Work is Work!

On International May Day I wrote a little hymn. I wrote:

Teaching is work. Programming is work. Scholarship is work. Science is work. Grading is work. Committee service is work.

Today Chronicle Vitae published a column on academic work as labor, as work.

It’s a linked column to this first piece on the language of adjunct labor. In that piece, I worked through a number of different ways in which adjunct advocates speak about their work, using the language of slave, sharecropper, or migrant laborer. I think this language is mistaken. But here’s how I finished the piece.

The issue here is not that writers are loosely deploying hyperbolic metaphors. The real problem is that adjuncts and their advocates believe the rest of us aren’t on their side.

We tut-tut and say it’s too bad, but then throw up our hands, blame the budgets, and let the system continue. Civil rights, slavery, sharecropping, migrant laborers—these are terms that evoke sympathy and demand action within the neoliberal world of higher education in ways that just calling adjuncts “temps” does not.

So let’s not be too quick to blame adjunct advocates for invoking historical inequities when trying to change the system. Instead, let’s question why such metaphors seem necessary. I propose that the plight of the adjunct lies squarely alongside that of a long-recognized historically oppressed group: the working class. Why are faculty so resistant to seeing themselves as labor who need to act in solidarity with the exploited adjuncts?

In my next column, I’ll look at what happens when we put all these metaphors aside and just look at adjunctification as a basic labor issue, one in which we all have a stake.

In today’s piece, I really just want to make a simple argument.

Work is work.

As academics, we know a lot about the nature of labor, the ebb and flow of power mostly up to management, but not always. We read about the changing nature of the workforce across the country, but for those enough of us lucky – and let’s be clear that luck is a huge part of it, there is no meritocracy – to be on the tenure-stream side of things, it’s hard to apply such lenses to ourselves.

I find it hard. Maybe you don’t. But plenty of other people see little connection between the plight of the adjunct and their own labor situation.

Work is work.

You are paid for your work. You should be paid for your work. Let’s apply the lens of “labor” to what we do in academia, to think of administration as management – maybe nice management, maybe trusted management, but management none the less.

I am very lucky in my job and my bosses. I trust them. But they are still my bosses (some of them read my blog! Hi there!). There’s nothing wrong with having a boss, but we need to remember that there is a power dynamic here. And once you bring power into the equation, well, we’re back to the labor movement.

I finish today’s piece with the following:

We need to recognize that what’s happening to our universities is happening across the North American labor market (and beyond), and that we’re not special. Other highly-trained, specialized industries have turned to contingency work. Higher ed is no different. In fact, we could learn from the industries that increasingly argue that one must treat contingent workers as full members of the community.

Why not embrace the pressures that are falling on the university? Be proud of being laborers, identify with your fellow workers, and organize across the tenure-adjunct divide. Ultimately, it’s the only thing that’s going to improve the situation.

Best of all, it’s the right thing to do.

It really is the right thing to do.

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