Apprentices to Nowhere: From Impoverished Graduate Students to Impoverished College Professors

Photograph Source: Glenn Beltz – CC BY 2.0

Why have 233 graduate teaching assistants gone on strike at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC)? Why did University of California (UC) President Janet Napolitano issue a warning letter threatening to fire the striking graduate students? Why did the University of California call in police from outside the college who used batons against the nonviolent protesters and then arrested 17 of them? Why did the University of California Santa Cruz refuse to offer Spring classes to nearly 30 teaching assistants? And why did the UC Santa Cruz outright fire another 54 of them?

The ostensible reason for the strike by the graduate teaching assistants is because the college is located near the Silicon Valley region of California, which has some of the highest housing costs in the country. The students are paid only $2,434 a month, while housing costs alone can eat up all of that at an average of $2,341. Students argue they can’t afford to live anywhere near the college they attend; they are demanding a cost of living adjustment (COLA) of $1,412 per month, while the college has offered only a small housing supplement of about $210 a month.

The UC grad students have shown tremendous solidarity. Several hundred of the UCSC assistants have pledged not to replace any of the 82 students who have either been dismissed or fired. Their independent “wildcat strike,” which is not officially sanctioned by their UAW union, has been rapidly spreading to other UC campuses. Graduate students at the University of California Davis and Santa Barbara have also gone on strike seeking cost of living adjustments of $1,550 and $1,800 a month respectively. UCLA grad students recently voted for a daylong strike and UC Berkeley African American teaching assistants have said they are ready for a strike if their COLA demands are not met by the administration.

President Janet Napolitano has filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) against the local UAW union over the students’ strike, which violates the union contract’s no strike clause. The UAW has filed several of its own ULPs against the college in response to the firing of UCSC students.

After Napolitano issued her warning letter, UC Santa Cruz carried through on Napolitano’s threat and fired 54 of the students, who now face the end of their careers, after investing many years and perhaps an average of $71,000 in student loan debt while obtaining their doctoral degrees.

Napolitano was the Secretary of President Obama’s Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2013. In 2009 she herself initiated what her own office called a “crackdown” on “illegal immigration.”

It is perhaps neither surprising that the University of California would hire the former Secretary of Homeland Security nor that she would resort to such harsh tactics in response to the students’ strike. This was not the first graduate student strike at UC Santa Cruz; it was not the first time that police were called out; it was not the first time that students were arrested.

As President of the University of California statewide system, Napolitano led an investigation into UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, after police pepper sprayed students who were protesting in the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011. Katehi resigned as Chancellor upon release of Napolitano’s report.

The UC Santa Cruz student strike is one part of the many negative changes that have affected our nation’s colleges and universities over the past fifty years. Often run by presidents with business and government backgrounds and a bottom-line mentality, colleges long ago ceased to resemble the myth of sacred “ivory towers” protected from the profane world of work. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that more than sixty college presidents earn over one millions dollars a year in compensation.

Our nation’s higher education system controls both the supply and demand for academic labor. Since the Arab oil embargo of 1973, colleges have staunched the number of well-paid, secure tenured professors, who now comprise only one in six of all college professors. Though enrollment, and the cost of tuition, has continued to climb, the research universities have staffed many of their courses with cheap graduate assistants.

Once they earn their doctoral degrees, they may face even more job insecurity and lower wages if they should end up teaching as adjunct professors. The UC-employed graduate students average about $21,000 a year.

Many adjunct professors are lucky if they can earn this much. The average adjunct teaching halftime in the Washington state community colleges earns about $18,000 a year. Jack Longmate has been an adjunct professor of English at Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington for nearly three decades. He has taught at least half-time nearly every year during this period and only in the last few years has he been averaging about $20,000 a year.

In addition to low pay in which they are paid only for the hours they are in class, union contracts often cap adjunct workloads below full-time, while allowing full-timers to teach overtime. And adjunct pay varies from quarter to quarter since teaching assignments can be cancelled at the last minute for low enrollment, or if their courses are taken by a full-timer who had their class cancelled.

Full-time tenured faculty number about 310,000 and make up only 17% of all college professors; full-time tenure-track faculty number about 140,000 and make up only 7% of the professoriate. The percentage of faculty teaching on the tenure-track has been cut dramatically going from 45% in 1975 to only 24% in 2011. (See John Curtis, “Trends in Instructional Staff Employment Status, 1975-2011,” and Appendix, in Keith Hoeller, Editor, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press)

Graduate teaching assistants number at least 360,000 and form 19% of all college teachers; full-time non-tenure-track faculty number at least 285,000 and make up 15% of professors; part-time professors number about 760,000 and comprise 41% of professors.

