Precarity and Privilege. And why you should join a union, today

Reflecting on the personal impact of the corona crisis, a close friend remarked that things didn’t change all that much, rather they became obvious. I then began to hear variations of that idea repeatedly. If you live in a complicated relationship, that might very well show right now. If you have made difficult decisions, their consequences might be more palpable now. If you live in a precarious situation, you will feel that clearly now. On the other hand, there might be good stuff that you perhaps hardly noticed, but if it’s there, it will carry you now. On social media, I sense a lot of (positive) nostalgia. People remember things, show what mattered then and now. Things become obvious. The crisis works like a magnifying glass.

This effect also shows how well we are prepared. As an adolescent, I used to smile at my parents for storing lots of food cans in their basement. Of course, most of us also laugh at people rushing to hoard toilet paper, but how well prepared are we for what is coming? Perhaps you think that if we’re lacking things and certain habits now, this is owing to individual failures or laziness. But if we experience precariousness, hardly any of that is an individual fault. Habits need collective stabilisation and consolidation to persist. That said, I’m not going to focus on the state of your basement or hygiene measures. Rather, I’m worried about the question of how well we are politically prepared. Many people around me are facing really dire situations. And our political preparation (or lack thereof) leaves us with very few means to address them properly. So what can be done? I’ll begin with some general considerations and try to finish with some practical advice.

If we look around, we see that a lot can be done. Slowing down the economy like that without immediate chaos ensuing is a huge success. But very soon, people will start telling each other that certain things “cannot” be done, because they are “too difficult”, “too expensive” or “against the rules”. While a lot of good is happening, the bargaining and gaslighting has already begun. Being a highly competitive culture, academia has a notorious problem with collective action (role models in the UK who have been on strike for enormous amounts of time notwithstanding). But this crisis requires collective measures, both in terms of hygiene and in terms of politics.

What’s the problem? Precarious employment (not only) in academia has been a growing factor for a long time. As I see it, this jeopardizes not only political but also academic goals, because it leads to an unwelcome dissociation of teaching and research. But at the present moment, this precarity might turn into something much worse. We already see furloughs and dismissals especially of people on fixed term contracts and the flimsy justifications rolling in on a fairly large scale. At the same time, we witness what we have already seen in the medical sector. We lack transnational policies and thus people are being treated very differently, depending on where they happen to work and what sort of contract they have. Add to this that many ad hoc measures, such as online teaching, are now used as a pretext to introduce lasting changes that may be detrimental to both employment conditions and educational standards. So the precarity and educational standards might worsen to a tipping point where education might become largely disposable. Indeed, mass education is of course disposable already, unless you have democratic tendencies.

What can be done? The first thing I find striking is that, while people continuously talk about online teaching and other means of continuing work, hardly anyone addresses the question of precarious employment. Given the current firings and freezing of hirings, we know that the job market is going to be brutal. If you are, say, an international postdoc or teaching fellow whose contract runs out after the summer, it will be very difficult to find or even seek employment. While I see people readily exchanging advice on zooming, I’ve seen hardly anything so far on how to address this problem. The exceptions to this rule are labour unions and some employee organisations some of which are currently collecting data and push for measures. (You know of more exceptions? Please spread the news widely!)* Now let me ask you: Are you a member of a union? No? You’re no exception. In the various places I worked during and after my PhD, I have never been encouraged to join a union. It’s almost as if there were no awareness that there is such a thing as the representation of employees’ interests. In fact, I guess it’s worse, and it’s something I’ve not only noticed in academia but also in much of the growing freelance and start-up culture. Going from my own experience, I’d say that people always have been and still are (more or less subtly) discouraged from joining such organisations. So when employees encounter difficulties in their employment, they typically will be portrayed as not being tough enough for the job. You are overworked? Well, if you don’t blame yourself already, you’ll likely be shamed into avoiding publicity. Being overworked is still portrayed as a personal lack of stamina, to be addressed not by collective industrial action but by courses on time management or mindfulness. This way, failing to secure (permanent) employment can still be blamed on the individual rather than on the way higher education is run.

The individualisation of such problems does not only affect people’s (mental) health, it also keeps people away from engaging in collective action. In turn, this means that unions etc. will remain weak because they can easily be portrayed as not representing anyone. If people keep blaming themselves, the unions don’t have a case for building an argument in favour of better employment conditions. I see this as one of the main reasons why we are politically not well prepared for addressing economic problems in this crisis. So what should we do now?

