Tuesday, September 3, 2019
September 3, 2019: Academic Labor: My Union
[Usually around this time I’d be sharing Fall Semester Preview posts. I’m on sabbatical, so no teaching for me this Fall; instead I thought I’d connect Labor Day to issues of academic labor this week. Leading up to a special weekend tribute post!]
On formal and informal ways that the Massachusetts State College Association (MSCA) represents the best of 21st century academic labor.
There’s never been a moment in my academic career when I haven’t been connected to prominent conversations and debates about academic unionization—I’m pretty sure that TUGSA, the Temple University Graduate Student Association formally incorporated as a union in 2001 while I was a grad student in English at Temple, was the first successfully created graduate student union in the country, and it was definitely one of the first in any case. While I certainly supported both TUGSA and grad student unionization more generally, and took part in many of the marches and collective actions that led to the March 2001 unionization vote, I’ll admit that I found some of the rhetoric a bit over the top: for example, I remember a conversation with a fellow English grad student who was spearheading the unionization efforts in which I noted that I didn’t think it was helpful to frame us as if we were steel workers in Pittsburgh factories or the like, to which my colleague responded that he felt we were precisely the same as steel workers in Pittsburgh factories.
I still believe there’s value in differentiating distinct forms and worlds of work; but the trends of adjunctification that I highlighted in yesterday’s post, along with many others, make clear that academic labor is certainly still labor, and thus that we still need labor unions to represent and advocate for those performing said labor. Over the last couple years both my overall faculty union the MSCA and my specific Fitchburg State University Chapter (currently led by my English Studies colleague and friend Aruna Krishnamurthy) have been absolutely essential in challenging some of the most destructive 21st century trends and fighting for all FSU and Massachusetts public faculty. Most overtly, the union has helped us navigate a painfully extended and uncertain contract situation—after more than a year of collective bargaining both faculty and administrators across the MSCA system signed a contract in July 2018, only to see another year pass without that contract being funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Among many other effects, that precarious situation meant that FSU faculty spent pretty much all of the last two years in Work-to-Rule status, a necessary form of collective action but one that only added to feelings of uncertainty and unease across the campus. I honestly can’t imagine how any of us, individually or collectively, could have navigated those years without the presence of Aruna and all the MSCA leaders; the fight continues to be sure, but as of this past July 8 we have secured MA funding for our contract.
Collective action and bargaining are key elements of any labor union’s efforts, but they’re far from the only things that unions can do or offer. In more informal but just as important ways, unions can reflect community and solidarity, both practical and philosophical links between the individuals and groups that comprise them. The possibility of adjunct unionization has become a meaningful one throughout the country, and I certainly support the formation of such unions to advocate for the distinct and specific situations and issues that contingent faculty face. But at the same time, both while those processes unfold and even after such adjunct unions are created, I believe that all faculty unions can and should represent and advocate for every type of faculty member. And at FSU, Aruna and our whole Chapter have consistently expressed precisely that perspective toward adjunct and contingent faculty on campus, not only in communications but also and most importantly in workshops, actions, and other efforts to advocate for crucial elements like health insurance. While I have been fully convinced that all faculty need union representation, I believe that the most precarious among us—which certainly includes graduate students but especially means contingent faculty—need it with a particular and potent urgency.
Next Labor week post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?