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RECLAIMING THE IVORY TOWER Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education


Reviews & Interviews

  Spring 2006
How Mario Savio & Joe Berry helped CFA learn to organize

California Faculty (CFA)
  In 1964, Mario Savio changed history, and became part of history, with his speech to the demonstrators outside Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley. In his impassioned and much quoted words, he made clear how high the stakes are when a university becomes a managed machine rather than a place where students and faculty share knowledge and freely speak the truth. He also made clear that only action—collective action—would make a difference against the machine, concluding with these words: “Now, no, more talking. We’re going to march in singing ‘We Shall Overcome. Slowly; there are a lot of us.”

Some 30 years later, Mario Savio, a Lecturer at Sonoma State, was a delegate to one of the CFA Assemblies. It was a surreal experience for the delegates, most of them survivors of the ‘60s, to have such a famous face and name at our Assembly. It was also a surreal, and ultimately transforming, experience for the Lecturer Representatives when Mario Savio walked into the small room where our Lecturer Council meeting was scheduled on the Saturday morning of the Assembly.

Even such a small room was barely filled. These were not good days for contingent organizing in CFA, and the Lecturers felt dispirited and marginalized. After listening for a while to the discussion (which was mostly a litany of complaints about treatment of Lecturers), Mario commented, “There are a lot of Lecturers in the CSU.” Then he asked, “How many Lecturers are on the bargaining team?”

“One,” someone answered.

“There always has to be at least two of you if anything is going to change,” Mario responded. “The first thing you need to do is get another Lecturer on the bargaining team.” That was a revelation to most of us in that room, but by the end of the Lecturers’ Council meeting, we understood that getting more representation for Lecturers was part of a broader organizing strategy, that it was not just about protecting Lecturers but also about protecting students and the mission of a public university.

The Lecturers came out of the meeting inspired and committed to action. Later in the weekend, a now retired faculty member came up to a small group of Lecturers, and somehow managing to sound alarmed and condescending at the same time, he said, “What’s this about the Lecturers demanding another Lecturer on the bargaining team?” “Oh no,” we were able to respond, “it’s not about Lecturers. It’s about the whole university.” The rest is CFA history. We now have four Lecturers on a larger and more representative bargaining team, and CFA is a union dedicated not just to fair representation of the members of the bargaining unit but also to the protection of the mission of our public university.

Mario Savio’s contribution to CFA’s history is a small part of his legacy, but it began a paradigm shift for our union. Of course many other people, both in and out of CFA, have been part of our evolution into a union committed to social justice. One such person is Joe Berry, a contingent faculty member who teaches history at Roosevelt University and labor education at the University of Illinois.

In the tradition of Savio, Berry has a long record of activism, can inspire us to take action by showing us how high the stakes are, and help us learn how to organize in a strategic and effective way.

Joe Berry is a nationally recognized leader in faculty unionism. He has been active in California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and now Illinois, as part of AFT, NEA and AAUP, as paid staff, elected leader and activist. He is chair of the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) and serves on the coordinating committee of the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE). He is the author of a new book: “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education.”

The subtitle of Berry’s book refers to “adjunct faculty,” but the audience for his book is everyone who cares about what has happened to higher education and wants to know what can be done to fight back against an increasingly market-oriented and corporate machine. As Berry points out, “The casualization of the faculty workforce is the leading edge of this corporatization.”

This casualization, according to Berry, “represents one of the few recent instances in the United States economy (another is taxi driving) where an entire occupation has been converted from permanent career status to temporary, often part-time, status in the space of a single generation of workers.” Berry argues that “adjunct” is no longer an accurate term since the casualized faculty workforce is the new majority; “contingent” more accurately captures the “permanent lack of permanence” that separates temporary faculty from their full-time tenured and tenure-track colleagues.

Tenure is a public good, Berry reminds us, because “it is not in the public interest to have students taught by people who are afraid to speak the truth as they see it.” Berry continues, “Now that most teachers in higher education have neither tenure nor the prospect of ever getting it, administrators and trustees have won a great victory.”

The losers are the increasingly powerless faculty and the students. As Berry sums up in one of the most riveting sentences in the book, “We cannot teach students successfully if we treat our students the way we are treated by our employers. If we did, little learning would take place and many students would exit the classroom.”

Berry gives us considerably more background information, but he reminds us that talking and writing about change will accomplish nothing without collective action. Drawing on his background in organizing, Berry offers a wealth of advice on developing and following a strategic plan, including these points:

  • Use an “inside-outside” strategy to build solidarity and broaden the base. For contingent faculty this means building strength locally and working with others through groups such as COCAL while building a firm alliance with tenure track faculty and others on and off campus.
  • Build the most representative and democratic structures possible, for unity “is the only source of our power to change anything.”
  • Focus on “respect for the people who are doing the work and respect for the work they are doing.”
  • Understand that unions must be “prepared to engage in internal transformation” and develop innovative tactics if they are to organize effectively.”
  • Acknowledge the power struggle inherent in higher education organizing: employers will “make substantial concessions on pay, less on health benefits, but hold very tightly to all issues regarding power, flexibility or the job security of contingent faculty.”
  • Never quit fighting because the administration never quits.
  • Remember that fear and isolation can define the working life of contingent faculty, but action helps to “replace fear and fatalism with hope and courage.”
  • To get started on any collective action activity, find a partner and form a committee, “even if only a committee of two.”

The “committee of two” notion in the last bulleted item is more than a catchy title. It is Berry’s way of reminding us, as did Mario Savio, that collective action starts with at least two people working on a cause that matters. If you want to read more about Berry’s “committee of two,” you can borrow a copy of the book from the Lecturers’ Representative at your campus. Or you can buy your own copy—an excellent investment of about $10—by going to www.reclaimingtheivorytower.org

In “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower,” Joe acknowledges: “I was introduced to organizing and the politics of social change in the same way most people are—first by the specific invitation of one particular person, and second by the influence of an exciting social movement and an actual existing organization.”

In CFA, we have the “actual existing organization,” and we can all make that specific invitation to another person to help build, first, a committee of two and then a movement.

Elizabeth Hoffman
CFA Vice President-Lecturers
English, CSU Long Beach



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