiring contingents to be paid 100% pro-rata with tenure line faculty and supported with full health and retirement benefits. Will that happen? While someone from our groups should be paying close attention to what’s going on at the state level and provide legislators with well-explained proposals for good laws, getting a law passed is neither the beginning nor the end of fixing the problem. No leader worth their salt will do something without pressure from below. Yes, having a law in the works is good for organizing around, but if the law is already in process and we are only starting to organize now, it’s too late. So thinking up and discussing legal or legislative strategies is good, but the ratio of time spent proposing a legal strategy to time spent organizing is about 1 to 100. On the other hand, this does not discount the importance of state level laws which can suddenly make a huge difference. Good or bad.

How about the federal level?

Then there’s the federal level, Congress. For contingents, the most familiar problem we have that impinges on us from the federal level is unemployment benefits. The New Faculty Majority is the outside organization that has tried to act on this level. It was able to to get Congressional attention paid to the conditions of contingents and also sparked the formation of a national coalition of all the unions that represent contingents. It was able to get a new and better letter of guidance from the Labor Department to state agencies about the stupid problem of “reasonable assurance.” All their work has been limited by lack of staff and resources.

Private sector labor law is federal, too, which impacts the private non-profit or for-profit institutions that are being organized these days.

The courts. A good court case can be a wonderful thing. The Cervisi case in California put huge money in the pockets of laid-off contingents and still does — the gift that goes on giving indeed! The key message about taking something to court is, “Be careful.” Courts decide what is right according to the law. Just because something is unfair, immoral, evil, hurtful, bad policy, etc , that doesn’t mean it is illegal. A case that goes in our favor will get appealed all the way up until one side runs out of money, and that’s usually our side. If it does not go in our favor, it can become a bad precedent. So do not try this one by yourself. The amount of careful, thoughtful, planning and research that went into preparing the Cervisi case would make a great subject for someone’s dissertation.

But you’re leaving out the one that we think about first — our contracts!

Oh yes, the bargaining table. That’s probably the place most of us think of first when we say “fight.” The conversation across a bargaining table is not a friendly chat, no matter how experienced and slick the negotiators are, but it is not a fight in the sense that a rally or a floor debate is a fight. It’s a different kind of drama. For actual negotiation strategies, it’s not a bad idea to read Walton and McKersie’s 1965 book, A Behavioral Theory of Negotiations. The date I just wrote (probably before most of you were born and you thought it was a typo) should give you an idea about the content. But don’t confuse table strategies (what to listen for, how to prioritize demands, how to identify the opponents’ fears and hopes, how to formulate a persuasive argument) with what really matters: all the organizing that has to be strategically planned and carried out, framed historically and projected into future bargaining. The table is where it pays off, but if you haven’t done the prep, you have nothing to spend. It is often said, “You can only win at the table what you have already won in the street.” The flip side of that is that if you haven’t won it in the street, you’ll for sure lose it at the table.