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As Chan and Romine write:
Striking workers include researchers, graduate student researchers and instructors, trainees, fellows, and others who provide academic support across the University of California’s 10 campuses. The United Auto Workers union represents these academic employee groups who want transportation subsidies and pay that matches housing costs. Among the salary demands, the union wants a $70,000/year minimum salary for postdoctoral employees; their current salary range starts at $55,632/year.
The part-time faculty union (UAW Local 7902) at my institution, the New School, in New York City, has also called a strike this week. “AND NOW WE STRIKE!” the union tweeted on Tuesday night. “See you on the picket line tomorrow.”
These two universities seem to have little in common. The UC system is vast, fueled by California tax dollars and a river of public, foundation, and corporate money. In 2021-22, the University of California received 24 percent of its funding from California general funds and tuition and fees revenue, 12 percent from government grants and financial aid, and a whopping 36 percent from its medical centers — its largest income stream. Its $44 billion budget is $15 billion more than the GDP of El Salvador.
The New School is a very different financial animal, with a small endowment and a campus to maintain in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Revenues barely meet expenses. Heavily tuition-dependent, the New School is without the professional schools that bring in students whose enormous loans will be offset by large, postgraduation salaries. It has no hospitals or scientific research centers that can woo corporate dollars and federal grants. In fact, a terrifying 77 percent of the New School’s $426 million 2020 operating budget came from net tuition. That can’t go up indefinitely: The sticker cost of tuition is already about $26,000 per semester. This meant that when the pandemic hit in March 2020, the New School, like other tuition-dependent colleges, faced a potentially existential threat.
These differences between universities are no small thing: While a long strike at UC would be damaging, closing down the economically vulnerable New School for the same amount of time could be several orders of magnitude more damaging.
Yet these two strikes, happening almost simultaneously, tell a bigger story about how fragile the project of higher education has become. Surprisingly, the differences in wealth and size I have just described have produced similar faculties in one key regard. At both colleges, the best-compensated faculty — those who are tenured and tenure-eligible — represent only a small portion of the academic work force. According to its employee head count, the University of California employs roughly 75,000 academic workers in various roles, yet only 11,677 are tenure-ladder rank and equivalent. At the New School, founded in 1919 as a college without a full-time faculty, 87 percent of instructional faculty are part-timers.
But regardless of size and wealth, it is hard to see any university surviving the challenges of the 21st century without rebuilding its faculty around full-time workers who are willing to commit to the institution in return for being treated fairly. Armies of contingent laborers will never align their interests with an institution built to serve the small sliver of tenured faculty, nor should they.
Solidarity is nice during moments of crisis. And unions help defend the dignity of all workers. But neither one deals with the problem: Precarious labor was sold to higher education as an economically and intellectually flexible vision for the future. Instead, it has made all universities more vulnerable, not just to labor actions, but to the illusion that contingent labor is a kind of piggy bank that can be raided when universities want to build new institutes, recruit star faculty, and expand their campuses.
The small sliver of the tenured and tenure-eligible academic elite have not allowed this to pass entirely unnoticed. And yet, we have also become ever-more divorced in our everyday interests from the intellectuals, artists, and practitioners who teach the vast majority of students. Go to any faculty meeting, and you will hear what the tenured truly believe: that if contract and contingent faculty deserved tenure-stream positions, they would have them. It is evidence of the failure of our system that contingent academic workers — even if their labor actions are completely successful — will still work to underwrite the salaries and benefits of the tenured elite.
Until we, the few tenured and tenure-track professors who remain, understand that quality education, and a just workplace, require opening the door of full academic citizenship and privilege to our contingent colleagues, we can’t begin to solve the problem that has put them on the picket lines.
A previous version of this essay ran on the author’s Substack, Political Junkie.