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.


[Self] Pep Talk

March 10, 2011

[WARNING: the “pep talk” part of this takes a while to get to…and it’s probably not all that peppy, but headed in the right direction I think…]

Hard to watch or read any news for the last few weeks and not feel a growing sense of doom for those of us who strongly support labor–not just “working people” or “the middle class” (which are categories so diffuse that they don’t capture much anymore), but Labor, as a movement.

Yesterday we took hits in Wisconsin, which most of us know about, and Michigan, which took me by surprise.  The day before, PA’s new Republican Governor, Tom Corbett, offered up a budget proposal that slashes state funding for public universities (already hovering just over 30% of our operating budgets) in half; demanding salary and benefits givebacks from public unions (at least he said it directly); and so on.  We know about the passage of SB5 in Ohio, which will likely pass the House and be signed into law soon.  Idaho legislators have voted to strip K-12 teachers of collective bargaining rights.

And this is, as we all know, just the beginning.  Actually, no it isn’t.  The effort to kill labor has been growing, steadily, for a long time now.  Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the Air Traffic Controllers’ union is a more (but still not entirely accurate) marker of the onset of this strategy.  We can leave it to the labor historians to duke out dates, but the point is that what we’re seeing right now isn’t new; it’s more frontal and more public than we’ve seen–as far as I know, we haven’t seen this level of attack on organized labor since about the 1940s)–but it hasn’t popped up from nowhere.

A lot of my liberal friends will disagree with me here (although a lot will agree, too), but one of the major enablers of the current attacks on labor is the national Democratic Party, which has taken Labor for granted for a very long time now.  And that’s partly Labor’s fault, too, for living in an “At least they’re not Republicans” paradigm.  Dems know Labor won’t desert them, so they vacuum up campaign contributions and organizing/mobilizing energy during elections and then do nothing to support Labor in between.  The Dems could have passed EFCA quite easily had they wanted to, instead of just sweeping it under the rug.  The Dems could have told the Republicans to shove the Bush tax cuts up their bums because we need that money to pay things that actual human beings need.  But they haven’t, and there’s little reason to believe that will change in any future I can imagine.

So where does that leave the actual working people, the people on whose labor this country depends, to turn for support?  All that’s really left, it seems, is each other.  There are millions of us.  We don’t have the cash that Waltons and Kochs and Gateses and Soroses have on hand.  We don’t have the weapons that wingnut militias have lying around.  We don’t have legislatures in our pockets like our self-appointed neo-liberal corporate masters have.

And you know what?  I’m finding myself less and less troubled about those problems as every minute goes by.  Why?  Because the institutions they ru[i]n only continue to work as long as we the people continue to support them.

Whose money are the rich stealing?  Ours!  How do we stop that from happening?  Don’t spend money on stupid crap; buy from union shops; tell the bad guys that you’re boycotting them; make a stink in every setting where people are giving money to culprits of exploitation.

Why do corrupt quasi-representative government institutions continue to sell us down the river?  Because we let them–by voting, or not voting, and then pretending like we’ve discharged our duty as citizens until the next Election Day.  We have to make demands and fight for them.  We have to confront lawmakers and executives face-to-face.  We have to demand that the self-annointed answer hard questions in public, and lambaste their empty answers.

On Facebook yesterday, two of my friends started calling for a General Strike, and quite honestly I think we have to start thinking about that.  If Labor, as a movement, is going to mean anything in this country, it’s time for its proponents to think really hard about throwing down the gauntlet.  For too long, our culture has subscribed to the “What’s good for _____ [fill in the blank with corporate quasi-capitalist behemoth] is good for America” logic, and it’s proven time and again to be a lie.  Why not, “What’s good for American workers is good for America?”

What’s so damn hard about that?

Or put another way:  We’ve allowed ourselves to be pigeon-holed as a “special interest” for too long.  What could be less “special interest” than the basic economic security of the huge majority of the population?  There is only a small cabal (the real “special interests”) to whom our basic economic security doesn’t matter.  We can no longer wait around for those very elite, wealthy, selfish, solipsistic, inhumane people to come to their senses, to wake up, to have an epiphany, to see the Lord (or Karl Marx, or Lech Walesa, or whoever).  We can do this without them.


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.

Another open letter to Governor Scott Walker

February 28, 2011

[The first one of these I posted, last week, wasn’t really an open-letter–it was just a blog post acting like a letter.  This is the letter I just sent to Governor Walker, at govgeneral@wisconsin.us.  Send one too!]

Governor Walker:

As a resident of another state (PA), I understand that your concern
with outsiders’ perception may be minimal.  However, it’s important to
many of us around the country that you understand our response to your
budget repair bill, and our support for the protests happening around
the Capitol Building.

In short, it’s become abundantly clear to all of us, despite your
attempts to argue differently, that the budget problems are simply a
pretext for busting the unions.  We know this based on two items.
First, the unions have publicly agreed to your budget demands, and you
refuse even to acknowledge, much less negotiate, much less accept
their concessions.  As a result, it’s clear as day that you have no
real interest in resolving the short-term budget problem.  Second,
while I don’t approve of Ian Murphy’s prank phone-call tactic, the
results of that call make very clear that you, as a collaborator with
the very publicly, very virulently anti-union Koch Brothers, intend to
break the unions–even though you say out loud that your intention is

You’re the Governor, obviously.  You have some legal authority to make
some decisions, and you have some responsibility to the voters who
elected you; we all understand that.  However, the citizens of your
state, and those of us around the country who are watching, are
becoming more and more skeptical of your motives.  Every time you
repeat the canard that the budget problem demands flexibility, while
at the same time you refuse to accept the exact concessions that would
fix the problem, it makes you look bad.  Every time you repeat the
canard that you’re not trying to bust the unions, even though most of
the relevant sections of the bill have absolutely nothing to do with
economic issues, it makes you look bad.  Every time you tell a Koch
brother, real or fictional, that you only decided not to provoke riots
in Madison because you thought it might make you look bad, you look

Do the right thing, Governor.  Negotiate with the unions.  It’s very,
very simple.  And as an academic, I rarely believe anything is simple.

