It’s a well-worn line in the rap for any academic union: three-fourths of all faculty in the United States are contingent laborers. And well-worn for a reason. It’s an astounding number, especially when compared to the number of contingent faculty fifty years ago — roughly three percent

This remarkable reconfiguration of labor in higher education coincided with the influx of more diverse groups of students and workers on college campuses in the latter half of the 20th century. At the same time, state disinvestment and subsequent privatization of public universities transformed higher education into a private commodity rather than a public good. As a result, women and people of color disproportionately fill the ranks of contingent faculty while the makeup of the tenured faculty (largely white, majority male) has remained relatively unchanged since 1969.  

It was the three-fourths statistic that was most on my mind when I signed a union card on my first day of graduate school at Yale. After all, this figure represented the grim future that awaited me when I finished my PhD. Later, I would come to understand more viscerally the bread-and-butter issues underlying the grad worker union drive: inadequate mental health care, insufficient funding, nonexistent dental and vision insurance, unaffordable childcare, and endemic sexual harassment, to name just a few. My own stipend seemed far less generous after the birth of my child. When I moved to Washington, DC for family reasons, the hours I spent navigating Medicaid forms for my daughter put in stark relief the gaps in the university-run student health system. 

But these were not the main reasons I dedicated seventy-plus hour weeks and five years of my life to building the union. I wanted to transform higher education, and I knew that there was no way to do that unless the people who worked in the system were organized. Through the coalition of Yale unions and New Haven community organizations, my vision of what this transformation should look like and whom it should involve expanded: we fought alongside the clerical and technical workers, the janitorial and dining hall staff, and community organizers to push for local hiring, win good contracts for all workers on campus, and elect a slate of union candidates to a city council long dominated by Yale’s interests. 

We built a tremendous amount of power, though it has not been enough to win graduate workers a contract. Yale-New Haven Hospital, which generates a large portion of the university’s operating budget, also remains non-union. Nor has our campaign for a graduate union been enough to stem the tide of adjunctification, administrative bloat, runaway development, and rising tuition, at Yale or elsewhere. No single union drive will break open the “eds and meds'' sector of the American economy to collective bargaining. 

It’s clear that we need to organize workers, students, and community members if we have any chance of reclaiming the corporate academy for the public good. But the question remains: can we shift the balance of power in higher education? 

 

The Company Town

In many respects, universities today function as company towns. They are equal parts employer, healthcare provider, and sometimes even landlord for the faculty, staff, and graduate students who work there. For residents in the surrounding communities, universities (and their adjoining medical centers) are often the primary engines of economic opportunity — and the primary drivers of gentrification, segregated development, and over-policing. Even in a city as large as New York, Columbia and NYU are among the largest and wealthiest landowners. In smaller college towns, employment at a university or hospital might be the only good job (or not-so-good job) around.

Yet these jobs often don’t go to local residents. When I was a graduate student at Yale, the majority of university employees lived outside of New Haven, a deindustrialized, largely Black and brown city with a jobless rate well above the national average. The Yale unions and aligned community organizations fought for years to win a commitment from the university to hire local residents — and then fought again when the university failed to meet its commitments, funneling local residents into lower-paying private contract work rather than high-paying union jobs (a standard gambit at unionized universities).  

Now, they’re turning their attention to the university’s tax-exempt status. Yes, that’s right, a university with an endowment upwards of $30 billion is not required to pay local taxes on any property that earns less than $6,000 a year. Meanwhile, the City of New Haven routinely faces a multi-million dollar budget shortfall. A similar campaign is underway in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s poorest cities. Two-thirds of Philly’s public school budget comes from local property taxes, but one of the city’s wealthiest landowners — the University of Pennsylvania and its adjoining hospital — is not required to pay them, despite an operating budget three times that of the local public school district. In Baltimore, another majority Black and brown city facing massive budget deficits, Johns Hopkins and other non-profits (chiefly the University of Maryland Medical Center) make annual payments of $6 million to the city even though they collectively own roughly $5 billion in property. If taxed, they would likely pay $120 million a year

Elite colleges like Yale, Harvard, and Stanford made headlines two years ago when President Trump signed a bill taxing endowments with over $500,000 in assets per student. Most universities should be so lucky. Decades of budget cuts have hollowed out the academic programs at public universities, leading to rising tuitions, growing privatization, and increasing reliance on cheap, adjunct labor as well as the revenue generated by unpaid student-athletes and elective hospital procedures. Roughly half of all new construction at public universities is financed by debt, and many colleges and universities are buckling under the weight of their financial obligations. The vast majority of private universities are similarly tuition dependent. In April, the president of Brown University warned in an op-ed in the New York Times that many institutions risk permanent closure without the twice-yearly tuition payments they stand to lose during the pandemic. 

