What I learned at COCAL XI

August 13, 2014

[FYI: I had planned to write about COCAL already, but my union, APSCUF, asked me to write a piece for their blog. This is the piece I wrote for them, which will cross-post there. If you follow the APSCUF blog and want to talk about any of the issues here in terms of internal union discussions, let’s have that conversation there. –SK]

First, a loud thank you to APSCUF for sending me to New York City August 4-5 for the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor’s 11th biennial conference. If you’re unfamiliar with COCAL, the organization has emerged since the late 1990s as a–if not the–central venue in which adjunct activists collaborate to develop strategies and tactics to win better working conditions for contingent faculty. COCAL brings together contingent/adjunct activists from Canada and Mexico (both of which have hosted conferences) with their US counterparts, understanding contingency as a globalizing phenomenon.

I learned a lot at this conference, and before getting into the details, maybe the most important lesson is something I already realized (perhaps the most forceful statement of it by and for adjunct faculty comes from Keith Hoeller) but had reinforced more palpably than I could have imagined–

Lesson #1: While tenured and tenure-track faculty should and can be helpful advocates/allies for adjunct faculty equity, the real push for equity comes directly from adjunct faculty. I’m not sure how many other tenured/tenure-track people were there (I recognized a couple but expect there were some I just didn’t know), but the energy, talent, and commitment in the room were almost entirely adjunct-driven. If I could bring anything back to APSCUF from this conference, it’s a dose of that commitment for all adjunct members of the union; we know the talent and energy are here. The struggle for equity is everybody’s, including yours. 

Other people have covered the conference’s proceedings. This post from the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae section offers a coherent overview of events. Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the opening plenary session addresses the need to take direct action, including strikes (Stanley Aronowitz argued strongly for wildcat strikes; Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia, contended that any public employee besides emergency responders has a moral right to strike) and better to articulate the (academic) labor movement in terms of non-financial issues. Other panelists and audience members considered tactics available to faculty in non-union states. The second plenary, which I’ll say more about below, focused on specific strategies and tactics (mostly in union environments) for gaining and protecting contingent faculty power. The third plenary focused on linking arguments about contingent academic labor to issues of contingency in other labor sectors.

At that second plenary, called “Inside the Academy: The Cutting Edge,” I learned about a variety of efforts that I think translate pretty directly into possible APSCUF positions/actions:

Lesson #2: We need to support in every way we can SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign, along with similar AFT and USW metro organizing efforts, even in areas that don’t directly affect our members. USW has been working in Pittsburgh, and AFT is organizing across the Philly metro area as well as one campus in Pittsburgh. While APSCUF adjunct faculty are members of our bargaining unit already and won’t be targets of those efforts, there’s no reason that we can’t and shouldn’t offer support–to the extent that it’s welcome. Not only are better conditions for contingent faculty an obvious good, but often APSCUF adjunct faculty work at multiple institutions, and we’re benefiting them by working to improve those institutions. 

[Updated AUG 20: It’s also important that we support non-union contingent faculty organizing/activist efforts like the New Faculty Majority. NFM has been one of the driving forces behind Campus Equity Week; has been working at state and national levels on legislation (most recently Senator Durbin’s proposal to extend student-loan forgiveness eligibility to adjunct faculty who haven’t been able to maintain full-time schedules); and so on. 

Lesson #3: Genuine adjunct equity goes beyond compensation. Donna Nebenzahl, representing the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA), described their successes on two important fronts. In their last contract, they negotiated a $240,000 (Canadian dollars, but still) professional development fund specifically for part-time faculty. The dollar amount aside, the key concept is the commitment the union and university have made.  I strongly call on APSCUF to make a similarly strong commitment to our adjunct faculty, as members of our bargaining unit. Likewise, Condordia part-time faculty have (to borrow Nebenzahl’s words) “permeate[d] the governance of the university” by winning representation on hiring committees, curriculum committees, and other governing bodies. APSCUF permanent faculty members need to support our adjunct colleagues in this regard–there’s simply no good reason not to. 

