BY AARON BARLOW
Jim Hightower, discussing the Uber “defeat” in Austin, TX, writes about the “gig economy”:
This “alternative work arrangement” is not a futuristic concept — it’s already here and spreading fast. And it’s not just ride-hiring gigs either. Some 16 percent of U.S. workers are now in this on-call, temporary, part-time, low-pay, you’re-on-your-own economy, up from only 10 percent a decade ago. Corporate chieftains (backed by the economists and politicians they purchase) are creating what they call a workforce of non-employees for one reason: Greed. It directly transfers more money and power from workaday families into the coffers of moneyed elites.
Sometimes it is worth reviewing even what we already know (as any teacher will tell us): In academia, the gig economy has been with us a long time. As the AAUP notes:
Today, more than 50 percent of all faculty appointments are part-time.
- Many faculty classified as “part-time” actually teach the equivalent of a full-time course load.
- Over one-fifth of part-time appointments are held by graduate student employees, whose chances of obtaining tenure-track positions in the future are increasingly uncertain.
- To support themselves, part-time faculty often commute between institutions and prepare courses on a grueling timetable, making enormous sacrifices to maintain interaction with their students.
- Since faculty classified as part-time are typically paid by the course, without benefits, many college teachers lack access to health insurance and retirement plans.
That’s about as close as one can get to being part of the “gig economy.” And there are some, including Kirsten Trusko, who think this is a great thing:
Adjunct professors are another sector of the part-time gig economy workforce and according to Flexjobs the average hourly wage for adjunct faculty is $37 and top earners can make more than $70 per hour. Payscale.com claims the median annual income is $31,316 for adjunct professors, but pay ranges from $15,112 to $105,713. These are just some examples that show how people are becoming everyday entrepreneurs, earning enough to generate a living from their earnings.
“Everyday entrepreneurs”? I’d love to see Trusko riding the NYC subways from college to college, teaching five courses on two or three different campuses with no office space and no support for from between $3000 and $5000 a course. That is, at best, $60,000 a year (including two summer courses) in a city where rent on a studio apartment often tops $1500 a month, or $18,000 a year. The work is physically unsustainable: Each course meets for three hours a week in class. Add a couple of hours of prep time, an hour for meeting with students, and a few more for grading. Right there, that’s 40 hours per week. Mix in a minimum of 15 hours a week commuting between jobs and a dose of reality (the numbers over-estimate most adjunct incomes by far and under-estimate the hours of work—by far) and you’ll see that the adjunct life verges on the impossible. Oh, and don’t forget: The actual classroom time is performance time. Whether one is lecturing, coordinating small groups or individual activities, supervising a lab period or any of the other teacherly activities, one is always ‘on stage.’ And that is exhausting.
Then there’s the need of seeking employment for the next semester, for few adjunct jobs have any security at all, any promise that there will be sections to teach in the future. Worse: if your sections don’t fill, you are dropped—and if the sections of full-timers don’t, you are dropped in favor of them.
Though Trusko’s numbers may not see so bad, remember that the average includes those adjuncts who have been hired at inflated rates because of their celebrity status (and there are plenty of them) or who are paid much more than most because of specialized skills (lawyers and doctors are often among these).
The gig economy is exploitation, pure and simple, whether it is managed by a university system or by those who put together a Silicon Valley app. The promise of a sustainable income is false, a come-on worthy only of a flim-flam artist. It’s a promise of more with the result of less—except in terms of worker effort, which increases significantly.
We in higher education should not sit idly by as the gig economy grows. None of us should use Uber or Lyft and we should be working to support the attempts by their drivers to unionize that do, indeed, occur.
This morning, the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York will announce the results of a strike authorization vote. I hope the results are overwhelmingly in favor. The only way to stem the tide of the gig economy is organization and solidarity.
Whatever happens, don’t mourn, organize! (Thanks, Joe Hill.)