NAWD at Mesa College 2017

NAWD at San Diego Mesa College this year had an expansive theme. The college president, a board member, and the president of the academic senate all spoke to adjunctification as well as the need to protect DACA students, and resist the hate emanating from the insane clown presidency. The intrepid Geoff Johnson kicked off the event, pointing out the ongoing human cost of the exploitation of adjunct faculty, emphasizing the cost to students, that 60% of adjuncts are women, and that many adjuncts live impoverished lives. Students were engaged and informed. The fight goes on.

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Geoff Johnson, AFT Adjunct rep and vice president of AFT national Adjunct Caucus, starting off the 2017 NAWD/AAD rally at Mesa.

To Have a Real Adjunct Walkout: Not Impossible, but Work Needs to be Done

Good Adjuncts

By reading my last post, some readers may assume that I don’t believe a real adjunct walkout could or should happen.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

My point regarding Adjunct Walkout Day in my last entry was that it is both simplistic and defeatist to assume one can simply pull off a walkout without considering all that would be involved.

Unlike the Women’s marches which “benefited” from the fact that just a day earlier, the most divisive, bigoted and bombastic politician in recent memory was assuming the highest office in the land despite losing the popular vote by 2.9 million votes,  adjunct actions are limited by the fact that adjunctification is largely treated as the dirty little secret of academia, with the workforce highly marginalized, and under the constant threat of loss of employment for even minor infractions.  Further, there are so many forms of adjuntification/contingency that it can at time be that adjunct/contingent groups fighting for change can find themselves at cross purposes.

Another point to make is that the Women’s march is literally the start of a broad-based movement, which will in time face challenges from division, to marginalization, to a loss of enthusiasm, etc.

That said, the Women’s March should serve as an inspiration for adjunct to think in terms of mass action.

To achieve a mass walkout of adjuncts, even on a local scale, there must be a both a common sense of alienation coupled with an equally strong sense of moral outrage.  I think to an extent, this is there, but there isn’t this common sense of what to do.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, adjuncts are fearful of reprisals from loss of employment to punitive scheduling, to even a simple reprimand.  As so many adjuncts are effectively just “hanging on” in terms of income because these reprisals could lead to the loss of their homes, impacting not just themselves, but their families.

Further, because unions can’t legally call for or advocate strikes unless they have exhausted negotiations with a particular management group and not only declared impasse, but held a strike vote in which the majority of the membership authorized a strike, the union cannot protect workers who participate in a walkout, nor can it officially call for one.

But this doesn’t mean a walkout couldn’t happen.

Here’s when any adjunct who might be thinking of a walkout needs to read their contact carefully.

Most adjuncts have, as a part of their language, a sick leave policy granting them time away from work.  In many cases, the taking of sick leave, if for a very short period of time, does not require a doctor’s note.  This effectively means that you could leave or miss work without reprisal (with the assumption that you’re sick).

Imagine, if you will, a day in which even 50% of an adjunct teaching force suddenly got ill.

On January 11th, 2016, frustrated with the dilapidated conditions of the facilities they were teaching in school teachers in the Detroit Public System staged a sickout which garnered national attention.  This action was followed up by a sick-out in early May which ultimately resulted in pay guarantees for its teachers.

Perhaps what the adjunct/contingent nation needs to do is consider this as an option.

But saying this and doing it are two different things.  Some things to consider:

1)  There has to be buy-in: There is, at any school, or district, a dedicated core of individuals who are willing to take the risk, and after them perhaps double the number who will talk a good game, or show interest, but then not act, and often, both groups combined, at best, represent only 10% of the adjunct faculty.  To get larger participation, there needs to be either a greater sense of outrage or injustice, and perhaps more importantly, a sense that by doing the action it will actually accomplish something.

2) There needs to be a specific goal: What is the objective of a walkout going to be?  It has to be more than “see how powerful adjuncts are,” or an abstract call for “adjunct justice”.  There needs to be a clear sense of objectives that can be realized, like pressure on considering specific legislation, or certain policies.  If it’s a national sickout, then it should focus a specific national issue, like unemployment benefits, healthcare, the WEP provision, etc.  If it’s a state level sickout, it needs to be connected to a state level issue, like funding for office hours, or equity pay, but this said…

3) There need to be allies among students, politicians, and the general public:  Given the current lack of awareness among students of who or what adjunct/contingent faculty really are, and how adjunct/contingent working conditions hinder student success, there’s a considerable amount of awareness raising that needs to go on.  Personally, I’ve seen awareness and consciousness rise among students, but not enough so that there is widespread concern among student groups.  There has to come a day when you can ask students in a given class, “Do you know what an adjunct is?” and have more than 50% of the class actually know and have a strong opinion about it.  Again, this gets back to the fact that adjunct/contingent faculty by and large avoid explaining who they are to their students.  As people in the business of attacking ignorance, it’s so ironic how many adjuncts contribute to it when it comes to the fact of being adjunct.