Alternating with the plenaries, the other major events at the conference were three breakout meetings of “interest groups” focused on specific strategic problems: working with media; negotiating equity; legal issues (Affordable Care Act; discrimination issues; etc); building a national agenda (working with unions and other organizations across institutions and regions); and organizing (with) students. The charge for the interest groups was loose, but the gist was to develop a short strategy statement, and if there was time to develop whatever tactical recommendations we could in order to operationalize the strategy. I joined the student group, learning at the beginning of the first session that organizers expected us to stay in a group for all three (I had planned on attending the media and national agenda groups as well, but deferred to the preference of the people who had done the work of putting the conference together).

I wasn’t able to attend the closing session at which all five groups presented their final results, but (with the permission of our group members and facilitators) I can share what the student group developed, and one member of the national agenda group has already blogged theirs, a project they call the Democracy Index. That group is undertaking an effort that resonates with and builds from what many contingent labor activists have been trying to do for years–develop a method for praising institutions that do well by their adjunct faculty, and just as importantly, calling out institutions that do wrong. There have been attempts in my field (Composition/Rhetoric/English) to push our professional organizations (MLA, CCCC, NCTE) to censure departments/programs with bad labor practices, and the response has always been that bylaws (and, they argue, laws about non-profit status) prevent them from censuring/punishing anybody. The Democracy Index doesn’t call for censure, specifically, but instead proposes to publicize rankings and reports on institutions’ treatment of adjunct faculty: compensation, but also access to professional resources, academic freedom, and shared governance (see Lesson #2, above).

Lesson #4: Throughout the conference (and certainly in other adjunct activist venues), one of the common tensions is over how to prioritize compensation vs governance and professionalization issues. Is it more important to make sure everybody can pay their rent and buy food first, even if that comes at the expense of governance rights, or do we establish governance rights first in order to demand compensation equity more effectively? The answer to that is largely local, of course. APSCUF does reasonably well in terms of compensation, particularly for full-time adjunct faculty, but adjunct access to governance rights and professional development is inconsistently supported. We must do better. 

The interest group on organizing with students produced a statement of Core Principles and Practices (click this link to download the file, which we saved as Student Strategy Document). Our conversations focused on the need to balance the ethics of democratic organizing (not coercing students into supporting adjuncts), the common issues that students and adjunct faculty face, and the needs of adjunct faculty.

Lesson #5: The work we did in the student group reinforces the need for our Student-Faculty Liaisons, at both local and state levels, to be involved in efforts for faculty equity of all statuses, including adjuncts. Many of our students already work contingent jobs. Many will graduate and, without a tectonic shift in the economy, find other contingent jobs. We can fight contingency in unison, without exploiting students to do it, if we’re careful and attentive to the ethics of what we ask for. 

Again, I’m very grateful to APSCUF for sending me to New York, and I’m grateful to all the organizers and participants at the conference for their welcome, their energy, and a commitment I hope I can share across the union and with adjunct activists and sympathizers everywhere.

I’ll end with this request, a campaign I’m involved in that garnered some attention and support at the conference too. A few weeks ago, the good folks at State APSCUF posted a piece I wrote about this petition to David Weil at the Department of Labor , calling for signatures from faculty at all ranks/statuses, managers, staff, students, parents/guardians, families, anybody with an interest in quality higher ed. As of August 10, we’re approaching 6800 signatures. Please sign and share.



And another question about shared sacrifice

March 7, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote a critique of the current shared sacrifice trope in debates about budgets at federal and state levels.  The basic point, if you didn’t read it and don’t feel like reading it now, is that not only are the current budget-cutting efforts happening primarily on the backs of the non-rich, but that the rich are in fact benefitting from every single implication of those cuts.  It’s not even not-shared sacrifice; it’s actually redistribution of wealth and power from the bottom up.

