Academia is More Broken than Ever. To Fix it, We Need More and Stronger Unions.

I don’t think that anything can help precariously employed academics more than collective bargaining power.

Rally for a free and fair election at Santa Clara University

hen I was first asked to speak on a panel about academic precarity at an ASEEES (Association for Slavic East European & Eurasian Studies) convention, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I got a PhD focusing on Russian literature and I spent a bunch of years going to this convention. I gave talks, networked (awkwardly) and answered job interview questions there. But it’s been six years since I’ve been a member of the association or traveled to its convention. The reason for this absence is precarity. I had to leave the field, or rather, the field ejected me by failing to employ me. I found a kind of second academic life teaching first year writing in an English department at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley. At this point, I don’t consider myself to be part of Russian or Slavic academic fields. And maybe for this reason I’m a good person to speak here on precarity.

Because I have limited time today, I won’t go on and on about the pains and hardships of precarity. They’re very real and very extensively documented, with studies and personal stories. Instead, I want to talk about solutions to the problem of precarity, specifically that of unionization.

For the past five years, my non-tenure-track colleagues and I have been organizing a union at Santa Clara University with the support of SEIU local 1021. I started by just signing a card, but before I knew it, I was a member of the organizing committee. Our campaign is difficult and long, but I’m sticking with it because I think that it’s the most productive use of my efforts in the fight against precarity.

Unions are a key mechanism in the struggle for labor justice. Shared governance is dead. Sorry but it’s true. And even if shared governance still existed, unions would be a powerful system for strengthening it and for addressing issues that are far beyond its scope. There’s ample evidence that unions improve working conditions. Collective bargaining agreements, which are written contracts negotiated between the workers and the employer, consistently raise wages, increase benefits, ensure greater job security, specify work expectations and conditions, and create a grievance process. Administrator responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have only raised the stakes for unionization, and on some campuses, unions played a key role in demanding and receiving greater protections for unionized workers, additional stipends, health insurance subsidies, and subsidized PPE. For examples see grad unions at University of Illinois-Chicago, Georgetown and the University of Michigan. Unrecognized unions at Loyola Chicago and Johns Hopkins also won gains for workers. And at Rutgers, a coalition of 19 unions came together to win a “pioneering agreement to protect jobs and guarantee raises.” For more examples, see this Twitter thread.

I don’t think that anything can help precariously employed academics more than collective bargaining power. In many ways, all of us are precariously employed at the neoliberal university, even the tenured. But when it comes to faculty, contingently employed are particularly dispensable and replaceable in the hands of administrators. As individuals, we lack negotiating power, which means that our conditions can improve only if the employer takes pity on us, if we manage (by some miracle) to get a better offer elsewhere, or if we come together and demand a better contract, as a collective and with the support of a union which provides us with labor lawyers, professional negotiators and all kinds of resources that help with tactics and strategy.

So I’m here to urge you to do the following: start a union, support a union, strengthen a union or act like a union.

Start a union

If you don’t have one, roll up your sleeves and get to unionizing. Hook up with a local union in your area. SEIU, AFT, UAW — these are just a few of the big unions that have successfully organized faculty, staff, and grad students and are in the process of running unionization campaigns. The very process of starting a union drive is transformative. It’s hard work but I genuinely know of no better approach to building community on a campus. Union organizing means that you will get to know colleagues in different departments and stages of life and career. You’re going to have a lot of conversations — difficult, awkward, wonderful conversations that will genuinely challenge, (righteously) anger, and fulfill you. You’re going to learn about the vulnerabilities of your colleagues, the specific issues that matter to them, the inconsistencies across programs, departments and colleges. You’re going to see your colleagues in a new way, learning about not only their struggles but the creative ways that they survive at the institution and work their magic in the classroom.

Starting a union forces you to get to know your institution, to really know it. Last year, an administrator told me that I knew the makeup of the administration better than she did. Knowing the loci of power is a basic requirement of organizing, but it’s also empowering. You’ll find yourself actually reading the faculty handbook, paying attention in those budget town halls and learning all the acronyms of the governing bodies, task forces, and university-level committees.

Now, if that doesn’t sound exciting to you, this will. You’ll connect with students, staff and other workers on the campus in an entirely new way. The slogan “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions” exists for a reason and students tend to get it right away. They understand that to be our best teacher selves we need to live without worrying about paying the bills, having a job next year, and retiring one day. Students are usually shocked to learn about the pay and disrespect of precarious faculty. They also tend to want to help in the struggle by raising awareness, showing up to events and using student government to put forth statements and resolutions.

Support those who start unions

If a union campaign takes off on your campus, don’t be a bystander, even if you can’t be included in the unit. For example, if you’re tenure-track and it’s the students (grad or undergrad), contingent faculty members or staff who are unionizing, don’t act like you have “no skin in the game” (something someone literally said during our unionization campaign). When a campaign gets underway, so does the union-busting. Administrations hire law and PR firms that specialize in destroying union campaigns. Protest this waste of money and be in solidarity with those who are organizing unions. All too often I hear faculty say “This is not my struggle, the adjuncts should decide for themselves, I don’t want to influence anyone.” While it’s good for tenure-track faculty to be mindful of the power asymmetries between them and those who try to unionize, it’s a moral failure not to use one’s power to fight union-busting. Also, cite the overwhelming body of evidence that proves unions improve working conditions. It’s ok to make evidence-based claims that unions are good for workers! Don’t fall for “both sides” rhetoric. One side is fighting to pay the bills and have respect and the other side is fighting to defeat that effort. As the song asks, “Which side are you on?” Besides, a rising tide lifts all boats and tenure-track faculty benefit from unionization even when they’re not unionized.