The rush to reopen college campuses stems directly from universities’ business models — and not just because some number of students have decided to delay college rather than subject themselves to Zoom seminars. To keep operations running, universities need students on campus — eating in dining halls, paying for housing, and attending football games — and they need patients at hospitals undergoing non-essential (and expensive) procedures. Much of the revenue-generating activity on college campuses ground to a halt during COVID. As Jason Stahl relays in his piece in the second part of this issue on the exploitation of student-athletes, the University of Minnesota is currently facing $75 million in lost revenue due to the cancellation of football games alone. 

While university administrators have been quick to point the finger at feckless college students for rising infection rates on campus, it is the financial model of the corporate university that has put everyone at risk, university staff in particular. At the University of Maryland College Park, managers pushed staff back onto campus as early as May to clean the dorms after students returned to collect their belongings, with little social distancing or other safety measures in place. Some number of staff contracted COVID-19 as a result. Unlike faculty and grad workers, most university staff can’t afford to press for campus closures, held hostage by a business model that forces them to choose between their livelihoods and their lives. AFSCME 3299, the largest staff union in the University of California system, did not sign on to a letter from the faculty and graduate employee unions demanding remote instruction this fall because the union knew that its members could not afford the layoffs (and loss of healthcare) that would follow.  

Meanwhile, universities levy harsh austerity measures to make up for the lack of revenue generated in a typical academic year, including pay cuts, hiring freezes, and layoffs. Unsurprisingly, these measures disproportionately affect the most vulnerable employees: dining hall workers facing reduced hours and layoffs, adjunct faculty whose contracts won’t be renewed. Rutgers University alone has laid off over 1,000 workers since the onset of the pandemic, some of whom have been at the university for decades. Even tenured faculty have been affected by this latest round of austerity measures. In April, both Missouri Western State University and Ohio University laid off hundreds of tenured faculty. As Simon Torracinta argues in a recent piece for n+1, “Once the taboo of firing tenured faculty is broken, the floodgates will open. Under the cover of the crisis, university administrators will finally undertake the massive restructuring they have dreamed of for years.”

 

Organizing the Neoliberal University 

And yet, if the pandemic has revealed the fault lines of the corporate academy, it has also shown the growing militancy and vision of the academic labor movement. This spring, nearly 3,000 academics, anchored by seventy high-profile faculty members, signed a petition refusing to attend conferences or events at universities that did not extend funding for graduate students and adjunct faculty. Graduate workers at Columbia and Michigan have waged wildcat strikes, with the Columbia grad students refusing to pay rent to their employer/landlord and the Michigan grad employees demanding not just a safe reopening but a campus free from police. At NYU, grad workers organized a mass sick-out to demand a universal funding extension, a "living wage over the summer," and "security for international students." This wave of organizing comes on the heels of union drives among graduate workers and adjuncts across the country over the past four years. Since 2016, graduate workers at 12 private universities have voted to form unions. Despite a Trump administration National Labor Relations Board decision last year overturning bargaining rights for graduate workers at private universities, unions on four different campuses (American, Georgetown, Brown, and Harvard) have bargained contracts since January, as have graduate workers and faculty at Oregon State University. 

Staff workers at the University of Maryland College Park have used the pandemic — and the university’s callous disregard for staff safety — to revitalize their organizing efforts, using new digital tools, recruiting new members and leaders, and strengthening alliances with student and community groups. The Coalition of Rutgers Unions has similarly strengthened its organizing through fights over layoffs and reopening plans. Most significantly, coalition members won impact bargaining with the entire coalition, giving them a much stronger position and setting an important precedent for future negotiations. The coalition of unions and student groups at the University of California have also worked together to beat back proposed layoffs — finding over $10 billion in reserves to prevent layoffs and fund low-income students. All of this organizing has taken place in a post-Janus world, which has limited the resources of unions at public universities, where members are no longer required to pay agency fees to cover collective bargaining costs.

Of course, no individual battle — no matter how righteous or well organized — will be enough to slay the corporate academy. As with any company town, reclaiming power from the neoliberal university will require a coalition of all stakeholders, in this case, faculty, staff, graduate employees, undergraduates, and community members. As Liz Perlman, the executive director of AFSCME 3299, argues in the second part of this issue, these coalitions need to be “marriages, not just speed dating.” They also need to span university campuses, giving us greater sectoral power to demand transformational change. Such deep and broad coalitions are hard to build and harder to maintain. But they are essential if we want to do more than win decent contracts and fight instead to reshape and reclaim higher education — not just for faculty and staff but for students and communities. 

