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“She was a professor?” That’s the question an incredulous caseworker asked when confronted with the predicament of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old French teacher who spent the final months of her life destitute and nearly homeless before dying on September 1. The story of her death has become the symbol of a surprising economic reality: “Adjunct professors are the new working poor,” as one CNN headline proclaimed.
Vojtko taught for 25 years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, but, as an adjunct faculty member employed on a contract basis, she never received health or retirement benefits. And when the university informed her last spring that it would not be renewing her contract, it was not obliged to provide her with severance pay. Fighting cancer and unable to afford both the out-of-pocket costs for her radiation treatment and the heating and upkeep bills on her house, Vojtko’s case was finally referred to Adult Protective Services (APS). Vojtko reacted to the summons from APS with shame and dismay. But before she could appear, she collapsed from a massive heart attack and died two weeks later, according to an account published in the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette by United Steelworkers (USW) counsel Daniel Kovalik.
The caseworker assigned to Margaret Mary before her death wasn’t the only one who reacted to her desperate circumstances with disbelief. “Most people are under the illusion that the academy still provides people a good life,” says Kovalik, whose union is organizing adjunct faculty in Pittsburgh. “But professors have been proletarianized.” The USW is seeking to represent adjuncts at Duquesne — who voted last year to unionize, though the university has refused to recognize the union — and attempted to intervene with both the university and APS on Vojtko’s behalf.
Indeed, the injustices that Vojtko’s tragedy laid bare — an employer that treated her as disposable, a tattered safety net that offered her little assistance at her most vulnerable — are all too familiar. What shocked the public consciousness, instead, is who is now suffering them: Contrary to the economic axiom that higher education is the pathway to prosperity, the highly educated may now end their lives as destitute as anyone else.
The professoriat’s decline
Five years into the recession, the continued downward mobility of professionals is often portrayed as a droll example of class pastiche. A February New York Times article, for example, playfully describes adjuncts who travel abroad to pick up extra teaching work in the summer as “seasonal workers with Ph.D.’s.”
But in fact, adjunct faculty may have more in common with low-wage seasonal workers than with the tenured faculty at their own institutions. A 2012 analysis by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, a research group, found that while salaries for tenure-track positions averages $66,000 a year, pay for adjunct faculty — who now constitute as much as three-fourths of the teaching force in higher education — average just $21,600. And like seasonal farmworkers and others who eke out a living moving from job to job, most adjuncts lack access to health insurance and retirement benefits. Both groups, too, have served as canaries in the coal mine of an economy increasingly structured around precarious employment. But the freefall of the professoriat, once archetypal members of what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have termed the “professional-managerial class,” suggests an even bigger shift underway: the erosion of the professional class itself. Will the academy’s penurious part-timers awake to this new reality?
In June 2013, the Labor Department released statistics revealing that the number of workers with temporary jobs stands at 2.7 million, an all-time high. Take the entire “contingent” workforce — which also includes day laborers, independent contractors, part-time workers and the self-employed — and the number soars to 42.6 million, about a third of the total workforce, according to a 2005 study from the Government Accountability Office. (This figure hasn’t been reassessed since, an omission that researchers into precarious employment say reflects the broader lack of attention to the particular challenges and needs of these workers).
One explanation for the growth of precarious work, promoted by an industry of temporary staffing and consulting agencies, is that workers themselves are leaving the traditional workforce in favor of greater flexibility. Within the professional workforce, those with contingent jobs are often touted as “independent” workers who have loosened the shackles of the 9-to-5 workday.
But freelancers who start their days with sunrise yoga comprise only one facet of this workforce. Another is the growing ranks of low-wage, precarious workers within institutions that once anchored the professional class — the adjunct professor scurrying between three campuses, the law school grad hired for a graveyard shift of document-coding or the temporary medical doctor placed by the staffing agencies that have become a multi-billion dollar industry. Labor researchers emphasize that for non-profit universities and large corporations alike, the use of contingent workers is most often a cost-cutting strategy that allows employers to shed legally mandated obligations to their employees. “Workers may like greater flexibility,” says Kate Griffiths, a professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations and a director of the newly-launched Precarious Research Network. “But they do not like greater job insecurity and lower wages and benefits. Flexibility without security is not desirable.”
In many cases, adjuncts, by virtue of their status as “professionals,” fall through the cracks of even the meager protections provided to other low-wage workers. Historically, professional work has been marked by a degree of autonomy from employers, and federal and state labor laws typically exempt professional workers from minimum wage and overtime protection under the assumption that they can set their own terms of employment. But adjunct advocates argue that this assumption is an anachronous one that, much like the growing incidence of employers misclassifying their employees as “independent contractors,” shifts all of the responsibilities of “independence” onto workers without allowing them any of the benefits.
When a group of part-time community college instructors in Washington state sought access to overtime pay, for example, under the rationale that their contracts didn’t pay enough to do the work required of their positions, the State Supreme Court ruled that they are not protected by the state’s Minimum Wage Act because they have control over their hours and working conditions. Similarly, adjuncts often have difficulty qualifying for unemployment insurance when one semester’s contract is up under the rationale that they have reasonable expectation of being hired for the next academic term, even though stories abound of contingent faculty who are told just days before classes begin that their services are no longer needed.
This combination of precarious working conditions and exclusion from legal protections has long been the experience of migrant workers and other marginalized groups, notes Saket Soni, director of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA). It’s growing prevalence among other groups of workers suggests an alarming trend. “On our current path, we’ll all end up as guestworkers,” says Soni, “trapped in an economy of temporary, intermittent work, struggling with debt rather than building wealth, sourced into labor supply chains rather than climbing career ladders.”
Faced with this trend, some commentators have proclaimed the rise of a “precariat,” a new, distinct class characterized by insecurity and atomization and therefore impervious to labor organizing. In his 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, British economist Guy Standing advocates policy interventions that could create a safety net for precarious workers, such as a universal basic income, but argues that it is unlikely that this could be accomplished through labor organizing or that “trade unions could be reformed to represent precariat interests.”
The New York-based Freelancers’ Union, whose 200,000-plus members make it one of the nation’s fastest-growing labor organizations, is one group that has sprung up to represent these interests. But its approach also reflects skepticism about the continued relevance of traditional labor organizing; instead, it advocates for public policy such as the expansion of unemployment protections to freelancers and an accurate count of the “independent” workforce. The group also maintains its own health insurance company, which covers 23,000 workers in New York, where the majority of its members reside.
Some critics point out that by endorsing freelancing as a lifestyle, the group essentially adopts the corporate line. “It’s hard not to notice there could be nothing more convenient to the corporate and governmental powers-that-be than a nonprofit that takes it upon itself to placate, insure and temper the precarious middle-class,” writes Atossa Araxia Abrahamian in a 2012 article on the Freelancers’ Union for Dissent.
Gordon Lafer, an associate professor of labor studies at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, concurs. “As basically a self-help cooperative organization, [the Freelancers’ Union] is great,” he says. “But what it does not do — and what unions or some kind of workers’ organization has to do — is actually contest with business owners [and] management to get a fairer share of profits and revenues into the hands of the people who do the work.”
Could contingent white-collar workers organize to achieve these ends? Professional workers, who are more likely to see themselves as individuals promoted through a meritocracy, have traditionally harbored ambivalence toward labor unions. But as the bottom gives way beneath the professional class, their working conditions increasingly resemble those of other workers. Joe Berry, a labor educator and contingent faculty organizer, calls the precarious situation of adjunct faculty today “the white-collar version of the ‘shape-up’ ” — a reference to the hiring system once used by maritime companies that forced dockworkers to beg and sometimes bribe their way into a job each day.
