"Where workers strike and organize/Says he, You'll find Joe Hill"


When George  W. Bush’s disastrous Iraq war was beginning, I attended an antiwar march in New York City. It depressed me, thoroughly;  I saw immediately that this crowd was never going to have an impact on American opinion or policy. Everyone (or so it seemed) had arrived to promote their own causes. The march was simply an occasion for celebrating what each saw as the most important cause in the world.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that one’s particular issue is the paramount issue of the time. Play the social-justice card and someone trumps it with their antiwar one. Then both seem beaten by another’s ace of climate change.

Is such a hierarchy worthwhile?


For the simply reason that it creates division and not the unity one needs in a movement for change. The classic example is the divide that was created when the suffragette movement decided it could not also focus on civil rights for African Americans. Yet black women would not be enfranchised until black men were, too. White women said they’d work on their own cause first, then turn to the other.

Forty-five years passed between the two. More than a generation.

Both should have been the goal. Not one over the other.

Yesterday, in a comment on my post about the problems at CUNY, someone wrote:

my view is that any critique of higher educational that doesn’t start with the disempowerment of the faculty–and the most egregious example is part-time adjunct faculty–is, well, problematic.

The writer didn’t like that I did not prioritize his issue.

However, if he were really concerned about the “disempowerment of the faculty,” he would recognize that all of our efforts within the AAUP are directed toward countering that very process and would work with us for the greater good of all and not just one group, no matter how big. Instead, he is seeking primacy of one, making the adjunct crisis important above all others and complaining when this issue is not given the place of pride.

The adjunct/contingent issue is important–don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked as an adjunct and once thought that the only academic career open to me would be one of scurrying from campus to campus somewhere teaching whatever courses I could pick up. That, I knew, would not be sustainable so I looked for a different career, not becoming an academic until well into my fifties.

I don’t like what adjunctivitis is doing to higher education and have worked to help make sure adjuncts and contingent hires have a place within the AAUP ever since taking on my editorial responsibilities. But there is a lot more wrong with contemporary American higher education than mistreatment of part-time teachers, no matter how real and egregious that may be.

Arguments can be made for any one of these wrongs as the keystone of a structure of reform. The rise of the neoliberal/corporate model; administrative bloat; lack of respect for the liberal-arts tradition; the increased reliance (as the commenter says) on non-permanent faculty. Any of these (and more) can be argued as the single most important issue.

Ultimately, though, none of them is. Not any more than the secondary issues that so many brought to that antiwar march in 2003.

For the movement to reverse the disempowerment of the faculty to succeed, we within it are going to have to do two things.

First, we have to set aside the jockeying over position within the movement for our pet issues. The people who are going to decide this movement’s fate don’t care about adjunct issues any more than they do about the islands of plastic in the Pacific. Hectoring them over what any of us might see as a lack of concern isn’t going to change that.

Second, we need to have a clear image of the goal. One of the problems with the antiwar movement of 2003 was that it knew it could not stop the war–so didn’t have a goal that could be clearly stated and worked toward. A goal that could be supported broadly and without argument.

Our goal as faculty (be we tenured, tenure-track, contingent or part-time) is to strengthen American higher education and, as a consequence, making our own efforts as educators more effective. That has to start with adequate funding, overall. When we lose sight of that in favor of a secondary issue (no matter how important it may be), we are not going to succeed. This central goal is one that almost everyone, even far beyond the world of higher education, can get behind. We should not try to splinter the movement toward it by complaining that any one attempt to move us closer to it does not give primacy to that which may be more dear to us individually.

If we want to win, we have to be practical. Being right is never enough.

The person who commented singled out my reference to Joe Hill and asked who I am organizing, if I don’t mention adjuncts explicitly. The answer, as Hill himself might have said, is everyone. He wrote:

Come, all ye workers, from every land,
Come, join in the grand Industrial band,
Then we our share of this earth shall demand.
Come on! Do your share, like a man.

Let’s add “woman” to that, recognizing that it includes adjuncts, people on “visiting” lines, tenured senior faculty–and don’t forget the Higher Education Officers who are also part of the fight.

The AAUP has a twin focus these days, advocacy and organizing, depending on the specifics of the local situation. At CUNY, the organizing falls to the Professional Staff Congress so the AAUP takes on an advocacy role.

The question is, whom should it advocate for?

The answer to that has changed over the past decades, the constituency constantly growing. Today, it includes everyone involved in high education outside of the top administrators–and we would love to include those, were they willing. As an  organization with members in a broad variety of higher-education roles, it makes no sense for the AAUP to single out one group and argue that its needs are more important than any of the others. They are all important, and all need to be worked for together.

However, that does not mean that each needs to be mentioned in each action of the AAUP or in each issue of Academe or in each blog post here. When we concentrate on the constituencies rather than the larger goal, we can easily lose sight of the latter.

When we lose sight of the larger goal, we can never convince the broader population, the people who, ultimately, hold the purse strings but who have little idea of the issues of higher education (and often care even less), that money spent on high education is money well spent. Not even academic freedom nor shared governance matter when funding is inadequate.  All of this needs to be fought for together–and “this” includes the horrifying over-reliance on and exploitation of part-time faculty.

Getting a national commitment to adequate funding of higher education, as I said above, is our goal as faculty when we are acting in concert within the broader community. PSC-CUNY never argues for faculty raises alone, or simply for more equitable treatment of adjuncts–or for academic freedom or shared governance. The PSC knows, and its members do, that there also needs to be money for infrastructure, for financial aid, for professional development… for all sorts of things beyond salaries. It fights for them all.

The AAUP supports that, in New York City, in its advocacy role. In other places, it is the negotiating body–and it fights for these things there, too, and not just for its core vision of the role of the faculty, the one first enunciated in 1915. Neither the AAUP nor the PSC is a single-issue organization; each has a much larger vision.

It is because of that broad vision that they (and we) might win.

Let us all support it.

One thought on “"Where workers strike and organize/Says he, You'll find Joe Hill"

  1. I wasn’t talking about grand coalitional problems involving campaigns to end war or racism, or both, and global warming too, and which we should end first. I suppose your latest post wasn’t either, but for some reason you started off that way, so I thought I’d follow suit. I too want to end war and racism! And global warming too!
    Anyway, I was talking about a specific problem within groups that advocate for and/or bargain for better working conditions for higher education faculty. Demanding more visibility, and a more energetic strategy, from our friends, on behalf of the more than 50% of faculty who are PT adjunct faculty–and knowing that the exploitation of adjunct faculty is linked to the disempowerment of ALL faculty and the shortchanging of all students, is not losing sight of “the larger goal.” It’s not “single-issue” politics. I voted for the strike authorization and I’ll march when and if the signal to march comes from the “negotiating body”–hell, I may even cancel a class at one of the two non-CUNY places I also work, in order to march, but I may carry my own sign, because I don’t want to march ONLY in support of less than half of my fellow workers.

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