Precarious labor is shifting the landscape of the working world, with an increasing number of unstable (often part-time) jobs, low pay and exploitative working conditions. At a daylong Washington, D.C., conference on Dec. 5, labor leaders, policy experts and academics—including contingent academics—examined who makes up the contingent labor force, and how advocates can think beyond the standard employment paradigm to help those who stand outside of it, ensuring that all workers have fair working conditions. The conference was organized by the Albert Shanker Institute and co-sponsored by the AFT.
In her keynote remarks, AFT President Randi Weingarten addressed the post-election landscape. She urged the progressive audience not to despair but instead to engage people, build trust and send a message of hope and aspiration. Economic anxiety, widely considered to be a driving force for Trump voters, is important to address, she said, but so is putting a stop to the racial bigotry, misogyny and other biases that rose during the campaign. "This is not an either-or situation," said Weingarten. "It's a both-and."
Regarding precarious labor and the election, she said: "The issue of precarious labor cuts right through the Rust Belt," referring to a swath of disenfranchised America that voted for Trump.
Historically, that area was thick with well-paying industrial jobs and unionized workers, but since industry has declined, the paradigm has changed. So, too, has academic labor: 40 years ago, 70 percent of academic employees were tenured or on the tenure track, Weingarten said. Today that figure is flipped: 70 percent are nontenure track, and many are in more tenuous positions with low salaries and no employer benefits. Of the AFT's 230,000 higher ed members, 80,000 are contingent and 25,000 are graduate employees—whom, Weingarten noted, the AFT will continue to organize despite anticipated changes in the National Labor Relations Board and a possible shift in policy regarding graduate workers' union rights.
Contingent faculty numbers have risen in part because, as states disinvest in higher education, universities find the paths of least resistance to make up the difference. Cutting costs by hiring cheap, temporary labor is one way they do that. But the "human cost" is high, said Weingarten, who described the economic anxiety of cobbling together five or six different teaching assignments to make ends meet; the demeaning of a professor who has no office and must meet students in coffee shops; the havoc unpredictable schedules can wreak on family life; the stress of being "one illness away from bankruptcy because you have no health insurance"; and the fear of "being fired for any reason, or no reason at all," because there are no contracts or guarantees that come with contingent labor.
They're the highest-educated low-wage workers in America, said Hamilton Nolan, who wrote a series on adjunct faculty for gawker.com. Low pay—between $1,500 and $3,000 per class—is the biggest problem, he said. Adjuncts frequently work second and third jobs babysitting, bartending or performing other low-wage work. One said he made better money when he was 14 years old and worked at Quiznos. They get little recognition—another said he felt like a ghost with a plastic mailbox in the department's main office. And they have no benefits, which means one woman was teaching just a week after her baby was born.
Add to these poor working conditions an unsupportive political environment and the picture is grim. The challenge is to come up with labor advocacy that addresses the problem and is also effective in a new work world. Weingarten admitted that some of the union's organizing structures, conceived decades ago, don't work well for precarious labor. "We need to try and find a different way," she said.
"The question becomes what do you organize around? What is the glue that binds people?" asked Weingarten. Organizing contingent faculty across institutions is one possible solution; the United Academics of Philadelphia, which represents faculty from several institutions in Philly, is leading the way in that regard. The Freelancers Union, which the AFT supports, is another example that is not centralized around a particular employer. The Fight for 15 campaign has been innovative in organizing low-wage workers across job categories.
For contingent faculty, organizing with students is crucial. "We have seen a tremendous alliance between students and labor," said Angus Johnston, an adjunct professor at Hostos Community College, City University of New York, a student activism scholar and a member of the Professional Staff Congress, CUNY's AFT affiliate. Students' support helped win better pay and working conditions for dining hall workers at Harvard, for example; they were allies in the lockout at Long Island University and with CUNY faculty. Full-time, tenure-track faculty are also crucial allies for their contingent colleagues. "It's critical that teachers who do have leverage help those who do not," said Nolan.
Engaging workers who have irregular schedules and low incomes brings unique challenges, but creativity helps: Elly Kugler, director of policy, National Domestic Workers Alliance, said her organizers reach nannies in the parks of wealthy neighborhoods, and other workers at check-cashing outlets or on Facebook. NDWA keeps them involved with "whole person politics," embedding issues important to their members, such as immigration status and racial justice, into campaigns. Kugler was just one of several representatives from other cohorts, including construction workers, immigrant workers and fast food workers, who shared new approaches and ideas for organizing workers.
If unions are going to remain relevant, said Guy Standing, a professorial research associate at SOAS University of London, they'll have to be just as innovative. Young, educated members of the "proletariat" are casting about for a champion, and they are not finding it in political parties or in the unions, said Standing, who wrote The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and several other books on new labor arrangements. "The unions must be transformed if we are to have a new form of progressive politics."
Panelists also discussed various approaches to labor law and policy, with a review of international approaches. Video of the entire discussion, with an agenda, is available online.
[Virginia Myers/photo courtesy University Council-AFT]