FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What Contingent Faculty Can Learn From Fast-Food Workers

by BRIAN HAMAN

It has become a truism in American higher education: seventy-five percent of undergraduate courses at U.S. colleges and universities are taught by contingent faculty1, most of whom lack health insurance,2 carry onerous student debt,3 receive poverty-level compensation, and often rely on public assistance such as food stamps in order to make ends meet.4 This percentage translates into more than 1.3 million highly-educated, qualified, and competent, but poorly-paid, undervalued, and underappreciated American workers. Conversely, administrative costs at colleges have soared in recent years. The academic managerial class (provosts, vice and associate vice provosts, deans, presidents, vice presidents, etc.) routinely earn six-figure salaries, often with generous perks including vacation homes.5

According to U.S. Education Department data, “U.S. universities employed more than 230,000 administrators in 2009, up 60 percent from 1993, or 10 times the rate of growth of the tenured faculty, those with permanent positions and job security”.6 Most new hires on American campuses never even set foot in the classroom simply because they are not teachers but administrators.7 Furthermore, the cost of a college degree in the U.S. has increased by 1,120 percent since 1978.8 The overwhelming majority of the academic labor force (to say nothing of students, who voluntarily submit to indentured servitude in the form of student debt) suffers disproportionately due to enormous concentrations of wealth in the hands of a small and privileged elite.

We find a similar dynamic in other segments of the American labor force, especially in the fast-food industry. Fast-food workers endure low wages (and indeed wage stagnation), few if any benefits, and a scarcity of full-time contracts.9 The marginalized and contingent workforce at places such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and KFC share similar concerns and face similar challenges such as starvation wages, reliance on government assistance, and job insecurity that academic workers endure at some of our nation’s leading universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Michigan.10 However, unlike the academy, the difference between CEO compensation and fast-food workers’ pay is truly breathtaking. David C. Novak, CEO of Yum Brands, which includes chains such as KFC and Pizza Hut, received a total annual compensation of $29.67 million in 2012.11

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Last year, McDonald’s gave [Dan] Thompson a compensation package worth $13.8 million, or more than 558 times what McDonald’s expects employees to make — from two jobs”.12 The national minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25 per hour and the top five largest employers (McDonald’s is among them) pay its workers at or near the minimum wage. We may reiterate the conclusion of the previous paragraph with one minor revision: The overwhelming majority of the fast-food labor force suffers disproportionately due to enormous concentrations of wealth in the hands of a small and privileged elite.

When faced with such systemic and structural inequalities, how have fast-food workers responded? The answer is quite instructive. They have staged local protests and walkouts in cities across the country and are planning a national walkout in order to fight for a higher minimum wage. As Professor Anne Kalleberg has noted, however, the protests are not union-sponsored but socially organized.13 Fast-food workers, just like their academic counterparts, often struggle to unionize due, at times, to explicit efforts by their employers to prevent them from doing so. Nevertheless, despite such grim circumstances, fast-food workers have pushed their plight quite successfully into the national consciousness just as Occupy movements have done.

Their campaign, entitled “Fast Food Forward”, articulates their purpose with self-assured clarity: “Fast Food Forward joins the momentum of the Black Friday strikes and other low-wage worker struggles to build community engagement, hold corporations and their CEOs accountable, and to raise wages so that all Americans can prosper”.14 Despite its origins in New York City, the movement is gaining momentum; many are now calling for a nationwide strike to take place on 29 August and even President Obama has addressed the issue.

How is all of this relevant for the contingent academic workforce? Well, for one thing, there is strength in numbers. Collective action is an especially effective instrument both to challenge and redress structural inequalities. If, as the aforementioned statistics indicate, seventy-five percent of undergraduate courses at U.S. colleges and universities are taught by adjuncts, then a walkout would bring the academy to a grinding halt. If fast-food workers with fewer career opportunities, less educational attainment, more grueling working conditions (e.g. fast-paced environments, high-temperature workplaces, etc.), and far more to lose can risk their only source of income for themselves and their families for the sake of the collective good, then what is preventing adjuncts from doing the same? The short answer is simple: nothing.