In many ways, all of us are precariously employed at the neoliberal university, even the tenured. But when it comes to faculty, contingently employed are particularly dispensable and replaceable in the hands of administrators.

Take a more active role in a union

Say you already work at a university with a union. You lucky cat, you! Are you a member or a free rider? If you’re not a member yet, you should become one today and you should get your fellow colleagues who haven’t joined yet to become members too. But even as a member, chances are you can probably do more, way more. Since I’m not in a union, I’ve crowd-sourced some ideas for how to be a better member from my union friends on the internet.*

First, get to know your CBA (collective bargaining agreement). Seems basic, but just as students often don’t read the syllabi, unionized faculty members don’t read their CBAs. All CBAs are different but, in general, they outline your union rights, grievance and arbitration processes, path to promotion, performance evaluation, workload, access to services, compensation and much, much more. Another basic habit you should acquire is that of reading union-related emails from your department rep, steward, subcommittee members, and more. And take the time to complete those surveys! That’s information the union needs to advocate for better working conditions.

Other ways to contribute include attending union events (with a friend or two), membership meetings and joining a committee. Get ready to bargain that next contract! You should also use your social media platforms, listservs and other forms of communication to disseminate information about union-related updates, events and actions. If possible, contribute to local union funds or the funds of other unions, especially to strike funds.

There are many other things you can do to be a more contributing union member but I’ll end with the suggestion to speak with and speak out. Speak with your colleagues to share information. You’ll learn that different departments have different expectations for instructors of the same rank. You’ll learn that some of your colleagues are banned from department meetings or don’t have keys to the supply closet. You’ll learn that faculty in the Business school make considerably more than in the College of Arts and Sciences. If your institution doesn’t have salary transparency, this is the only way you’ll get such information. Speak with your colleagues to build community. Show up to socials and potlucks. Keep each other up-to-date about working conditions, changes to university policies and everything else that affects your experience as a university worker. The employer wants nothing more than to keep its employees in silos or, even better, fighting each other for resources. Resist this by creating transparency and building solidarity.

Finally, support, in whatever ways you can, other unions and unionization campaigns. Join a cross-institutional coalition. For example, the Jesuit Jesuit Higher Education Labor Coalition is a coalition of workers at different Jesuit universities across the country. Together we’re able to appeal to Catholic Social Teaching to make calls against austerity. Share with other organizers resources (such as media contacts) and amplify union struggles via social media and other channels. Much of what I know about union organizing I learned from speaking to union members and organizers at other universities. In general, academics are not trained to be organizers or union members, which means that supporting each other is crucial to the larger project of labor justice in higher ed.

…if you’re tenure-track and it’s the students (grad or undergrad), contingent faculty members or staff who are unionizing, don’t act like you have “no skin in the game” ...

Act like a union even if you aren’t formally recognized

This is me anticipating the “What if we can’t unionize?” question. It’s true that there are numerous obstacles in the way of unionization. Maybe you’re in a right-to-work state where organizing and winning is considerably harder. Maybe you’re a graduate student whose university refuses to recognize your union claiming, as Loyola Chicago does, that grad students “are fundamentally students and therefore do not qualify as ‘employees’ within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act.” Maybe, like me, you’re at a private, religious university and can’t currently file through the NLRB. Maybe you’re tenure-track and can’t unionize because university lawyers keep talking about the NLRB v Yeshiva decision (1980) that determined that TT faculty are “managerial” employees (even though they might not qualify as managers today).

Here’s the thing though, to organize all you need are warm bodies and a willingness to learn some skills. Organizing, to simplify things, is when a group comes together to identify problems, figure out solutions, and build collective power (through conversations, actions, alliances and more) to enact those solutions. Any group of people on a campus can come together to organize for improving the working conditions of university employees. This is something we’re experimenting with on my campus. However, I would advise all who are thinking about organizing without the guidance of a union, or some other institution with a long history of running campaigns and winning, to make sure that their group has a clear sense of intentions and mechanisms for accountability. I highly recommend consulting the many grassroots organizing toolkits available online, such as this one, when envisioning the charge and structure of the group.

There’s no better time to start, support, strengthen, or act like a union. If COVID taught us anything about universities, it’s that administrators will never let a crisis go to waste. It also highlighted something we already knew: faculty, staff and student workers are all precarious in a university that lives by the doctrine of austerity. Still, we are not fighting hard enough. As many universities reopened this Fall, many of us threw ourselves back at the work, taking on extra service burdens and responsibilities that advance our institutions but contribute to our exploitation by giving the institution surplus value. In the meantime, the same universities that took austerity measures during the pandemic have announced dramatic increases to their endowments. We can’t let our work come at the expense of building collective power. The aforementioned gains by recognized and unrecognized unions, the graduate student strikes at places like Harvard and Columbia, the recent union victory at Pitt, and the campaign to unionize undergrads at Kenyon, are showing us that building collective power is more critical than ever. Let their examples inspire and mobilize us.



I write about adjuncting, chronic illness and whatever else strikes my fancy or makes my blood boil. More:

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Maggie Levantovskaya

I write about adjuncting, chronic illness and whatever else strikes my fancy or makes my blood boil. More: