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While superstar actors like Mark Ruffalo, Lupita Nyong’o and Bob Odenkirk have taken to the picket lines to support their fellow SAG-AFTRA members during their strike, it’s much rarer to see tenured professors striking in solidarity with adjunct faculty and graduate students.
Last month, UPS and the Teamsters Union reached a contract agreement, averting a strike that could have been the largest single employer strike in United States history. It comes after a year of labor strikes from people in a variety of industries: actors, screenwriters, Amazon drivers, Starbucks employees, K-12 teachers, employees in the publishing industry and the news media, and more.
While the strikes in some of those industries show strong solidarity among members—A-list actors picketing next to their more vulnerable colleagues in extra and supporting roles, for example—in higher education, it’s rare to see such a level of support. The most vulnerable employees, including graduate student workers and adjunct faculty, most frequently lead college and university strikes, and the tenured faculty often fails to support their efforts or can even undermine them.
And today, graduate student workers are increasingly unionizing and striking. Graduate workers across the nation—including from Temple University, the University of California, the University of Michigan and Rutgers University—have gone on strike within the last two years. During the same time, graduate student workers have formed new unions at Yale University, Boston University and the University of Chicago, and those at Duke University are in the process of unionizing. Non-tenure-track and contingent faculty members have also been organizing at places like The New School, Howard University, New York University, Rutgers and the University of Illinois at Chicago. But although graduate student workers and non-tenure-track and contingent faculty—some of the more marginalized workers in higher education—are taking those risks, faculty members and administrators sometimes stand in opposition rather than solidarity with them.
While conservatives often decry higher education as a leftist wonderland, labeling us Marxists and socialists, many people in higher education—especially tenured faculty—could actually learn a thing or two from social theorist Karl Marx. Alienation is experienced by all workers in a capitalist society, and faculty members are no exception. Marx’s theory of alienation can help us to understand how the tactics employed by administrators, as well as structural issues in higher education, lead to divisions among faculty members and leave us feeling powerless.
The reality is that higher education is a highly stratified and unequal system where secure positions are increasingly scarce. That scarcity of academic positions and the increasing adjunctification of academe leads faculty members to compete against each other for jobs and departments to compete with other departments for lines to hire new faculty. Such competition pits us against each other and makes it harder to organize and fight together against the forces creating and sustaining this scarcity of resources.
It is only through the development of a class consciousness among all faculty members that true employment gains can be made. All faculty members need to band together to create a better working environment. And arguably, it is tenured faculty who should be at the front of the picket lines, as they have a level of security not afforded to adjuncts, graduate student workers and even tenure-track folks.
At Rutgers, three faculty unions encompassing full-time faculty, graduate student workers, postdoctoral employees and part-time lecturers went on strike at the same time across four campuses. That demonstration of solidarity was key to their success. Even in states without collective bargaining rights, faculty and staff members are organizing. The combining of forces is also seen at the national level, with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers entering into an affiliation together in 2022 aimed at boosting faculty voices and protecting academic freedom, tenure and insecure faculty positions.
The kind of solidarity shown by Rutgers employees can be logistically complicated, since full-time faculty, adjunct faculty, graduate students and university staff often belong to separate unions. However, those groups must work together for collective action and results.
This type of solidarity is further hindered because tenure-track faculty members often have job security, some level of transparency in promotion procedures and, depending on the institution, a fair living wage. If tenured faculty members can tap into a shared class consciousness with other faculty and recognize the inequities of the system as a whole, they might have greater impetus to join and support others who have less influence on entrenched academic structures and mores. And if nothing else works, then the increased calls to end tenure should raise concerns among those with tenure.
To be sure, the security of tenure is eroding each year. However, tenured and tenure-track faculty are still in more secure positions than most of their colleagues, and it’s only through organizing and collective action that we retain the protections tenure is supposed to enshrine. Many tenure-track faculty members may feel they should wait until they have tenure to speak out. However, there is always some kind of precarity in higher education, no matter your rank, and faculty members who choose to wait until they are in the most secure positions possible may find that moment never comes.
Full-time faculty will often cite a responsibility to their students as the reason they choose to cross picket lines. To be sure, faculty members are called to help their students grow intellectually and personally. Yet modeling collective action and supporting humane working conditions for their more vulnerable colleagues is, itself, a way to educate students. Additionally, undergraduate students often understand the importance of solidarity, picketing alongside their faculty or graduate instructors.
Our recommendations for full-time and especially tenured and tenure-track faculty on how to begin to build solidarity are to talk to colleagues about how you can best support them and to ask about their job conditions, pay and unionization. If your institution is not currently unionized, the American Association of University Professors provides support and detailed information about how to form a union, as well as how to start an advocacy chapter. Individuals can also join AAUP even if there isn’t a chapter at their institution. The most important first step is building connections and community with your colleagues so that struggles are seen collectively rather than as individual issues.