Overall, contingent faculty have gone from constituting 55% of faculty in 1975 to being 75% in 2011. These numbers and percentages are likely to have increased significantly in the past decade.

What all of this means is that teaching assistants, in addition to receiving low pay, few benefits, no cost of living adjustments, and no job security, face graduation with dim prospects of landing the brass ring of academe: a full-time tenure-track position. Instead, they are staring in the face of a lifetime of employment as adjuncts teaching with low-pay, few benefits, and no job security. As the pension giant TIAA has noted, “Adjuncts are commonly perceived as recent Ph.D. graduates teaching multiple classes while pursuing a tenure-track position. This is hardly the norm.”

Could unions help these graduate students and other contingent professors?

In fact, graduate students have been organizing for several decades. Public colleges and universities are governed by state labor laws. But private colleges are overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, which has wavered over whether graduate teaching assistants are “students” getting a college education, or “workers” entitled to unions.

While under Obama the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that grad students were workers entitled to unions, President Trump’s NLRB has proposed a rule declaring them students again. There are now 58,000 graduate students who are unionized nationwide, who average only $14,000 a year, while their tenure-track professors are averaging $122,000 a year.

Besides, the UC Santa Cruz workers are already represented by one of our nation’s most powerful unions: the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). Why is the UAW their union instead of one of the three major teachers’ unions, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or the National Education Association (NEA)?

Labor law generally encourages bargaining units composed of workers with a “community of interests” and discourages and often outright forbids units composed of workers with a “conflict of interest.” Teaching assistants are often directly supervised by tenured professors and having supervisors in the same bargaining units with the workers they supervise is usually outlawed. Therefore nearly all unionized graduate students are in separate bargaining units from their professors.

With respect to adjuncts and other contingent faculty, the track record of these academic unions has been abysmal. The AAUP, AFT and NEA have long been dominated and controlled by the tenured faculty, who have bargained well for themselves, and poorly for the contingent faculty they are required by law to represent fairly.

Whereas nearly all of the tenure-track faculty have above average pay, regular raises, superior retirement and health insurance benefits, summers without teaching duties, and the nation’s best job security in the form of tenure, many, perhaps most, contingent faculty have none of these things. Worse, when part-time faculty are not teaching and apply for unemployment compensation, in most states they are often challenged by their colleges and then denied payment by their state’s employment security department.

For the most part, colleges and universities, whether unionized or not, have adopted a two-tier employment system that I have labelled “faculty apartheid” and “tenurism.” Nearly seven decades after the U.S. Supreme Court (Brown v. Board of Education) struck down separate but unequal treatment of students in our public schools, the colleges and the unions have entrenched a separate but unequal system of labor among our professors.

The major reason for this unequal treatment is that the faculty unions have violated the fundamental labor prohibition of placing supervisors into the same units with the workers they supervise. Both administrators and unions hew to the myth that the tenure-track faculty only recommend, and it is the administrators who decide.

This concept was already overruled in the landmark Supreme Court decision called NLRB v. Yeshiva University (1980). The Court ruled that full-time tenure-track faculty at private colleges were in fact “managers” and not entitled to unions at all.

While it may be debatable whether tenured faculty still run the universities the way they once did, there can be little doubt that the colleges often delegate to them the direct supervision of the adjunct faculty. Many union contracts make clear that it is the job of the tenured faculty to interview, hire and fire, evaluate and assign classes for the adjuncts, who play no such role for the tenured professors.

Moreover, the two-tier division between the tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty creates a number of serious conflicts over many issues subject to bargaining, including pay, raises, benefits, and working conditions. Tenured faculty have job protection that contingent faculty do not have; tenured faculty will not lose their jobs over labor disputes; adjunct faculty can and do.

If supervisors ran your union, would you stand up to them and oppose them?  Many adjuncts have in fact done so, and many of them have faced retaliation from their own unions and even the loss of their employment.

Perhaps as a result of these conflicts of interest and the lack of vigorous representation of the contingents by the faculty unions, the UAW, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the Communication Workers of America (CWA) have moved in to organize graduate students, adjuncts, and other contingent professors nationwide. Of course declining membership rolls, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision (2018), which forbid unions from charging fees to their non-members, may also have played a role.

But their track record also leaves much to be desired. The UC Santa Cruz UAW Local 2865 has not formally supported the grad student strike, though since the dismissal and firing of more than 80 of the UCSC students last Friday, they have issued a letter of support for the fired students and filed several ULPs against the college. One of the effects of a wildcat strike is to force the union to act in behalf of its members.

