The dirty secret of higher education in the United States is that the entire system depends upon the systematic exploitation of the majority – the super majority – of those who teach in its classrooms. As much as the right wing wants to point to the problem of “tenured radicals” warping the minds of good, wholesome American boys and girls, the fact remains that “tenured radicals” represent a micro-minority within the smallest portion of the nation’s faculty. Thanks to recent campaigns to raise the minimum wage, some splashy articles in Salon, the shameful death of an adjunct faculty member at Dusquesne University, and the unrelenting advocacy of organizations like the COCAL (Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor) and the New Faculty Majority the exploitation of part-time and adjunct faculty is back in the news.
But, as anyone who is works as a contingent faculty member or who fights to stop this exploitation can attest, we’ve been here before and if anything, conditions have only gotten worse since the 2010 Tea Party victories and the brutal austerity measures carried out in states across the country. If you have felt a growing, visceral rage at deepening labor exploitation in higher education over the past few years, then you might not be surprised by the explosive Twitter conversation this past weekend using the #BurnItDown hashtag. People Tweeting with the #BurnItDown hashtag were ripping off the bandages and scabs that have covered over the conditions of adjuncts for way too long. And this time, if the tone and outrage turn into political action, contingent faculty will not be tamed with lip service equity from their institutions or half-promises to be “treated with respect” from their more privileged, tenured colleagues. If rage turns to political action, this time it’s for keeps.
If you have no idea what is going on with #BurnItDown or you still think that Twitter is only a space for people to post pictures of their cats, here’s a little window into the #BurnItDown Twitter feed:
When waterfalls, climbing walls & presidential penthouses have priority over teaching and learning conditions, it’s time to #BurnItDown
— Despicable G (@GracieG) September 27, 2014
7 classes, 6 campuses and about 1000 miles of driving a week, all for less than I’d make as masseuse #BurnItDown
— Mike Pirrotta (@psychprof85) September 28, 2014
Seriously, we’re not working for $3/hr with a PhD anymore. BURN. IT. DOWN. #BurnItDown
— Agent Adjunct (@AgentAdjunct) September 27, 2014
(Want more? Check out my Storify story “#BurnItDown | Ripping the Scab Off Higher Education Labor Conditions“)
Despite the fact that some higher education unions and academic associations were eventually forced to recognize and respond to the rapid growth of contingent labor in American colleges and universities, their responses have often felt a little too tepid and a little too late. When faculty at the nations most prestigious institutions are forced to apply for food stamps or sell plasma to make ends meet, another study of the problem of contingent labor feels like another punt – especially if you are the one having to sell your plasma.
Some unions have started to organize adjuncts more aggressively than ever before and there have been several important victories over the past few years. However, instead of taking on the hard work of building a movement to turn back the assault on higher education, academics – especially tenure and tenure track academics – often cling to crumbs of cultural privilege or circle the wagons to preserve their ever shrinking intellectual outposts. Add to that the reluctance adjuncts have had for speaking out against their conditions for fear of losing their jobs and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
But #BurnItDown may indicate that conditions have gotten so bad and have been so bad for so long that adjuncts have reached a point of no return – that there is nothing left to lose. It’s either stand up and fight back or further sink into poverty and watch higher education become a mockery of everything that got them into the profession to begin with. And as tenured and tenure-track faculty have proven to be unreliable allies even as their own jobs have come under assault, #BurnItDown participants and countless adjuncts across the country seem ready to leave their colleagues in the dust and exercise their power.
What power, you ask? The only power that has ever mattered in political movements: numbers. The fact is that contingent faculty make up 75% or more of the higher education workforce. That’s why the New Faculty Majority is called “The New Faculty Majority.” Even if I were to be cynical and assume only 5% of tenured and tenure track faculty would ally themselves with contingent faculty, the slogan “The University Works Because We Do,” is not simply a slogan. It’s a fact. And like workers of all stripes have learned over the course of history, the power to retake and remake higher education rests in the refusal to be complicit and the refusal to submit to dehumanizing working conditions. The halls of a university building may not be same as an assembly line in an auto plant, but both come to a screeching halt when workers sit down and occupy their workplaces. It’s not brain surgery, but it is hard. The question is what is harder? Living under current conditions or taking the risk to stand up and fight back.
In his book, Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite, Bruce Levine argues that while there are real challenges in collective organizing, they are not as hard to overcome as some believe. But it’s important to understand, according to Levine, that the answer to exploitative, oppressive conditions is not to find out more facts, or read more studies about how bad things are. Rather, Levine argues that in every instance – from the Populists Movement to the Flint Sit Down Strikes to the Civil Rights Movement – the answer lies in everyday acts of resisting illegitimate authority. And, yes, that is risky but there is no short cut around it. As Levine put it in an interview he did on the Rick Smith Show,
the good thing is that …you realize don’t have to wait for election day, you don’t have to wait for every four years to vote for the lesser of two evils. There’s things we could be doing every day to get back our courage, get back our balls, and a lot of that is from the integrity you get from resisting illegitimate authority and the solidarity you get from supporting other people who are resisting illegitimate authority in their life.
As anyone who has ever done political organizing knows on some level, standing up and fighting back feels good. That fear you might feel in anticipation of an action begins to fade as you fight back with others. Yes, it might be risky, but fighting back with others, telling our stories out loud with others, begins to lessen that fear and reluctance.
#BurnItDown may very well be one of those moments people look back upon and say that was the day they decided: “enough is enough.”