Thinking this morning about our faculty union’s current negotiations, I have to ask the question in our context too.  We hear, over and over, that the current economic situation in our state is calling for shared sacrifice.  And our union, as we’ve made quite clear, understands the economic terrain–just as well or better than our system’s negotiators do, because we live with the consequences of it EVERY DAY.  I’m sorry, y’all, but that’s a divide that system management simply can’t cross.  We work, on the ground, with students, faculty, staff, and our local management; we see the direct implications of the state’s economic situation every time a student has to drop out of school because of financial problems, or a faculty member is retrenched, or another manager gets hired, or groundskeepers have to buy their own gloves and masks in order to be safe at their jobs, or…

So, when faculty sacrifice by taking on larger clases, more advisees, increased research expectations with decreased support, salaries that lag behind inflation even before you account for our increasing contributions to benefits packages (which I don’t begrudge, except to the extent that PASSHE management doesn’t seem especially inclined to do the hard work of fighting for better deals because the costs aren’t the same for them), shrinking academic freedom as teaching and research opportunities shrink in the face of increasing student bodies and mandatory “efficiencies” (like our state’s 60-credit transfer articulation agreement), …

Most of these sacrifices, management can make a case for on a one-by-one basis: accept larger classes in return for x; pay more for your benefits in return for y.  The problems are two:

(1) Taken together, they represent a huge problem.  It’s very, very difficult to do the job we’re hired for if every day we have to undertake another rear-guard action to protect our ability to do our jobs.  More directly–when we have to spend as much energy defending our work conditions as doing our work, there’s a big problem.  The problem is, as I think we call know, that anti-academic forces then use that problem as an argument against public higher education.  They get to say (although they’re lying) that faculty are greedy (we’re selling out our students in order to negotiate better contracts) and ineffective (we’re not working hard enough).  We all know that’s bullshit, but it plays well in the press.

(2) Closer to what I thought I’d be writing when I started this post–as faculty bargain away more and more of our positive working conditions in the face of supposed economic catastrophe, where’s the sharing?  That is, what is management giving up in return, and on what grounds are we faculty to believe it’s anywhere near proportional to our own sacrifices?  As faculty positions haven’t grown in proportion to increasing student bodies while management positions have skyrocketed, even as slight reduction on management hires doesn’t come close to balancing that out.  We also all know that because management salaries aren’t on steps or regular increments, they can play all sorts of accounting games with when and how raises are allocated (and often backpaid) so they can say they sacrificed the very raises they were still able to bank.

And beyond that, following closer the logic I started laying out yesterday, there’s an argument to be made that management doesn’t simply avoid sacrificing, but actually benefits when faculty gives up hard won territory.  When fewer of us are teaching more students, cobbling together more grants so we can afford to do any research, advising more, administering programs and departments with shrinking support, and all the rest of it, we’re also less likely to participate in shared governance (on whose time? with whose energy?); we (especially junior and temporary faculty) are scared for our jobs and less likely to make waves; we spend a lot more time doing management’s work for them (my last two CCCC papers are about the trickle-down of management work onto faculty, obscuring that phenomenon by calling it “shared governance”); and on and on.

I’m not as angry at our system management as I am at the Scott Walkers/Tom Corbetts/Chris Christies/Koch brothers/Tea Partiers of the world.  I’ve met a couple of our upper managers and, while I don’t especially appreciate some (most?) of the moves they make, I don’t distrust them personally.  Let’s put it this way–it very often doesn’t seem like their commitments to the work of the system are the same as ours.  There are lots of reasons that might be, and lots of ways of accounting for it, and even probably some good responses to it.

But for now, the important thing is that I see scant evidence that our state system is coming anywhere close to the level of sacrifice they continually ask faculty for, and it’s increasingly difficult to motivate faculty to keep sacrificing without some sense that we’re not the only ones doing it.

