New Labor Forum

Archive for the ‘Regular Edition’ Category

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

The Politics of Debt Resistance & Getting the Left out of Debt

In Regular Edition on January 24, 2014 at 11:46 am

The Politics of Debt Resistance
By Andrew Ross

Like others who committed themselves to the fledgling debtors’ movement, I have experienced the major occupational hazard of single-issue activists—we tend to see our issue everywhere. Oftentimes, it’s the only thing we see, and our more ecumenical allies have to find ways to remind us, either gently or more rudely, that issues and struggles are always connected. That said, debt really is everywhere right now. Read the rest of this entry »

The Precariat: A Class or a Condition?

In Regular Edition on May 29, 2013 at 3:49 pm

By Peter Frase

The claim that work has become more precarious in recent decades has an intuitive appeal, at least among a layer of young people and activists. The concept of the “precariat,” playing on the old description of the working class as a “proletariat,” attempts to give empirical and sociological content to this intuition. The term has been widely disseminated by U.K. sociologist Guy Standing, whose book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class summarizes a long career of investigation into the changing nature of waged work.
Read the rest of this entry »

“We Are the 99%”: The Political Arithmetic of Revolt

In Regular Edition on March 6, 2013 at 12:43 pm

By Michael Yates

The worldwide Occupy movement that erupted in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011 took as its watchwords, “We are the 99 %.” These words resonated with large masses of people as few others have in a long while. To understand why, it’s important to look at the context that generated it.

“We are the 99%” derived its power from the devastation experienced by so many people as a result of the Great Recession that erupted in December of 2007 and whose effects are still being felt by tens of millions of people in the United States and hundreds of millions worldwide.

Read the rest of this entry »

On the Contrary: Manufacturing the Future: Why Reindustrialization Is the Road to Recovery

In Regular Edition on September 28, 2012 at 7:05 am

By Mark Levinson

Four and a half years after the crash, the American economy sputters along. Twenty-three million workers cannot find full-time work, and the percentage of the employed population has hardly budged since it hit bottom two and a half years ago. Republicans argue that we should reduce the deficit (a disastrous policy); Democrats urge a new stimulus (a necessary step, but not sufficient to repair our economy). Missing from our national discussions about economic revitalization—even in arguments made by many of the nation’s progressive economists—is the need to restore a badly damaged manufacturing sector. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Contrary: Class Unconsciousness: Stop Using “Middle Class” to Depict the Labor Movement

In Regular Edition on May 23, 2012 at 1:04 pm

George Orwell thought the precise and purposeful deployment of our language was the key to the kind of politics we hoped to advance. By that standard, virtually everyone—from the center to the left, from Barack Obama to Richard Trumka to the activists of Occupy Wall Street—has made a hash of the way we name the most crucial features of our society.

Exhibit A is the suffocating pervasiveness with which we use the phrase “middle class” as the label we have come to attach to not just all of those who are hurting in the current economic slump, but to the entire stratum that used to be identified as working class. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Contrary Earth to Labor: Economic Growth Is No Salvation

In Regular Edition on February 28, 2012 at 9:41 am

By Sean Sweeney

The notion that economic growth is, almost by definition, a good thing has been subjected to serious and well-informed criticism in recent years. Diverse organizationally, geographically, and ideologically, those challenging growth are united by one realization: the world’s ecosystems are in a state of extreme distress and the planet will be unlivable in just a few decades. Climate change, ocean acidification, species extinction, desertification, ozone depletion, and alarming levels of water contamination and scarcity are part of a long list of crises that have their origins in one thing—economic activity that increasingly raids the world’s stores of “natural capital” and pollutes and degrades everything in its path. Read the rest of this entry »

On the Contrary: A New Insurgency Can Only Arise Outside the Progressive and Labor Establishment

In Regular Edition on September 8, 2011 at 11:55 am

By Stephen Lerner

We live in a dangerous time when large corporations and the super-rich are restructuring the nation’s economy. There is a crisis for most Americans, but not for the elites who dominate the political economy of the country. Unfortunately, organized labor can be as much of an obstacle as it is a solution to mounting a movement for social justice that might reverse this trend and offer hope for the future.

Unions have the money, members, and capacity to organize, build, and fuel a movement designed to challenge the power of the corporate elite. Read the rest of this entry »