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Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education


Reviews & Interviews

  March 2006
Organizing Colleges' Teaching Temps

Industrial Worker

Joe Berry’s Reclaiming the Ivory Tower is an exceptionally well-written guide to academic labor’s contingent workforce. For those new or unfamiliar with the conditions of contingent academic labor, this book does more than name and give voice to an exploited workforce, it is also a thoughtful catalog of issues facing experienced education organizers – a reminder of the peculiar professional, philosophical, cultural, and pragmatic barriers to labor organizing within the Ivory Towers.

Berry describes higher education’s exploited contingent faculty ranks with succinct accuracy: “they are professors without tenure or the prospect of tenure, paid a fraction of the salaries of their tenured colleagues, working without benefits, offices, or research assistance, and often commuting between several campuses to make ends meet.” There’s more to it, of course. In fact, Berry devotes an entire chapter explaining “who we are.”

The book’s opening chapters should resonate with anyone who has worked as an academic day laborer, especially if one has been involved with an adjunct organizing campaign. I was at first worried that these descriptions would be hackneyed, the same old song telling us what we already know about ourselves. But this is not another tired exposition on yet another exploited group of workers. Instead, Berry provides a rather articulate, effective, and evidenced description of contingent work as it really is – increasingly significant to the proper functioning of higher education, yet increasingly abused and under rewarded.

It is ironic that as more of the academic workload is shifted to contingent faculty, a greater dependence is placed on the labor of this particularly exploited labor force. Certainly, Berry did not mean the irony to be literary, but rather motivational. Beyond the statistical facts and figures and anecdotal descriptions of contingent work life, this book’s early chapters serve as a mirror held against our own working lives. And we hardly need to beg the question – Once we understand that we’re being exploited and we have the power to change things through organization, how long are we going to accept it?

With such a well developed analysis of the state of contingent academic labor – from the corporatization of the academy to the internal divisions among education’s working class – this book does more than remind us why contingent faculty have a right to be frustrated with their salaries, lack of respect and autonomy, and lack of job security; it compels us to outrage and inspires us to action, for example, with its case analysis of Chicago area organizing where some adjuncts have recently won victories on a variety of issues – largely as a result of good and smart union and labor coalition building.

The book is billed as an organizing handbook for contingent faculty; something that implies that an interested reader is already moved to action in some way. As such, it does deliver as its last chapter a “toolkit” of practical ideas on such matters as committee development, tips on relationship building across various types of worker groups (e.g., staff, grad employees, part time and full time faculty); ways to frame issues and build common cause; as well as advice on using phones, email and the Internet to build a union. However, anyone looking toward this book as a down-and-dirty catalog of tactics will be disappointed – and rightly so. Organizing is always more than tactics. In Berry’s descriptions of local and national contingent organizing activities and issues he reminds us that organizing adjuncts, indeed all of academic labor, must always be considered within both general and specific historical, social, political and economic contexts of the workers.

This is why Berry, who teaches labor education and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Roosevelt University, spends a considerable amount of time front ending the book with detailed, sweeping descriptions of the issues facing contingent academic labor in today’s corporate institutions. Eventually he challenges us to think beyond the bread and butter issues of what we’re organizing for, and encourages us to think about the meat and potato issues of how to organize for effectiveness and sustainability. As such, Berry’s book provides a handy guide to negotiating the pitfalls of power relations among academic workers; it is a roadmap to pass through the territorial disputes among tenured and contingent faculty, and it is a way of envisioning grassroots and coalition-based organizing over top-down, staff driven enterprises all too common with business unionism.

Of particular note is the way Berry addresses the state of union representation of contingent faculty – a subject of interest to those who believe in industrial unionism or One Big Union. Berry describes how some unions represent both adjunct and full-time faculty as one bargaining unit, while many others either refuse to organize full-time faculty with adjuncts or insist on separate bargaining units. Berry contends that adjuncts themselves should determine how they are to organize, despite professional or legal pressures of full-time faculty unions, administrations, or even labor law. Whichever way adjuncts organize, Berry recognizes the significance of academic labor alliances and coalitions (the author is a leader of the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor) so that the full force of academic labor can be brought to bear on the bosses.

“In the best of all possible worlds, people who work in higher education, no matter what their classification, should be together in the same democratic, participatory, union and even in the same bargaining unit,” Berry said in a recent interview. “However, for particular legal, political and historical reasons in many places this is not possible and, in those cases, organizing independently is the realistic choice. Even in those cases, we should strive for maximum cooperation with other campus workers, unionized or not, while protecting our essential interests.”

Of particular note in today’s multimedia world, Berry has teamed up with the North American Alliance for Fair Employment to create a companion website to the book so that activists can experience what he describes as the importance of alliance building and interaction among contingent faculty and other academic workers and activists.

- Kevin Farkas





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