UPDATE: Comrade (!) Kevin Mahoney at the KUXchange has written extensively and convincingly about Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine, one of the more convincing descriptions of how PASSHE covers for its decisions in economic terms.  His colleague Amy Lynch-Biniek has done some good work calling attention to the inattention system management pays to what matters about teaching and learning, namely, teaching and learning.

Who Does That Help (redux)

February 22, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post contending that our faculty union ask the question, “Who does that help?” in response to every management initiative that seems to benefit nobody in any clear way.  The point is to remind management that beyond the spreadsheets, formulae, and policies are actual human lives that count for something–including their own! 

The events in Wisconsin, that is, the proposal that state employees lose collective bargaining rights so that the Governor can balance the budget (a claim that’s nonsense on its face), invite the same question.

If public employees in Wisconsin give up their right to bargain anything other than salary, who does that help?  It helps the insurance companies that can change fees and coverages willy-nilly because they’re not negotiable anymore; it benefits school system managers who can make and enforce absurd curricular and other working conditions demands; it benefits employees NOT AT ALL.  And neither does it solve a single penny of the budget “crisis.”

If the public employees accept the requirement that they have recertify their unions every year, who does that help?  It helps opponents of unions who get much more frequent opportunities to intervene in organizing efforts.  While some people might contend, “Well, that’s just democracy,” the fact that unions all have had certification elections in the first place (and could vote to decertify any time they wanted) makes that claim ancillary if not dishonest.  That is, for those of you who like to shout “Elections have consequences,” yes, they do! 

If public employees agree that non-union-members don’t have to pay fair share, who does that help?  It helps the employees who then ditch their union membership but still benefit from the work the unions do–unless the unions then decide not to represent those workers.  The reptilian part of my brain is OK with the idea that people could bail on their union memberships–if they then chose to negotiate their own salaries and benefits; if they never filed any grievances; if they never accepted any of the workplace protections the unions won for them; and so on.  No, I wouldn’t really want to see that. 

The short version is this: Governor Walker’s proposal helps the public-sector workers of Wisconsin NOT AT ALL.  It helps the working people of Wisconsin NOT AT ALL.  It helps wealthy private interests who want to bust unions.  It helps one political party that hates unions.  That is, it concedes huge amounts of political power to people whose ethics are already so questionable that to give them even more power is, at best, utterly and completely foolhardy. 

And who does THAT help?


Where were the Tea Partiers when…

January 7, 2011

This list flies around e-mail distribution lists from time to time.  A debate I was having on Facebook last night with a high school friend who’s very conservative made me think about it; I’m glad I saved it the last time I received it.


You didn’t get mad
when the Supreme Court stopped a legal
recount and appointed a President.

You didn’t get mad
when Cheney allowed Energy company
officials to dictate Energy policy and push us to invade Iraq.

You didn’t get mad
when a covert CIA operative got outed.

You didn’t get mad
when the Patriot Act got passed.

You didn’t get mad
when we illegally invaded a country that posed no threat to us.

You didn’t get mad
when we spent over 800 billion (and counting) on said illegal war.

You didn’t get mad
when Bush borrowed more money from
foreign sources than the previous 42 Presidents combined.

You didn’t get mad
when over 10 billion dollars in cash just disappeared in Iraq.

You didn’t get mad
when you found out we were torturing people.

You didn’t get mad
when Bush embraced trade and outsourcing
policies that shipped 6 million American jobs out of the country.

You didn’t get mad
when the government was illegally wiretapping Americans.

You didn’t get mad
when we didn’t catch Bin Laden.
You didn’t get mad
when Bush rang up 10 trillion dollars in combined budget and current account deficits.

You didn’t get mad
when you saw the horrible conditions at Walter Reed.

You didn’t get mad
when we let a major US city, New Orleans, drown.

You didn’t get mad
when we gave people who had more money
than they could spend, the filthy rich, over a trillion
dollars in tax breaks.

You didn’t get mad
with the worst 8 years of job creations in several decades.

You didn’t get mad
when over 200,000 US Citizens lost their
lives because they had no health insurance.

