Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Higher Education May Day Hymn

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand
There is power in a Union.

Just in the last few weeks, the rhetoric of the adjunct crisis in American Higher Education has shifted, intensifying around the language of  work, labor, and unionization.

Now the lessons of the past were all learned with workers' blood
The mistakes of the bosses we must pay for
From the cities and the farmlands to trenches full of mud
War has always been the bosses' way, sir.

Academics, even adjuncts, resist thinking of themselves as labor, as workers, as their occupations as work. We call ourselves artists or artisans even as the industrialized neoliberal forces bear down on us to turn us into dehumanized cogs.

The Union forever, defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and out sisters from many far off lands
There is power in a Union.

And sure, academic work is not coal mining. But look where the unions remain strong today - in highly skilled labor for the most part, rather than the blue collar factory work. This is a tragedy for the American people, but it's not a tragedy we can easily fix. One thing we can do is to embrace the power of unions in our own profession and to demonstrate that unionization need not be a disaster for the bottom line of cash-strapped educational institutions. No, what unionization does is give the scattered contingent workers a voice at the table, a look at the books, and the chance for procedure to replace arbitrary hirings and firings.

Now I long for the morning that they realise
Brutality and unjust laws can not defeat us
But who'll defend the workers who cannot organise
When the bosses send their lackies out to cheat us?

Teaching is work. Programming is work. Scholarship is work. Science is work. Grading is work. Committee service is work. This is not to embrace the business-speak model of the academy; no, that model seeks to de-value your labor. Labor - valuing your work as work - is the antidote to business-speak.

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child
There is power in a Union.

This is easy for me to say. I have tenure. I was lucky. It's hard for me to just say it's luck because I worked so hard to get here, struggling with low wages and the brutal job market. But here I am and I can say that there is no meritocracy even though I do have merit. So do we all. I can't blame the frightened tenured professor for clinging to the myths of merit. I can't blame the adjunct for just thinking that if they keep their heads down, work hard, publish more, maybe break into something new and exciting like digital humanities, then the dream tenure-stream job will be waiting.  Maybe it is, but if not, organize. Change the conditions for the great majority.

The Union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and out sisters from many far off lands
There is power in a Union.

All I can be, for now, is a cheerleader to your movements. But I am cheering. I am also talking to my peers so that when you have a picket line, we will be on it. We need to see our work as work too. All labor movements happened this way - with the disadvantaged in charge but the lucky advantaged in support, eroding the false perceptions of class difference. Belief in the meritocracy is a tool of the bosses. 

In the end, to change these conditions, you are going to have to exercise the power that comes from any movement. Organization. Pickets. Work stoppages. Propaganda to convince your peers and people like me that this is a fundamental labor issue. Academia is special, but we're not that special. Work is work. And ...

There is power in a Union.


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