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.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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