Seth Kahn
West Chester, PA

“Who does that help?”

February 8, 2011

At last weekend’s APSCUF Legislative Assembly, delegates were treated to a Q&A session from our recently hired Chief Negotiator Stewart (or Stuart?) Davidson.  I won’t talk here about the specifics of what he said, except to say that he was impressive.

A comment he made about how he approaches negotiations (something to the effect of always reminding the other side that we do, in fact, have a shared mission) got me thinking (long chain of associations, the underlying rationale behind it between me and God) about one way we (all of us APSCUF members) ought to be responding to just about every management “initiative” or “challenge” we face these days.

What happens if we insist on asking one simple question: Who does this help? 

Notice I’m not asking “What’s the benefit?”  I’m emphasizing “Who” because our management, even the saner, more humane ones, seem to need an occasional reminder that at the end of the day, our system is made up of actual people. 

So, who does it help when KU (or Mansfield, or Shippensburg, or…) management issues retrenchment letters?  It sure doesn’t help the retrenched faculty, who lose their jobs.  It doesn’t help the rest of the faculty, who have to soak up the extra work their former colleagues can’t do any more–or see bargaining unit work get shipped off to other units where it doesn’t belong.  It doesn’t help the students to see programs cut, or classes grow, or advising get thinner because there are fewer people to do it.  It doesn’t help the community.  It doesn’t help the Commonwealth keep students from leaving the state for greener pastures, or keep alums in the state because of their fond memories of watching their faculty get fired and their programs canceled. 

So, who does it help when WCU management tries to comply with the 25% temporary faculty cap in the CBA by simply firing as many adjunct faculty as they can?  Not the students–class sizes inevitably go up.  Not the faculty–class sizes go up, reassign time is harder to come by…  Not departments, who still face pressures to increase majors, course offerings; to comply with sometimes bizarre and/or labarynthine mandates from agencies nobody recognizes…  Management, somebody might argue, benefits from evading a loss at arbitration, but that’s not a “Who.”  And that’s precisely why I insist on asking the question that way. 

I could keep adding examples here, but I think the principle is pretty clear.  If anybody who reads the blog is interested in adding examples, by all means do! 

The most important thing to remember here, I really believe is that we’re not professor-bots; our students aren’t student-bots; our managers aren’t manager-bots.  If we all make a good faith effort to remember that formulas, systems, projections, policies, and all the rest of it don’t mean jack shit in the absence of *people*, then navigating the current terrain of budget problems and bad government leadership (Oh, hi Governor Corbett) gets a lot easier.

APSCUF election results, and some musing on implications

April 20, 2010

This past weekend (April 16-17), APSCUF elected its officers (Pres, VP, Secretary, Treasurer) for two year terms.  The electees (I don’t like the term “winners” because it implies that those who didn’t win are “losers”) are:

President: Steve Hicks, Lock Haven

VP: Ken Mash, East Stroudsburg

Secretary: Helen Bieber, Kutztown

Treasurer: Chris Hallen, Bloomsburg

Ken Mash is the only new officer, replacing Amy Walters, who stepped down.

The re-election of Steve Hicks as President is significant for a number of reasons.  I voted for (SPOILER ALERT!) Steve and Ken (Helen and Chris ran unopposed, so those votes weren’t nearly as dramatic) because I’ve been satisfied with the work Steve has done in his first term as President, and with the work Ken has done as statewide Meet and Discuss chair.

Are they perfect?  Of course not, and the campaign run by Rob Mutchnik for President and Debra Cornelius for VP aired some legitimate concerns–if you’re reading this with much interest, you already know what they are, so I won’t air them again here.  I hope, and fully expect, that Steve and Ken will take those concerns more seriously than simply to nod their thanks at Rob and Deb for raising them.

I also hope, although I didn’t vote for them, that Rob and Deb will continue to fight on behalf of APSCUF.  The vote tallies were decisive but not overwhelming, which tells me at least these two things: (1) in general, Legislative Assembly delegates are satisfied with the current administration; but (2) Rob and Deb struck enough chords with the delegates to demonstrate that there’s still plenty of work to be done moving APSCUF forward–especially in the near term, as we move into negotiations season, but also in the long term.

Unlike some other delegates, I see the pending negotiations season as an *opportunity* to take on that work, rather than a crisis towards which we’re dashing headlong.  We all know that the negotiations will be difficult, as PASSHE continues to misrepresent the budget situation and its impacts.  We know that we’re entering negotiations with a different kind of process in place, and a different kind of dynamic among the campuses as a result.  From my point of view, given the shift in APSCUF’s ethos over the last few years, all that “uncertainty” actually opens up possibilities for the union, at the state level, to commit to democratic processes, creative mobilizing efforts, and negotiations postures/strategies that would have been very hard to commit to before.

Obviously, preparing for negotiations and possible job actions is hard work no matter what.  If that hard work can, in this instance, have positive short AND long-term effects on our union, I’d rather that than work our asses off for a mediocre contract and no long-term impact.