In fall 2021 two unions representing contingent (adjunct, non-tenure line, grad worker) faculty faced down two of the most prestigious universities in the world by mounting a credible strike threat. Both the Graduate Student Employees at Harvard, represented by the United Automobile Workers (HGSU-UAW), and the Lecturers in the 9-campus University of California system, represented by the American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), won contract settlements. Both had mounted threats believed by the members, the administrations, and the public.
These settlements give us a look into some of the most important aspects of how higher education is delivered and what higher ed workers are doing about it. These aspects are not what is being focused on in the mainstream press.
Similarities and differences
Workers in both unions are similar in that they design and teach courses, evaluate students, carry out research, develop their disciplinary knowledge and perform other necessary “faculty work”. Workers in both unions are “contingent” meaning that their jobs are contingent (dependent on) funding, enrollment and many other factors. Unlike tenure-line faculty, they do not have “just cause dismissal and discipline” rights, which are the essentials of tenure, and therefore do not have academic freedom. Nor do they have the pay and benefits of tenure-line faculty; in fact, contingency as a mass employment practice in higher education was introduced in the 1970s, largely as a way to cut labor costs. Today, nearly 75% of higher ed is delivered by contingents.
But let’s contrast these two situations. One group of contingents works at Harvard, a private institution that gets its wealth from endowments and investments and is ruled by a private Corporation that appoints the President. The other works at the University of California, that gets a major portion of its wealth from tax revenue and is run by a Board of Regents appointed by the governor. This difference – the difference between private and public sector – plays out in how a unionized faculty workforce designs a strategy, particularly the strategy of building a credible strike threat. What’s your story, and whom do you have to convince to believe it?
The HGSU-UAW workforce and its settlement
At Harvard, the grad students are usually in their twenties and thirties and are employed while enrolled in graduate programs. They do not keep these jobs after they get their degrees. However, while in grad school, they are likely to have heavy debt burdens and may be starting a family. In other words, this is a workforce that turns over frequently, wants decent pay, needs family health insurance but is not looking for job security and does not care about retirement.
Thus the tentative four-year deal between Harvard and the UAW included a 5% pay raise this year, new funding for benefits (including some dental) and legal assistance, and full pay for researchers who leave a work site because of sexual harassment or discrimination, typical forms of abuse that grad students are exposed to. However, it did not include guaranteed independent arbitration for such cases of sexual harassment or discrimination. In other words, Harvard, perhaps the richest higher education institution on the planet, can afford to pass out money, as long as it does not skew the strategy of its overall faculty compensation plan, or change the power relationships between grad students and their advisors.
Nor will Harvard support a strong union: it rejected the union demand for a “fair share” arrangement, in which all employees represented by a union make payments to the union that cover the costs of representation. This share, also called “agency fee” or a union security agreement, usually amounts to something close to the membership fee. In the absence of a fair share arrangement, unions have to organize each new hire individually, often one-on-one. A regular stream of fair share revenue coming into a union allows for staffing, reduces the reliance on volunteers, enables some institutional memory and covers basic expenses. These are important aspects of representing a workforce that turns over as often as grad students. No way was Harvard going to go for that.
The UC-AFT workforce and its settlement
In contrast, the UC Lecturers in the University of California system have already earned their degrees and have made a long-term commitment to working in higher education. They want to know where they are going to live for the foreseeable future, where their kids are going to go to school, whether to rent or buy a home. Although they also typically have student loan debt to deal with, they are interested in continuity and stability.
The settlement between the AFT-represented Lecturers and the UC system includes some job security and promotion items that may turn out to be the best in the country for contingent faculty: more job stability with multi-year appointments in the first six years, reviews before reappointment and the right to be reappointed “if deemed effective”,specific and transparent performance review criteria and a pathway to apply to become a senior continuing lecturer.
Currently, maybe only two other higher ed union have bargained a path for someone hired as a contingent to move into a tenure-line or equivalent position. One is City College of San Francisco, where AFT Local 2121 won upgrading language, and the other one is the California State University system- California Faculty Association contract, where inside candidates, who are state employees, have to be given “careful consideration” for hiring, as defined over the years by many arbitrations and grievance settlements.
In addition to these job security items, UC-AFT won some money items. Paid medical leave and health benefits over the summer acknowledge that these faculty members are actual people all year round, not “units of flexibility,” as one contingent was told. Retirement and professional development funding also signal a long-term commitment.
The credible strike threat is what brought home the win
In both cases, the strike threat was credible in the sense that it was believed by the public, the university administration, and the members themselves. However, the audience for the threat was different in each case. Harvard doesn’t like to be embarrassed; it wants to be known for its world-famous professors, not for the grad students scrambling to pay the rent while teaching Harvard students. It also likes to be the model for how things ought to be done. The UC system is viewed by Californians as the top of the mountain for working class students; they are likely to empathize with Lecturers who share their worklife stories, and support a strike, leading to widening disruptions. But other parts of the credible strike threats included careful development, over a period of months and even years, of coalition support by allies on campus and off, who were prepared to take action in support of their contingent colleagues and fellow workers.
We do not mean to criticize either settlement. Both are steps forward that will make significant differences in the lives of real people. The purpose of this article is to suggest to readers who may not follow higher ed workforce news that it’s important to look at who is the workforce, who is the management, and who is the public, to get beyond the headlines about strikes. Chances are, given the situation at Columbia University (for example) we are not done with this.
Joe Berry and Helena Worthen
Berry and Worthen are long-time contingent faculty activists and organizers, labor educators, and the co-authors of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education, Pluto Books, 2021. We wrote this post back in December but I didn’t get this blog going until now.