You didn’t get mad
when lack of oversight and regulations
from the Bush Administration caused US Citizens to lose 12
trillion dollars in investments, retirement, and home values.

You finally got mad

when a black man was elected President
and decided that people in America deserved the right
to see a doctor if they are sick. Yes, illegal wars, lies, corruption,
torture, job losses by the millions, stealing your tax dollars to make the
rich richer, and the worst economic disaster since 1929 were all okay with
but helping fellow Americans who are sick…Oh, Hell No!!


Giving up their healthcare isn’t the right thing to ask

January 4, 2011

So, Chuck Schumer is joining the chorus of “progressives” recommending that Republicans who oppose healthcare reform should give up their government-sponsored healthcare benefits.

While I don’t disagree with the principle (you hate public services, don’t use them), I think the argument here is really weak.  Why?  Because the millionaires who comprise most of the US Congress can afford to give up their government healthcare.  In other words, their hypocrisy isn’t the real problem.  The real problem is the utter failure of empathy that drives rich bastards to argue that poor people deserve to suffer and die because they’re poor.

So the proposal should go something like this:

Try living for a year on the very low pay and extremely poor benefits, if any, that most current US citizens are living on.  See what it feels like to have to choose between medicine and food for your kids.  See what it feels like to know you need medical help but simply can’t afford it.  See what it feels like to send your hungry children to school because you had to help your ailing parents pay for medicine.  See what it feels like to get booted off an insurance policy because of some trumped-up pre-existing condition (this happened to me; fortunately, the condition wasn’t anything life-threatening).

Then come back and tell the rest of us that we don’t deserve access to reasonable healthcare at reasonable prices.

If Republicans aren’t willing to experience the kind of life they’re causing others to have to live because of their extraordinary greed and cruelty, they should at least have to cop to their inhumaneness at loud, in public, every minute of every day.


Jobs and the stimulus

February 27, 2010

Early this week, in an exchange of letters to the editor in the West Chester Daily Local, a regular (as in often) conservative writer named Anthony Oleck responds to praise for the stimulus bill with this letter:


There’s a big difference

Stephanie Markstein, in her letter to the editor, wrongly asserts that the stimulus package was supported by “the greatest economists in the nation (and) all agree that, not only was it the right thing to do, but the only thing that has kept us out of a full-blown depression.”

You are confusing TARP with the boondoggle stimulus package. Economists mostly agreed that TARP, the bailout for the banks, was necessary to avert a full-fledged financial collapse.

Stimulus is nothing but a piggy bank for pork … plus it has not worked.

Obama said we needed it to keep unemployment below 8 percent, he passed it and unemployment immediately went to over 10 percent.

As far as the “saved jobs” he keeps touting … the stimulus may have saved and certainly did add government jobs, with big benefits and big pensions that we and our children will pay for from here to eternity … those are just the jobs we should be losing to help stimulate our economy and reduce our taxes.

Stimulus is a huge slush fund for Democrats to pay back their union friends.

Anthony J Oleck


I wrote a response that the Daily Local (understandably) declined to publish, and I want to post a revised version of it here because I think the discussion is worth continuing.

A version very similar to what I sent the DL:


Only somebody who hates the Democratic Party as much as Anthony Oleck does could believe that: (1) the stimulus is bad because it’s creating good jobs with good benefits; and (2) the cost of private sector versions of those jobs wouldn’t be passed along to consumers anyway.

Oleck’s argument is a strawman at its worst.  At a time when what we need most is to put people to work at decent wages and with decent benefits, complaining about who actually hires them reveals his true agenda–to attack Democrats no matter what they do.


To be more explicit (since I’m no longer bound by the DL’s length limits…

Stephanie Markstein, to whom Oleck is replying, is actually correct.  The huge majority of economists supported the stimulus.  Those who didn’t were universally conservatives who reject any form of government intervention in anything besides abortion/birth control, and/or prayer/creationism in schools, and/or …  Most critiques of the stimulus from economists without neoconservative axes to grind critiqued it for being too SMALL, not too big, a critique I agree with.