Politicians are not much different, and in fact, a bit worse.  Since the Reagan administration, teachers have been one of America’s favorite whipping horses as to the ills of American society, and the college professor is still by and large perceived as some sort of upper-middle class elite who drives a nice sensible car and looks down on less-educated Americans.  Further, we’re “impractical,” “we don’t know the “real world.” On the other hand, when it is acknowledged that many of us are financially struggling and live with employment insecurity, we are told by these same politicians, that it’s simply the market economy (even though many of us have full and overflowing classes), or that if we don’t like it, we should just quit, as if the 50+ year-old adjunct with an advanced degree is some sort of versatile property that can pick up a job a will.  Further, this is not a Republican or Democrat thing.  In fact, some Democrats have been even worse in their embrace of the Corporatization of Public Education. They often call for “school choice,” “charter school,” or speak of free Public Higher Ed (itself a worthy goal) but not a lick about improving the working conditions of the people who deliver that education.  There are politicians who do get it, like California State Assemblyman Jose Medina, but we need to bring these people up, and some of us need to run for office ourselves.

Adjunct and Contingents, as for the general public, how many of you talk about the work and salary conditions you experience among friends and neighbors?  By the way, when was the last time you saw an adjunct represented on TV or in a movie, and moreover, was there any mention of their lack of income, job security, or how students were affected by this?  News stories on NPR, MSNBC, or the Nightly News aren’t going to be enough.  We have to create a culture and have a presence in media where by our situation is known.

4) We need full-time allies who will stand with us: An adjunct walkout can work if full-time support is there, but we need to have support that is significant.  Maybe they need to walk out with us, or stand up to administrators who will seek to sanction by simply leaving us off the schedule the following semester. It would also be nice if they weren’t afraid of us “taking over,” which is something I hear more often than I would like.  I will say this, unless a concerted effort is made to de-incentivize the hiring of adjunct/contingent faculty, the tenure system will collapse, and for any adjunct foolish enough to think this would be a good thing, think again: it would effectively mean an end to academic freedom.  Then you can face the risk of getting fired without cause, or for showing your student a film about income inequality or racism that they’re not down with.  Adjuncts need to fight and stand for full-time positions, but at the same time full-timers need to realize that pay and benefit equity for adjuncts is the price for protecting tenure.

5) Any kind of sickout has to be a mass movement of leaders in smaller groups or cells, not something directed by a singular group of activists: As I already stated, union leaders by and large have their hands tied in calling for or directing such actions.  Even smaller activist organizations with visible leadership need to be aware that without mass support and protection, they face retaliation, which is fine if they’re willing to carry the costs of losing their jobs or careers, and subsequently labeled a martyr or symbol for the cause. Some people can do this, and we can applaud them for their sacrifice.  For others, mass action can provide both the support and anonymity to act.  The idea of a sickout can be spread through word of mouth, and when consensus is realized then people can act.

6) We need the support of those adjuncts who can’t, for whatever reason, join the sickout, and we need to support them: Any kind of strong labor action is a scary thing.  For many adjunct/contingents living from paycheck-to-paycheck, and even then not making it, such an action is frightening.  Some adjuncts feel bound to their students (though a sickout can very much be a teachable moment).  These are our brothers and sisters, and they can stand with us, speaking out as to why have chosen to act.  They can share in the communication of  our grievances and our demands for redress.  If we know that they understand our actions and stand with us otherwise, then we must embrace them.

And there you have it. This is what it’s going to take to have the walkout/sickout/whatever .  I personally don’t see it happening in the immediate future, but then again, I didn’t think I would see millions of people in the street the day after Trump’s inauguration.

I for one would love to be pleasantly surprised, but I’m just one person, and by writing this, I am excusing myself from leading this, but not from potentially participating.

For any adjunct/contingent who’s read this, I have now put the onus of leading or participating in such action upon you. It’s time for you to talk, and act, and plan.

Geoff Johnson

A “Good” Adjunct