Alas, many adjuncts enable and perpetuate the “system” through their deferential subservience simply by participating in it (recent unionization efforts at Georgetown and elsewhere duly noted). As universities and departments downsize and the numbers of Ph.D. graduates outpace available jobs, many adjuncts accept grossly underpaid positions with long working hours and virtually no benefits with the expectation that a foot in the door will somehow lead to the promised land of a tenure-track position. Supply and demand dictates otherwise and the vast battalions of well-paid academic administrators are more than happy to continue to exploit such naïve and misguided expectations in the name of efficiency.

Surely, too, graduate programs inculcate (and indeed indoctrinate) students in the ways of the academy: publish or perish and do not rock the proverbial boat. On the one hand, academics are expected to challenge scholarly orthodoxies in their respective fields through creative, innovative, interdisciplinary scholarship. And yet in other aspects of their lives, namely those that deal with the contractual conditions under which they labor, they must conform and remain obedient in order to secure employment. It becomes an insidious and corrosive form of selection in which independent thought is filtered out of a system that was designed to protect it. Contradictions become self-evident: the imposition of an authorial canon in the humanities is anathema, whereas wage slavery becomes institutionalized.

Clearly, something must change. It seems, therefore, sensible, entirely feasible, and just to stand in solidarity with fast-food workers, many of whom earn as much as adjuncts. Their struggles are our struggles. Moreover, their lessons can be our lessons. The efficacy and consequences of collective action are unambiguous. Adjuncts across the nation should continue their efforts to unionize and to fight for fair wages and improved working conditions. This is an excellent first step. Additional steps are necessary, though, and a second step should involve strikes and walkouts both locally and nationally. In an age of social media, organization and coordination should prove easy. Universities and colleges simply cannot function without adjuncts.

The point bears repeating: adjuncts are indispensible to the functioning of the American higher educational system; without their labor, colleges and universities would cease to operate. Adjuncts must stand together in solidarity in order to confront the specter of fear that prevents them from acting in their own best interests and indeed in the best interests of our nation. After all, taxpayers bear the burden (through government assistance programs) of higher education’s unwillingness to offer a livable wage to its adjunct workforce in the same way that many fast-food workers’ healthcare, food, and housing are subsidized by taxpayers due to corporate greed. Given the staggered nature of academic schedules, a week-long protest in the form of walkouts would initiate a national discussion of the prevailing inequalities inherent in adjunct compensation. In addition, a clearly articulated message akin to the “Fast Food Forward” campaign would establish solidarity with other low-paid American workers and necessarily broaden the discourse beyond the halls of academia.

If you disagree with the unjust conditions of employment, then reject them collectively by forming unions or joining pre-existing ones wherever possible and by walking out. As Dr. King reminded sanitation workers in Memphis on 18 March 1968, “you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages”.

Brian Haman is a former U.S. Fulbright Scholar and current Postdoctoral Associate Fellow at the University of Warwick in the UK.

NOTES

1 http://www.academicworkforce.org/CAW_portrait_2012.pdf

2 http://chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Curb-Adjuncts-Hours/138653/

3 http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-Student-Debt-Matters/129812/

4 http://chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/

5 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/15/nyregion/facing-criticism-nyu-will-cease-loans-to-top-employees-for-second-homes.html?_r=0

6 http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-11-14/bureaucrats-paid-250-000-feed-outcry-over-college-costs

7 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323316804578161490716042814.html

8 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-15/cost-of-college-degree-in-u-s-soars-12-fold-chart-of-the-day.html

9 http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2013/08/12/130812ta_talk_surowiecki

10 http://chronicle.com/article/Adjunct-Project-Shows-Wide/136439/

11 http://www.forbes.com/lists/2012/12/ceo-compensation-12_David-C-Novak_PG6B.html

12 http://www.marketwatch.com/story/mcdonalds-ceo-try-living-on-mcbudget-of-25000-2013-07-25

13 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/10/us-fast-food-protests-wages

14 http://www.fastfoodforward.org/en/

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail