Friday Jun 02

Spring 2023

EXCERPT - Who is the Enemy? Who are Our Allies?

From Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education. 

This is a slightly revised chapter from our book, Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education.  The book begins with a four-chapter case study of the “revolution” in the California Faculty Association (CFA, that represents 23,000 majority contingent non-tenure track faculty in the California State University system) that laid the basis for what was at the time probably the best contract for contingents in the US. Our chief informant was our deceased co-author John Hess, the key leader of the Lecturers in the CSU over 30 years. We follow this by a brief history of US higher education from the point of view of the workforce, a comparison of “blue sky” ideal working conditions with what they look like in the CFA contract, and seven chapters focusing on what we call “troublesome questions”. These are questions that arise in all campus labor organizing and among most other workforces as well. The except below is one of our troublesome questions. Our book ends with a critical evaluation of movement strategies and a projection into the future. As authors, we have to note that this movement is rising faster than we could project in 2021. Higher Education Labor United (HELU, at has articulated a “wall to wall and coast to coast” plan for organizing and coordinated bargaining. With a unified national voice for higher ed labor, now supported by 13 different national unions,  we are, as a movement, already looking beyond the “blue sky” program we visualized in 2021.

We talk about fights, tactics, struggles, wins and losses. We use language that suggests war. At the same time, we keep working, doing our jobs as well as possible in the same institutions where we are doing our fighting. Teaching is a labor of love. So who is the enemy? Even in a healthy union, this is a difficult discussion to have.  In each case, the definition emerges in practice.

Our immediate supervisors

When looking for the enemy, we are likely to start with the people who are officially in charge of our working conditions on a daily basis. These are department chairs, program directors, coordinators, assistant deans, full- time tenure-line faculty, and sometimes even other contingents who have been delegated to implement the system. They have a great deal of power over our immediate work lives. On the one hand, they hire us, evaluate us, reward us with assignments, and can make life fairly easy for us. But they are also the people who can deny us a library card, ignore the contract, discriminate in giving out class assignments, “de-schedule” us, ignore us in making curriculum decisions, cancel classes before enrollment is complete, read but fail to investigate our student complaints, tell us where we can park, make decisions that affect us without asking for our input, and disrespect us on a daily basis. This is a close, complex relationship, charged with difficult emotions. But it is a mistake to assume they are necessarily the enemy, or the main enemy. Their power has a higher source.

The next level up

Our immediate bosses are bound by constraints they only partly control. They are themselves employees who get their power from the structure of higher education institutions. We need to trace the power train up, through deans, vice presidents, provosts, boards of trustees, donors, legislatures and big capital itself. All the way up this power train, our precarity serves some purpose. In different ways, someone at each level benefits from it. Eventually, we end up with a fairly small group of people who govern not only our own institutions but higher education in general as a part of the country’s political economy. We rarely get to meet these other people.

When Alisa Messer was president of AFT Local 2121 at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) during an existential struggle for the survival of the college, she said, “We have a hard time putting a face on the enemy.” The Australian Mike Newman, a leading adult and union educator, titled one of his books Defining the Enemy, which underlines the importance of making “Who is the enemy?” a key strategic question. He says that the purpose of adult education is to define the enemy concretely, down to giving an actual name and address.

In order to see clearly who these people are, we have to draw the class line. Then, when we raise the level of struggle, we find that some people at the lower levels can be our tactical allies. An obvious example happened during the wave of teacher strikes in 2018–19. In many states, school administrators and teachers’ and other unions found themselves on the same side.

Raising the level of struggle: the example of grievances

A lot of the daily work of a union revolves around enforcing the contract, participating in union committees, making presentations, handling grievances, etc. This can feel like a hamster-on-the-treadmill trap unless we think of it as a way to lift our attention higher, past the immediate manager, to the source of the power that is exercised over us. What to do with a grievance is a question that can open up this discussion. The limits of the lower-level administrators’ power can be revealed when we do this.

For example, we can resolve an individual grievance and help make whole one worker, or, since many injuries affect all of us, we can file a collective grievance on behalf of the union. Collective grievances are also public grievances. They become news both for the membership and for the enemy at all levels. They balance the limited powers of low-level administrators with the equal and rising power of the union. The union may lay out a path of least resistance for whatever administrator is immediately responsible, but if that person’s powers are limited and they can’t walk down that path, the whole issue can be pushed up another level. This can reveal what interests are at stake for those at the level above. It requires some kind of leader, however, to perceive this and point it out.

Where there are enemies, there are allies

The question is not “Is this person a friend, or even a good person?” The question is “What is their interest?” Being clear about this is hard for us as purveyors of a public good (higher education), and especially for those of us employed in the public sector. But just because we provide a public good does not mean that other workers see their interests aligned with ours. Alliances do not come automatically. They have to be built.

You would expect that building a broad base for public support for our struggles would be easy, since “our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” and our students themselves are a mass base. However, we don’t have power like that of workers who produce refrigerators, hamburgers, Internet communications, transportation and other commodities. These workers can directly impact the profits of capitalists by withdrawing their labor; we cannot. The main aspect of our work— teaching—does not directly produce private profits except in for-profit colleges. We have to appeal to the public as fellow workers in an essential industry doing the necessary labor of social reproduction. On the other hand, should we come to the point of withdrawing our labor, as in the 2017–19 wave of teacher strikes, our mass base and their families experience a major public inconvenience. The potential backlash from this can best be managed if alliances are well established in advance.

In the months and years before their 2012 strike, the Chicago teachers of AFT Local 1, the CTU, researched and wrote a report published as a pamphlet called The Schools Chicago Students Deserve. It made the argument for how good schools for Chicago’s 400,000 students were not only needed but possible, and also clearly identified what obstacles would have to be removed: the school district administration, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board. One effect of this document was to bring parents and students into alliance with the striking teachers. The nine-day strike was a citywide celebration of support for the teachers. People said, “They turned Chicago red,” referring to the red T-shirts and “Red for Ed(ucation).” After winning substantial improvements in the 2012 contract, they struck again in 2019 and won another partial, but substantial, victory over the new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who had postured as a friend of education.

Dividing, isolating, conquering

One way to identify the enemy is to ask who is attempting to divide us and how. Is some institutional practice encouraging competition among faculty? Examples would be “merit” pay or a sort-and-discard approach to grading students If tenure-line faculty are assigned to evaluate or supervise us, that may make them seem like the enemy. Or if student evaluations and complaints are used as the sole criteria for evaluation, it may seem as if students are the enemy. But who designed that policy? Neither tenure-line faculty nor students run the system. They are instruments given these assignments, so we have to look beyond them to see where the assignments are coming from and who has the actual power.

The distortions of human relationships under capitalism are things we encounter every day in our work. We see this in the sharpest form in the for-profit part of the higher education industry. We have to look past the distortion to find the original, human connection, based on material reality, which is where we will find our allies.

Campus labor coalitions

When we scan the categories of employee groups at institutions of higher education to find out who else is engaged in struggles, we see some potential allies. Herbert and Apkarian’s 2019 article summarized work stoppages in higher education and reported that the most common group to carry out work stoppages is non-academic workers, who carried out 21 out of a total 43. Between contingent and tenure-line bargaining units, there were 14 work stoppages (contingent faculty units six, combined units eight) and graduate students, who have many fewer units total in the country, carried out seven.

Non-academic workers on any campus include custodians, drivers, machinists, food service workers, clerical workers, all the building trades, landscapers, non-management administrators, and just about every other kind of work necessary to a society—and this is in addition to the many kinds of academic workers. Many of them are unionized. Some are simultaneously students taking classes while working. Some are also teaching.

Graduate employees—research assistants, post-docs, teaching assistants who often carry large classes and function as faculty of record—have been organizing actively over the last thirty years. They have recently been joined by undergraduate student workers. Interestingly, this experience has led many students to decide they would rather be union organizers than professors. Some have become both. In places where they have organized, they have often played the role of sparking a higher level of activity among other unions and new organization among other workers, and generally providing the youthful energy that has made the campus labor movement one of the most encouraging spaces in the whole labor movement. Their ongoing legal struggle to gain employee status in the private sector and in many states in the public sector is one of the longest running legal issue battles that the labor movement confronts. For contingent faculty in particular, relations with graduate employees have not been untroubled, since many grad employees, especially at elite universities, still see themselves as likely on the path to tenure-line jobs and are easily led to see contingents as the “failed ones.”

A campus labor coalition, including pro-labor student groups, can bring the strength of these different groups together for mutual support. These are long-term projects that pay off in terms of years and even decades. “Mutual” means that faculty cannot expect the support of the custodians unless the custodians can expect the support of the faculty in their own struggles. In order for the labor coalition to develop power, the faculty cannot expect to act like teachers or wise older siblings in this context. Faculty’s readiness to learn the complex and significant lessons from the work situation of fellow workers can make or break a campus coalition. Examples of faculty’s failure to understand their proper role in these alliances are unfortunately many and historic. A labor education or labor studies program can provide some support and direction, since it will have roots in both labor and academia.

Tactical alliances: “We walk with them as far as we can”

A good point about allies was made by a leader of the Iraqi Oil Workers union. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a group of US labor organizations and individual rank-and-file activists made an effort to speak in labor’s voice against the war and build solidarity with labor and working-class forces in Iraq. As part of their organizing effort, US Labor Against the War (USLAW) set up an exchange. Iraqi trade unionists came to the US twice and a delegation of US trade unionists went to Iraq. One of their events took place in Chicago at the United Electrical Workers Hall (UE) on Ashland Avenue. The Iraqis described how they opposed the takeover and subsequent denationalization of the Iraqi oil fields by the US occupation forces. To do this, they worked with their bosses in the Iraqi oil industry. An American asked how the union could work with their bosses. The Iraqi oil union leader said, “We walk with them as far as we can.”

