So you’ve decided to take action, or do a series of activities, or maybe you want to, but feel stymied.
Of the main challenges I have faced, and continue to do so, is dealing with the apathy or self-interest of my colleagues. I know that some adjunct activists would want me to speak of fear first, and I’ll address this later, but I will tell you apathy and self-interest are far bigger challenges.
Some of you have heard the expression that organizing adjuncts is like herding cats, and to a large extent it’s true. I constantly hear how adjuncts are busy teaching their heavy loads at multiple campuses with family and personal obligations to boot. I would like all these busy adjuncts to know that everyone (including myself) is busy too, but anyway…
Keeping it positive here, a lot of adjunct apathy is driven by the sort of tunnel vision that all academics and professionals develop where they compartmentalize their world and their reaction to it into a compartmentalized set of behaviors. Activism necessarily involves getting them to step out of that compartmentalization. These are the adjuncts that, while agreeing with what you’re doing, will stroll by a poster without looking, or never open emails unless they are from a student or immediate supervisor. They also don’t vote in union elections, and only really stand up when they feel they’ve been screwed.
These are not people who are going to be reached or engaged by posters, emails, or general calls to action. To get these people involved, you need to talk to them, frequently, and not just about the immediate ask you’re making, but about who they are, and their concerns, and in a lot of cases, it’s going to involve more of you listening than you speaking.
By the way, if you, as a singular activist, are going to commit yourself to trying to talk to everyone one your own, this is a fool’s errand. You need to focus specifically or people you regularly see (though you should not just be going to one adjunct office all the time), and you need to have them talk to their network of folks.
At AFT’s Higher Ed Conference in Detroit this past April, I had the opportunity to listen to one of the more on-point and powerful union organizers, a woman by the name of Jane McAlevey, who played a key role in organizing nurses in Philadelphia. She explained that in organizing, and this is also true regarding the undertaking of any action or mobilization, we need to recognize that some of us are “activists” and some of us are “organizers”. To be to the point, the “activist” is someone who sees the issues, and wants to speak out, and is usually the first one to a call to action. This is the person you can always count on to be there, but they may not be the one to get others involved. The organizer, by contrast, may not be feel so compelled to speak out, but in a given worksite may be the one others listen to and the person who will get others to stand up.
The thing is, most of us who are involved in the early stages of planning actions tend to be activists, and we’re really caught up into speaking out, but we don’t do the work of cultivating organizers among our colleagues. This has to change, and it’s something I’m working on myself.
Another way to address apathy, is by creating options for levels of involvement, and to provide people with tangible actions which are pointed to specific changes.
Some people may want to speak, or do guerilla theater. Some may want to come to a rally, or simply want to wear a sticker or a button. Others may want to do an in-class assignment on labor contingency. Embrace and praise all of it.
If you’re mobilizing, what’s your end goal? Don’t just make noise and be done with it. Are you looking for signatures on a petition to put more money or any money in the state budget for adjunct benefits? Is it a letter to the board of trustees asking management to bargain in good faith? Upon collecting those letters or petitions, are you going to follow up and explain what happened when you presented them, then communicate this to members?
What happens after Campus Equity Week is just as important as what happens before.
Of course, there’s the cynical adjunct crowd who argues that your actions won’t amount to much or be effective. First, acknowledge at this may have been true (hopefully if you’ve had struggles in the past, you will have thought through how you can make things better), but point to the need to simply not accept the status quo, or explain to them the high costs of doing nothing. What is the result of not standing up to Betsy’s Devos’s anti-public education agenda? By the way, you can go local with this. Ask any educator in Illinois what the costs of not standing up to Governor Rauner might be. If there have been successes, you need to talk about them, and explain how they played a role.
In California, with the force of Campus Equity Week, Adjunct Action Day, and sustained letter-writing campaigns, we were able to 1) help pass a proposition which preserved 15% of the Community Colleague education budget, 2) secure a 70% increase in state adjunct office hours funding for community colleges, and 3) are on the cusp of passing an up to 12 -week paid maternity leave bill for female educators, yes including adjuncts. The signatures needed to get the proposition on the ballot barely happened, and had these adjunct-oriented actions not happened, it may well have not made it on the ballot. The office hour increase was heavily supported by the letter-writing campaign, and the maternity–leave bill was in part publicized through these organizing activities.
Lastly, there is the issue of fear. First, while not to make light of it, often the power of fear is not in the actual capacity of an administration to actually sanction people, but in the perception that they have the ability to do so.
Now this next part is not directed at those who are in fear, but those who are not. It is your obligation to show people that you can speak out, and if, in the event someone is clearly sanctioned for these actions, that you rally in their defense. Now I say this with the proviso that the individual in question didn’t destroy property, act violently, or engage in activity which violated their union contract. Common sense applies.
As for those of you in fear, as much as one, such as myself, can try to allay you fears, you need to make your own judgment call. If you’re afraid, and you can’t be convinced otherwise, then don’t act. But if you don’t act, others would still like, and deserve, your support.
By the way, I’m a fearful person too. Any smart person is, but what I and you fear are two different things:
I fear that not acting out will mean a loss in wages, job security and benefits. I have a child I need to support, and a wife with type-two diabetes. I act out to protect them.
I fear that not acting out means my students will enter world of contingent labor where all but an elite few are part of a vast precarious poor. I act out to prevent this.
I fear that adjunctification runs hand-in-hand with the destruction of American Higher Ed, and with it, the capacity to prevent calamities from global warming, to epidemics, to a deterioration of free speech, democracy, and even the rule of law. I act out to resist this.
I fear more what not acting out will mean than if I don’t. I would say you should too.
A “Good” Adjunct