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Executive Committee:

Maria Maisto, Past Chair Jan. 2017
Lee Skallerup Bessette, Chair, Jan. 2018
Virginia Cooper, Secretary, Jan. 2019
Maria Grewe, Jan 2020
Robin Sowards, Jan 2021

Low-Wage Work: The Boundary Condition of University Labor

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    Lenora Hanson

    This year the MLA Executive Council is sponsoring the roundtable session “Low-Wage Work: The Boundary Condition of University Labor” on Saturday, January 7th from 8:30-9:45 in 103A, Pennsylvania Convention Center. Please share information about this session widely:

    Participants include: Laura Goldblatt, Global Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Virginia and member of the Living Wage Campaign; Pele IrgangLaden, organizer with 15Now at Temple University; Maricruz Manzanarez, Custodial Staff at the University of California-Berkeley and member of the Executive Board of AFSCME 3299; Wende Marshall, Adjunct Instructor of Anthropology and Intellectual Heritage at Temple University and member of United Academics of Philadelphia; and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, a recent PhD in American Studies at New York University whose dissertation focused on the history of service work since the mid-twentieth century at U.S. universities.

    Roundtable description:
    In 1996, Robin D.G. Kelley wrote that, “universities might ultimately be the source of a new radical vision, but instead of looking to the attendant culture wars, we should pay more attention to the cafeteria.” Writing in the wake of Yale’s incredible crackdown on graduate student unionization efforts in the early 90’s, Kelley proposed that the kind of university being demanded by such student organizing could only be built through solidarity with campus service workers. And that project would require treating the university first and foremost as a site of low-wage, and thus (from his perspective as a historian and practitioner of critical race studies) racialized and gendered, labor. Twenty years later, Kelley’s call for a decision to undo academic and non-academic divisions seems timely and, as Nick Mitchell’s 2015 “Theses on Adjunctification” suggested, unheeded. In those theses Mitchell both echoed Kelley and reflected on the professoriate’s response to his challenge since, writing, “We can’t understand adjunctification without understanding how it emerged through forms of consensus perpetuated not only by university administration but by the credentialed majority of the university professoriate itself.” Read together, Kelley and Mitchell helpfully historicize the expansion of low-wage work within instructional spheres as at least partially a product of our failure to, as Kelley wrote, “pay more attention to the cafeteria.”

    These histories highlight what we could call the “Boundary Conditions” of academic and non-academic labor in the university. This special session responds to that theme by proposing a conversation about alternative ways of drawing the lines around working conditions. At a time when adjunct unionization seems to be taking off and conversations about precarious labor in the university are being held across professional organizations, Kelley, Mitchell and others remind us that the vast majority of low-wage labor takes place not in classrooms but in cafeterias. But when we approach labor activism on our campuses and universities, do we privilege instructional work at the cost of service work? What risks do we take when “rank and file” is defined in ways that divide adjunct workers from those who cook meals, deliver food, clean offices, clear landscapes, and perform the labor that literally keeps the university running? What obstacles do we face when we forgo such distinctions in favor of what the Presidential Theme describes as the “parameters that define the space within which one seeks solutions”?

    This panel addresses those questions in particular to adjunct and graduate student members of the organization. It asks them to consider why boundaries of labor continue to be drawn by reference to bargaining units and employment categories. Traditional modes of unionization often encourage workers to organize as blocs, based either on industry or position. Thus demands made by student workers, part time and full time contingent instructors, and non-academic workers oftentimes remain separate, despite the fact that, in toto, these workers constitute the surplus population of cheap labor upon which university relies. Indeed, university administrators depend on that surplus pool of exchangeable workers, whether they work in classrooms as teachers or janitors, when they balance the books.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that adjunct and graduate labor has ballooned simultaneously, although not proportionally, with the growth of service sector employment at universities. With that reality in mind, this panel invites MLA members to discuss how the expanding population of low-wage workers within the university can become a source of solidarity for improving the conditions for all. Solidarity organizing is not simply based on aspirations for upward mobility or better wages. Rather it works through what Jane MacAlevey has described as the struggle to raise expectations for the collective quality of life in a larger community. “Raising expectations” for all low-wage and contingent workers will require revisions to traditional boundaries that continue to circumscribe union and labor organizing on our campuses.

    Recent events show those classificatory borders to be already shifting under our feet. In 2013 graduate student and undergraduate student workers went out on solidarity strike with AFSCME 3299, which represents campus service and patient care workers. Parental solidarity with the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike in 2012 enabled wide popular support of that action in Chicago. Recent mass walkouts in K-12 schools across the U.S. in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have been organized on the basis of a solidarity that extends beyond traditional identity and worker boundaries. And a growing body of scholarship in Black Studies, Ethnic Studies and Critical University Studies demonstrates that we cannot separate the rise of adjunct labor in universities from the larger austerity and criminalization measures under neoliberalism, which targeted people of color and women. From an intersectional position, the boundary conditions of labor are not lines drawn between workers but rather lines drawn around the expanding number of workers facing economic precarity and institutional violence.


    • This topic was modified 6 years, 4 months ago by Lenora Hanson.
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