Trying to collect ideas, I have written to a number of friends and colleagues who kindly provided me with suggestions. Let me briefly summarise some crucial points:

  • Generally, permanent / tenured people should take it upon them to make a move. We should be aware that people on fixed term contracts are vulnerable and should not be expected to lobby for their interests alone.
  • Try to see who is in or is likely to get into trouble and talk about the situation. Bring it up with your colleagues and managers whenever the opportunity arises. If you have department meetings or exchanges with funding agencies such as the ERC, ask what can be or is done to ameliorate the situation.
  • Join a union and encourage others to do so, too. In the Netherlands, the unions are taking it upon them to make a case for employees in precarious positions.
  • As I see it, it would be good for universities to invest in staff rather than reduce numbers. Wherever possible contracts should be extended, as is in fact done by various funding bodies.
  • If there are no financial resources for staff, measures should be taken to reallocate budgets, especially travel and overhead funding for the extension of contracts or hires.
  • Universities in Austria and Switzerland have created hardship funds for employees facing precarious situations. This should be done proactively, as people in vulnerable positions might feel discouraged to come forward.

These are just some ideas. I’d be grateful to hear more. But to my mind, the most important point is that we need to pursue such steps in a collective effort. Right now, these steps should be taken because we are in an emergency. Ensuring stability is what is required for providing a safe working environment.

Ultimately, taking measures of solidarity is also about helping academia to survive beyond this crisis. Whenever recession hits, education is often considered disposable. If we were to allow for the reduction of staff without resistance, it would just signal that academia could do with even fewer people and resources. Dictatorships would certainly welcome this. The way we treat our colleagues and students will contribute to determining the political system that we’ll find ourselves in after the crisis.

____

* Of course, there have been initiatives addressing the adjunct crisis. But I havent’t noticed that precarity has been an issue of great public concern in this crisis, even less so among tenured academics, as a recent piece by Emma Pettit notes:

“While tenured professors have typically stood by silently as their nontenured colleagues advocated for themselves on the national stage, they have watched their own kind dwindle. Positions are remaining unfilled. Tenure lines are getting pruned. There’s still the same service work to do, but fewer people to do it, and those who remain shoulder the burden.

And today, as a global pandemic has devastated budgets and led college leaders to freeze hiring and furlough even tenured professors, the cause seems especially urgent.

The structural changes that preceded the pandemic helped set the stage for those austerity measures, and manufactured a growing — if uneven, slow, some would say glacial — recognition among the tenured that relying on contingent labor hurts everyone, activists and higher-education researchers say. …
How much tenured professors have cared, historically, about their contingent colleagues, is difficult to measure. Everyone knows the caricature: the older, typically white, typically male full professor whose non-tenure-track colleagues escape his vision, who still believes merit rises to the top and those who fail to land tenure-track jobs lack work ethic, intelligence, or both. …
Even if tenured professors might not pay attention to the adjuncts who walked their hallways, they couldn’t help but notice the fates of their graduate students, who were being sent into a bottlenecked academic-jobs market to compete for slimmer pickings. They started to connect the dots.”

5 thoughts on “Precarity and Privilege. And why you should join a union, today

  1. Should academics join a union (or one of some competing unions?) and fight for what they see as their rights (seeing them in the usual academic ways?) within someone else’s economic entity? Or should they leave such entities and set up their own PROPER universities? I ask because being British, I always thought of academics as forming something like an ideal union, by being Fellows of Colleges. And because the end goal of proper unions has always been communism. I wonder what the American view on this is though…

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    1. Thanks for your comments! From the article you’ve kindly linked to: “The aggressive and ideological marketisation of the English university system has destroyed much that was of value. Soaring pay for managers combined with casualisation of academic staff is a symptom of a deeper malaise. The combination of tuition fees with decades of housing market failure has placed an impossible and unjust burden on the young. … But right now, the priority must be to support universities through the crisis, and enable these hubs of science, culture and ideas – which are also major employers – to play their part in the national recovery. Four of Europe’s 30 universities disappeared in the wake of the Black Death. To allow the UK university sector to shrink following Covid-19 would only perpetuate the unimaginative short-termism that has so depleted the public sector over the past decade. As policymakers struggle to contain a disaster they failed to prepare for, it should be obvious how much we need our centres of learning.” Yes.

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  2. Thanks for these thoughts, Martin. It’s inspiring to see you raising these issues to the academic community, for it is still somewhat the act of the pariah. I agree with what you have written, it’s also my view that we are politically ill-prepared for this crisis, but I guess that’s what 40 years of neoliberal ideology and policy gets us. I think it’s very important that we start to unionize. Not only in direct response to current issues, but to prepare for the future and the economic crises that are on the horizon.

    I’d also like to stress that I think non-parliamentary political organs are an important locus of solidarity and resistance against these issues, too. So joining such groups is also an option, especially for those that have been somewhat radicalized by these issues. The reason I think this is because many of these issues, even those seemingly internal to the academic community, are broader issues of politics and governmental policy. And in order to make changes in this broader domain, it’s necessary to be politically involved in a manner that transcends term-limits, so that when issues like this come around again we have solid local and national networks of solidarity to mobilize and put pressure on governments to act. But also, more generally, I think being involved in such groups in large numbers can have a huge impact on shifting the ideological terrain.

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