This historical analogy also suggests a solution: Precarious working conditions constituted some of the major grievances that led to a series of militant strikes in 1934, including one in San Francisco that resulted in the birth of the Interational Longshore Workers’ Union and the replacement of the shape-up with union hiring halls. The labor upswing of those years also helped usher in the strong industrial unions to which many of today’s discussion’s of precarity harken back. Many labor analysts emphasize, therefore, that precarity is not a new phenomenon, but a natural state of affairs that occurs when the balance of power tips in the favor of employers.
A renewed labor movement to counter precarity has already emerged through a surge of organizing efforts among domestic, fast-food and other groups of workers previously considered “unorganizable” by many. Precarious professional workers, by comparison, have been slow to respond. Within academia, the erosion of the higher education teaching force has been proceeding steadily since the 1970s, but “despite the academy’s noisy radicalism,” Thomas Frank writes in the Baffler, “its endangered meritocracy simply cannot summon the will to reverse the market tide.”
This is beginning to change, thanks in part to a surge of union drives by adjuncts in cities like Washington, D.C., Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. In D.C., SEIU Local 500 now represents a majority of adjunct instructors across the metro area, allowing them to raise standards marketwide. Adjunct activists believe that organizing at the level of the industry, rather than the institution, is important: As one adjunct said when part-time faculty at American University voted to unionize in 2012, adjuncts are “the academic world’s version of migrant labor,” and improvements at one campus aren’t sufficient for instructors strung between three jobs.
Of course, the restructuring of the economy hasn’t erased differences between long-marginalized migrant workers and newly precarious professionals. The story of Margaret Mary Vojtko has further galvanized adjuncts, but it also demonstrates the potential pitfalls of a movement centered around precarious professionals. When public attention to adjuncts’ plight centers on the shock that they are treated as “nothing more than” farmworkers or fast-food employees, this can “reinforce the class divide” and undermine the parallel struggles of fast-food workers to gain a living wage, says Maria Maisto, an adjunct instructor at Cuyahoga Community College and president of New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for non-tenure-track faculty.
But stories like Vojtko’s may also demonstrate to adjuncts that they have more in common with these groups of workers than they realize, facilitating what Maisto calls “flipping the classroom” — precarious professors learning from the organizing efforts that other groups of contingent workers have longer been doing.
Fear, Maisto believes, is often the greatest obstacle to organizing adjunct professors. Part of this fear is well-founded; as In These Times reported in August, Northeastern University retained the notorious union-busting law firm of Jackson Lewis this year in an apparent attempt to nip an adjunct organizing drive in the bud, paralleling tactics that the most ruthless corporations use to try to prevent their employees from forming unions. Yet adjuncts may also be fearful to be viewed as the “kind of” person who joins a union, notes Maisto: “A lot of times adjuncts want to see themselves as professionals, rather than as workers — but that’s a class-consciousness that doesn’t serve them very well.”
This may change as adjuncts forge alliances with other groups of precarious workers. New Faculty Majority recently became part of the United Workers’ Congress, a network that brings together day laborers, domestic workers and other groups who don’t fit the bill of traditional union organizing. A recent meeting between the Ohio Part-Time Faculty Association, of which Maisto is a member, and the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative saw the latter share their time-tested strategies for combating wage theft, an issue that affects contingent professionals but for which they often have little recourse. Meanwhile, adjuncts exposing their own poverty wages can help defeat one of the most common arguments deployed against service workers’ demands for a living wage: That their low pay results not from employer greed, but from their lack of the requisite skills needed for more fruitful employment.
The NGA’s Soni, whose group has found success mobilizing guest workers who don’t fit the traditional model of labor organizing, sees the potential for a new, multi-class movement to tackle the issue of precarity.
“Employers have long treated immigrant workers as disposable. Now, more American workers than ever know how they feel,” he says. “That has to be the basis for creating new forms of collective bargaining that let contingent workers, service workers and the self-employed bargain directly with the corporate actors that set the conditions of their jobs and their lives.”
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Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.