The Coalition of Rutgers Unions — already a model of a strong, broad-based coalition of workers, students, and community members — is building towards a worker council that would hold decision-making power over how the university is run. Such councils, common in South America and parts of Europe, would give all the stakeholders in the university a say over how it is governed. In southern states, where many public employees do not have collective bargaining rights, the United Campus Workers (with CWA) is building solidarity unions that bring faculty, staff, grad workers, and students into one organization to challenge the privatization of public higher education. At the University of Tennessee, for example, students and all ranks of workers mobilized to stop a plan to outsource facilities jobs to private contractors. Solidarity unions provide a model of the kind of joint action necessary to beat the corporate academy, with or without collective bargaining.  

At the University of Pittsburgh, where Tyler McAndrew is helping to organize the first faculty union on campus, the Steelworkers are similarly building worker power across the university — much as UNITE HERE has at Yale — investing in simultaneous organizing drives among faculty, graduate employees, and staff. When asked why the Steelworkers were organizing higher ed, Guillermo Perez, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, replied: “If it’s eds and meds in Pittsburgh, then it will be unionized eds and meds in Pittsburgh.” 

Perez points to the significance of organizing higher education in the new economy, where the university (and its adjoining hospital) is the economic center of a city or town: the main employer, landowner, and political power. Organizing the university can be a critical means of organizing entire communities. 

But, as Liz Perlman argues in the second part of this issue, if we want to beat the neoliberal academy, we need to become ever-more savvy in our strategies: maximize our power by lining up contracts across universities; invest in deep organizing that centers Black, brown, and low-income workers, students, and community members; and run corporate campaigns exposing the “underbelly of racialized capital in higher education.” In the first part of this issue, Corey Sherman and Lisa Cody of SEIU 1021 share their tools for researching university debt financing, arguing that universities’ dual status as real estate conglomerates provides an opening for workers to “build power that can resist concessions; organize more people into the labor movement; and push for policy changes that weaken the grip of institutional finance over our education system.”

Less covered here — and deserving of its own issue — is the explosion of undergraduate organizing over the past few years. Jasmine Banks writes about the UnKoch My Campus student campaign to expose the influence of right-wing donors on college and university curriculums, as well as the campaign’s work to broaden its targets to include the racist and classist system that allowed such private interests to gain a hold on universities. But students on campuses across the country have organized around a host of demands: racial justice; police, prison, and fossil fuel divestment; student loan cancellation; a more robust response to sexual harassment and assault on campus; and colletive bargaining rights for student-athletes. They are putting forward a vision of an academy that actually works in the interest of students and communities. The labor movement at academic institutions would be well-served by fostering deep and lasting partnerships with student groups fighting to usher in a new, more just university. 

Taken together, the essays in this issue begin to lay out a vision for a broad, coordinated, and far-reaching movement — one that builds coalitions among workers, students, and community groups; that spans job categories and individual campuses; that fights on all of the forms of inequity and injustice perpetrated by academic institutions, both on campus and off; and that plays to universities’ biggest weakness, the gap between their public image and their actual operations as landowners, hedge funds, and sports franchises. Such a movement, at scale, just might have the power to reclaim universities and transform them into institutions that actually serve the common good. Now it’s up to all of us to build it. 

 

Inside the Issue 

In Part I, out October 5: Christine O’Connell and Todd Wolfson on fighting for shared governance of the university; Corey Sherman and Lisa Cody on exposing debt financing at colleges and universities; Jasmine Banks on challenging racial, class, and gender hierarchies to reimagine higher ed; graduate workers at Georgetown (Jewel Tomasula and Daniel Solomon), Harvard (Sam Klug), and Brown (Audrey Massmann and Dennis Hogan) on winning their first contracts during the pandemic; Sam Klug interviews Julie Kushner, a veteran of many critical academic organizing drives over the past forty years; Tyler McAndrew on organizing the first faculty union at the University of Pittsburgh; and an open letter from workers, students, and faculty in the Bargaining for the Common Good network calling on universities to not just reopen but transform

In Part I, out October 12: Brandon Mancilla interviews Erin Markiewitz about the graduate workers’ abolitionist strike at Michigan; Jason Stahl on the natural political alliance of contingent faculty and student-athletes; Jifeng Shen on organizing around mental healthcare; Karly Safar, Kate Diedrick, and Melanie Barrom on organizing solidarity unions at southern universities; Liz Perlman on fighting to reclaim higher ed as a public good; and Stuart Katzenberg and Todd Holden on digital organizing for a safe reopening.

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