So far it appears as though the UAW does not plan to provide any strike funds for the graduate students or to provide financial aid to those who have been fired. This may explain why the students have set up their own gofundme account and have already raised nearly $250,000.

The supposed reason for the UAW’s previous inaction is that the UC Santa Cruz students have initiated a “wildcat” strike without the support or sanction of their own union, which had agreed to a “no-strike” clause in the union contract. Despite the low pay of the teaching assistants, and the lack of any cost of living adjustments, the four-year contract included only a 3% annual raise, which is not much more than the predicted rate of inflation.

The UAW grad student union had bargained a single four-year contract for the entire ten campus UC system, but it was rejected by 83% of the Santa Cruz students because it did not do anything about their high cost of living. Graduate students at other UC campuses such as Davis and Santa Barbara have been protesting their wages and lack of cost of living adjustments as well. So why didn’t the UAW bargain raises based upon the cost of living in the various regions of the state?

Progressive unionists have long railed against no-strike clauses as in effect defanging workers of their most potent weapon. New York state’s Taylor Law forbids strikes by public employees and has been criticized by the City University of New York adjunct group called CUNY Contingents Unite.

Adjuncts, lecturers, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students all make up a large group of what I have called “apprentices to nowhere.” There are no other unions outside of academe that force the majority of their members to work for decades without ever becoming full-fledge members of the guild. (see my “Do College Professors Deserve a Living Wage?”)

In 1986 Mike Davis described what he called “The Barren Marriage of American Labor and the Democratic Party” (Prisoners of the American Dream). The late Robert Fitch updated the issue with an article on President Obama’s failure to pass labor’s proposed solution to its decline (”Card Check: Labor’s Charlie Brown Moment?”

Now that our nation’s colleges have become the major producers and exploiters of unionized sweatshop labor, where are the Democrats on this issue? (See my “The Real College Inequality the Democrats Have Yet to Address”)

The Democratic candidates have yet to raise the issue in their debates. When I wrote to Sen. Warren asking her to raise the adjunct issue in her campaign, she replied with a form letter of her support for free college tuition and reducing student loan debt.

Sen. Bernie Sanders appears to be alone in at least raising the issue in a nominal way. His College for All Act seeks to eliminate tuition at public colleges and lower interest rates on student loans. The summary says, “colleges and universities must reduce their reliance on low-paid adjunct faculty.”

The bill suggests paying adjuncts for some of their time spent working outside of class. It also calls for increasing full-time faculty, which may or may not be good for adjunct faculty. At some colleges full-time positions have been created by taking courses away from current part-timers.

No self-respecting union should be asking its lowest paid members to give up their jobs to make way for more higher paid ones. Yet that’s exactly what some of the faculty unions have done.

As I have previously noted, as Vice President Joe Biden displayed no awareness of the plight of contingent faculty; instead, he decried the salaries of college professors as being far too high. There is no evidence that candidate Biden has changed his tune on this topic.

Instead of highlighting the exploitation of contingent faculty by the colleges and the unions, all of the Democratic candidates for President have come out in favor of some plan to offer free tuition to students and to stem the rising tide of student tuition debt, now exceeding one and one-half trillion dollars.

The Democrats clearly believe in equality and that college degrees can help to reduce inequality in our society, though this may be debatable. Colleges have certainly not eliminated inequality among the professoriate; they have created it and continue to perpetuate it.

Why then have the Democrats refused to come out against the separate but unequal two-tier faculty system in our nation’s colleges and universities?

Is it because doing so would inevitably shine a light on the unequal treatment of college professors by the very same unions that provide money and campaign workers to the Democrats?

When 150 Unite Here food service workers went on strike at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles last December, the Democratic candidates for President refused to cross the picket lines for a televised debate. Tom Perez, the Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) went to the college to defuse the strike and won a 25 percent pay increase, 50 percent reduction in health insurance, and better job security.

When will the Democrats refuse to hold debates on college campuses where graduate students and part-time (adjunct) professors work in sweatshop conditions? One and a half million contingent college professors are awaiting the Democrats answer to this question.

When will the Democrats care about equality–not just for students paying tuition increasing at many times the rate of inflation for decades–but for their graduates who will face an unequal job market if they should decide to go into college teaching.

When will a reporter ask the Democratic candidates whether they support truly equal pay and equal work and equal benefits and equal job security for college professors? And when will a Democratic candidate for President at long last raise their hand and say, “I do”?

Keith Hoeller is the co-founder (with Teresa Knudsen) of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and Editor, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt, 2014).