New Labor Forum

The Problems with Work

In Regular Edition on June 4, 2014 at 2:13 pm

By Kathi Weeks

Despite my use of the singular in the title, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011) explores several problems with work. My focus is not so much on the difficulties of this or that job but on the failures of the system of waged work together with the values and ways of life that support and are produced by it. Some of these problems fit under three general headings: underwork, overwork, and non-work.

The first and most obvious problem is that of underwork. In a society that expects most individuals to engage in waged work, the fact that there are not enough jobs to go around is devastating to individuals and communities. The current unemployment numbers and the prospect of a “jobless recovery” make it all the more clear that waged work is too precarious and incomplete to function adequately as a system of income allocation or a means of social inclusion. Then there is the problem of overwork. I refer here to all the ways that work monopolizes our time and energy. This includes not just the long hours we spend at work but the time spent preparing for work, searching for work, worrying about work or its absence, and recovering from work. The problem is that too much of our lifetime is subordinated to work. Finally, we should add to this list the problem of what I call non-work, which comprises two elements. One refers to all the forms of social productivity that are not covered by the wage system. For example, feminists have long insisted that unwaged housework, child care, and eldercare are all forms of socially necessary “reproductive” labor without which the “productive” waged labor economy could not function. These are not the only examples of unpaid work upon which waged work depends; employers profit as well from the time required to develop the knowledge, physical capacities, artistic output, communicative abilities, emotional skills, and even the social networks that they do not remunerate us for. The other problem of non-work is meant to evoke our inability or unwillingness to conceive a life not so relentlessly limited by the exigencies of work. The world of waged work so dominates our values, institutions, laws, and symbols that we have a hard time conceiving any other way of organizing productive activity, allocating income, or fashioning a meaningful life. We are valuable to ourselves and to one another to the extent that we produce at work. This limits our understanding of what is a worthy social contribution to a narrow conception of waged labor and then makes that a key requirement of citizens. So our ideas about individual achievement and social reciprocity become affixed and reduced to waged work.

New Labor Forum 23(2): 10–12, Spring 2014

Copyright © 2014, The Murphy Institute, CUNY

ISSN: 1095-7960, DOI: 10.1177/1095796014526859

Impossible Unity: Adjuncts and Tenure-Track Faculty

In Regular Edition on January 24, 2014 at 11:58 am

By Ivan Greenberg

In 2005, an estimated 42.6 million Americans (about 31 percent of the U.S. workforce) toiled as contingent workers outside full-time, regular year-round employment. And the problem is getting worse. By 2020, more than 40 percent may work under insecure conditions: underpaid and without job protection as well as lacking many benefits such as health insurance, pensions, and vacations with pay. Unionizing this large segment of the workforce has proved difficult. Only about 6 percent of part-time employees are union members, compared to 12.5 percent for full-timers. As the labor movement increases efforts to reach these workers, questions remain about the best organizational forms to represent them. Should contingent workers join locals that enroll full-time employees in their industries or should part-timers form their own independent unions? Can solidarity exist between full-timers and part-timers within the same organization?

I would like to consider the union prospects for a large sector of contingent workers probably familiar to many readers of New Labor Forum: adjunct or part-time college and university teachers. Today, there are more than 1.3 million contingent adjuncts—about 75 percent of all college teachers. Why a two-tier labor system has become entrenched in academia is beyond the scope of my argument here. My main point is that unions need to devote more resources to organize this large group. About one-fifth of adjuncts nationwide already are represented by collective bargaining units and they have shown a high degree of receptivity to organizing efforts. But, critically, adjuncts need to look beyond the teachers unions, which are dominated by full-time faculty and have provided them very weak representation. Another path is possible. The formation of a national adjunct labor union could fight for a more just and fair distribution of employee earnings and benefits. It also could mount a challenge to the very existence of the two-tier labor system. Democratic equity goals are essential to help preserve the integrity and quality of higher education. After all, teachers have a special role as “idea workers” to promote critical thinking, truth, freedom, and human development and growth. Their unions should reflect these ideas. A labor reform movement led by adjuncts might spur organizing among part-timers in other professions and industries.

New Labor Forum 23(1): 11-13, Winter 2014
Copyright © 2014, The Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960, DOI: 10.1177/1095796013512623

Solidarity: An Argument for Faculty Unity

In Regular Edition on January 24, 2014 at 11:55 am

By Eve S. Weinbaum and Max Page

As in many industries and professions, stable and coveted careers in higher education have transformed into contingent, low-paid jobs. As tenured full professors retired, they were replaced with adjuncts, part-time instructors, full-time non-tenure-system faculty, and other “contract” faculty. The shift was rapid and dramatic: from 1975 to 2010 part-time faculty increased by 300 percent, and the full-time tenure-track professoriate lost more than half its members. Now more than 75 percent of college and university classes are taught by non-tenure-system teachers who have little job security, may be “on call” from one semester to the next, work at several universities at the same time, and can earn as little as $1,500 per course.

Organizing such a dispersed workforce is difficult, but in many places non-tenure-track faculty have mobilized to demand better pay and working conditions. Citywide efforts to organize adjuncts at private colleges are underway in Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. All of these various forms of organizing are crucial and deserve active support from other faculty, students, and the wider community.

But non-tenure-system faculty need more power; how can they best achieve it? At public universities, organizing with tenure-system faculty holds the most potential. Not only can contingent faculty gain a voice in their workplace, job security, career ladders, and significant pay raises—but all of this is in the interest of their tenured colleagues. In the best cases, by organizing together both groups have realized that their own self-interest, rightly understood, depends on solidarity.

In the fall of 2003, the UMass-Amherst faculty and librarians’ union, the Massachusetts Society of Professors (MSP), prepared for contract negotiations. We conducted a survey to ask members what issues were most pressing. The MSP (MTA/NEA) represents 1,400 members, including about 1,000 full-time tenured faculty and 400 lecturers and adjuncts (on our campus these non-tenure-system faculty call themselves “contract faculty,” elsewhere they prefer “adjunct” or “non-tenure-track” or NTT; we use these terms interchangeably). While salaries almost always came up first in bargaining surveys, that year was different: more members were concerned about the sharp decline of tenure-system faculty. In the 1980s UMass had employed over 1,200 tenure-system faculty but in 20 years the number had fallen to 950, while the student body was steadily growing. Faculty recognized that their increased workload, larger classes, teaching and service demands were caused by the shrinkage of the tenured faculty.

New Labor Forum 23(1): 14-16, Winter 2014
Copyright © 2014, The Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960, DOI: 10.1177/1095796013512797


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