This is a very clear example, under extreme, even life-and-death, conditions, of the distinction between tactical allies and opponents and strategic allies and opponents. The oil industry management were tactical allies for Iraqi workers against US imperialism and privatization, but US workers and their unions can be strategic allies. For us as contingent faculty, the same might apply to our tactical alliances with university and college management, especially in the public sector, when we fight for adequate funding from government while at the same time recognizing that ultimately, our interests strategically diverge from management as a group.

What side are you on? Class consciousness and class analysis

If you know you are making a tactical alliance, you must clearly visualize and plan for the moment when the path along which you walk together separates and you go in a new direction. As leaders, your plan for this change must be made clear in advance to the rank and file. Failing to do this puts the leadership at risk of posing for photographs smiling with management at one point and then being quoted as adversarial the next day—a shift that causes confusion and cynicism among the rank and file if they are not prepared for it and were not included in the strategic decision making that led to it.

There is a famous poster from Pressgang Publishers (Toronto, 1978) that hangs on many walls in the homes of people who worked in the civil rights, anti-war, and other movements. A working-class woman of indeterminate race is leaning on a fence that probably separates two backyards in a working-class neighborhood. She’s frowning but calm; she is thinking. The words printed below the image are “Class consciousness is knowing which side of the fence you are on. Class analysis is figuring out who is there with you.”

Students as allies

The first circle of possible allies is our students, the people we are alone with every day in the classroom, sharing the same conditions and limitations that we experience. They are also often the closest relationships that we develop, since many of us as contingents have to make a special effort to develop relationships outside our classroom.

There are two key factors that can point us in the direction of effective alliances with our students. We need to come out of the closet to our students, who otherwise have no way of knowing that their teacher is a per- class contingent and not a professor with a capital “P” with tenure and a very different life. In addition, we need to recognize that we and most of our students are part of the working class and are fundamentally on the same side—our side—in the world. Once these two conditions are met, experience has shown that students will rally in large numbers in our support, often with creative ways and impactful results.

Immediately after the 1999 Revolution in the California Faculty Association (CFA) in the California State University System, it was the faculty of color who had a particularly close and sympathetic relationship with the students of color on the campuses. They proposed to the CFA that the union strategically prioritize organizing this growing group of students and students in general. Both the organizer John Hess and Susan Meisenhelder, who was CFA president at the time, saw these alliances as crucial. Organizations of faculty of color within the CFA were themselves engaging in an Inside/Outside strategy arising from their similar positions as second-class citizens in academia.  By this we mean that they were taking care to organize themselves as a group outside the formal structure of the CFA and getting on the same page with each other, before (and while) engaging with the union as members of the overarching union.

The discussion and acceptance of this proposal to prioritize, fund and allow some creative autonomy to the students of color organizing helped, over the years, to solidify support for the union among faculty of color, whose support could not be just presumed. It also made the union stronger and enhanced the position of the faculty of color within the union. This was a clear example of the Inside/Outside strategy working successfully.

Are tenure-line faculty allies?

Of all the relationships that contingent faculty manage in our daily work, those with tenure line faculty are the most challenging. This relationship is very close to home, as close as our relationship with students. The contrast between the conditions under which tenure line faculty do their work and the conditions under which we do our largely identical work is stark. They supervise us, evaluate us, and choose to take classes (as in summer sessions and through overload) which we would otherwise teach. Contingents have to manage this relationship individually and collectively every day.

As a relationship that is both intimate and power-based, it can be compared to a painfully dysfunctional family relationship, except that it cannot be fixed by therapy. The condescension and disrespect that we experience on a daily basis impact even the most confident and self-assured among us. Over time, this can harden into deep resentment, distrust and paralyzing fear.

Our key consideration in dealing with tenure-line faculty should be that the strategy for contingents should not be structured around an anticipated or even an actual reaction from tenure-line faculty. They will have their own ideas about what contingents should or can do, and they will expect to be listened to. Listening is one thing, however: giving over power is another. In designing strategy, contingents have to focus on our own capacities and strengths, not on how our actions will be interpreted or reacted to by tenure-line faculty. This requires facing and overcoming fears accumulated over years of humiliation. But when we organize ourselves and make our own decisions, we can have relationships of solidarity rather than be grateful recipients of fleeting condescension.

Effective strategies for contingents will likely violate the expectations of tenure-line faculty. A pivotal point for John Hess was his epiphany after realizing that the tenure-line faculty organizations were coming to the Lecturers’ Council meetings to listen in while contingent faculty were learning about organizing. He heard himself say to himself, about the tenure-line faculty: “They have nothing to teach us.” For CFA activists who were organizing among the Lecturers, there was no turning back after that.