The evidence is clear, and getting clearer every day, that stimulus has in fact kept unemployment from getting worse.  Yes, the number of unemployed has gone up during the Obama presidency, but to pin that on the stimulus is short-sighted at best, disingenuous (read, a lie) at worst.  There was no doubt that the economy hadn’t bottomed out yet (in fact probably still hasn’t).

As I note in my original letter, Oleck reveals his real agenda in his letter.  He doesn’t care the least bit about people; he wants only to attack Democrats.  The simple facts of the matter are that more jobs are better than fewer, and more jobs that pay reasonable salaries and benefits are better than fewer.  The “free market” (read, unregulated orgy of exploitation) has had plenty of chances to hire and pay workers.  Instead, corporations have downsized and off-shored, leaving millions of capable workers in this country in the lurch.  These are the people Oleck trusts to fix the very problem they’ve created, out of the goodness of their hearts?  Ridiculous. How could anybody who cares about people decry the creation of good jobs?

Oleck’s claim that the stimulus was a payoff to labor unions is just a gratuitous cheapshot at unions and the President.  Given the President’s unwillingness to push EFCA; to use recess appointments to put capable members on the NLRB; to push for taxing the very health plans that unions have fought hard to earn; it’s very clear that Obama is no friend of organized labor.  He’s not as hostile to it as most Republicans are, but his track record shows, without question, that he’s the last person who would “pay off” the unions.

After years of neo-conservative babble and hostility towards labor and laborers, Oleck’s position shouldn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t.  However, it’s incumbent upon those of us who actually give a sh*t about anybody but ourselves to lay bare the truth behind these arguments.  I don’t think Oleck is malicious in his intentions, but he (and people like him who articulate these kinds of positions) show without a doubt that they don’t much care about what happens to the huge majority of their fellow citizens.  They don’t much care about people who can’t get work because the “free market” has ruined the job market for its own profit.  They don’t much care about people who have to choose between rent, food, and medical treatment.  They don’t much care about anything except attacking a President whose positions, when seen through the lens of reality, are much closer to their own then they’d ever want to admit.


WordPress’ “related posts” links sent me to this entry on somebody else’s blog.  It’s an excellent compendium of all the Republicans who voted against the stimulus but then asked for stimulus money.  Across the board, they argue that it’s appropriate to accept money they voted against, without recognizing that their own “principled stands” get compromised in the process.



Obama and Socialism redux

February 10, 2010

Dear Tea Party Activists:

When are you going to get this?  I’m not talking about the Republicans in Washington, DC, or the ones who write the talking points memos.  I’m talking to you, the “activists,” the ones who believe you’re the vanguard of a revolution.

It’s hard to be the vanguard of revolution when you’re such buffoons.  Here’s a simple example of how flagrantly wrong you are–

Barack Obama is not a socialist.  He’s not anti-capitalist.  He doesn’t advocate workers’ controlling the means of production.  He doesn’t advocate government control of much of anything.

Your leadership keeps telling you contradictory things, both of which you continue to repeat willy-nilly.  On the one hand, they tell you Obama is a socialist.  On the other, they tell you he’s in bed with the banks, financial planners, pharmaceutical companies, and insurers.  If your IQ is above 20 or so, you ought to see the problem with that.  It’s NOT POSSIBLE to be both anti-corporate and in bed with corporations at the same time.

I would agree, without a second’s hesitation, that the second claim is true.  Obama is as or more pro-corporate than George W. Bush or any Republican has ever been.

So, before you hit the streets with signs accusing Barack Obama of taking two contradictory positions, open your damn eyes.  This isn’t complicated at all.

UPDATED 3:26 PM 2/10/2010:

As if you needed more evidence showing how pro-corporate Obama is (which obviously you do, or you’d quit calling him a Socialist)–


In this article, Obama equates high salaries for talented professional athletes with large bonuses for “savvy” bankers.