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.


The worst thing about contingency is contingency

July 26, 2014

Prompted by a very interesting conversation this morning on my Facebook over this blog post, which contends among other things that:

Though peo­ple are loath to admit it, the tenure-track posi­tion is the most scru­ti­nized and pressure-packed of fac­ulty posi­tions when talk­ing strictly about pro­fes­sional expec­ta­tions. This, of course, is because exist­ing depart­ment and insti­tu­tional bylaws require more reviews, paper­work, hoop nav­i­ga­tion, and file pro­duc­tion from this employee class than any other. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated the tenure process twice now in two dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions, I could go on for months here. As a mat­ter of fact, one of the things I did before leav­ing my pre­vi­ous insti­tu­tion was to help change our depart­ment bylaws in order to make life less ridicu­lous, bur­den­some, and puni­tive for those on the tenure track. (For exam­ple, there is no need for your 2nd year reten­tion file to be 300 pages by require­ment, is there?)

I didn’t react well to the claim, even though it is “strictly about professional expectations.” As what some people might describe as a rabid activist for adjunct labor equity, I immediately and strongly contested the author’s allocation of institutional power, which says that pre-tenure tenure-track faculty aren’t very powerful either, and that the commonplace adjunct rhetoric claiming that tenure-track faculty could just fix it all if we wanted to is wrong-headed.

The conversation on Facebook got a little testy, as many of these conversations do, but it got me thinking about some things I wanted to say in more detail than the Comment boxes invite.

One of the points I was trying to make is that I fully agree about how stressful it is to be a junior tenure-track faculty member. Every single thing you do or say feels monitored–and sometimes is. As tenure-track positions become rarer, the stakes go up. It’s common to get bad advice–sometimes from people who mean well, sometimes not–and difficult to know what’s what as a new person navigating an unfamiliar institution. And so on. I think the author of this blog post gets all that right.

I think he’s right too when he says that the generalized animus towards tenure-track and tenured faculty is misplaced. Not many of us are as active in pursuit of labor equity as I’d like for us to be, but very few of us are as actively willing to see contingent faculty suffer as many contingent faculty seem to think we are. Or put another way, there are lots of us trying to do at least some of the right things. It’s not enough, and I’m not saying that calling out complicity in an unjust system shouldn’t happen. I am saying generalizations like “All tenured faculty are happy to have adjuncts doing their work for them” are incorrect and unhelpful. I’ve come close to throwing it in a couple of times when faced with an onslaught of that animus; there’s only so many times you can hear yourself accused before you walk away.

In fact, I would go even further in contesting some of the common wisdom about the differences between adjunct and tenure-track positions. He doesn’t address the “We do the same job ” trope, for example, which makes me crazy. Yes, there are adjunct faculty who do research and service to the extent their positions afford it, but those are rarely requirements (I would be fine if they were–this isn’t an argument about qualifications). Even as a tenured full professor, I can get fired if I stop doing them–and rightly so. It would take a long time and I’d get lots of chances to fix it, but the fact that my position requires it and my adjunct colleagues’ don’t makes my job different. Before you respond that they teach more than I do, no they don’t–not in my system, where the full-time teaching load for both contingent and non-contingent faculty is 4/4. I had this argument early this summer on a national listserv of adjunct activists, and it didn’t go over very well.

So I’m willing to concede that I overreacted to the author’s position, given that I’m agreeing with his major points and adding to them. With that said, I’m not fully satisfied with the tension he leaves unresolved and think this next part needs saying loud and clear.

Are tenure-track faculty under a great deal of pressure? You bet. I’m in my professional teens as of this year (starting my 13th year out of grad school), so it hasn’t been that long since I was untenured. And I was untenured in a place where the politics surrounding tenure and promotion aren’t nearly as vicious and capricious as they are in many (Union Yes!).

But, and this is the point I was trying to make originally on the Facebook post, the pressure on tenure-track faculty simply isn’t comparable to the stress on contingent faculty whose jobs may shrink or disappear without notice or explanation; whose benefits, if there are any at all, are often tied to their teaching loads in such a way that losing a course could cost them much more than simply the lost salary (which already sucks); if you’ve read this much of this post already, you know this litany already. In practical terms that risk is not as prominent for some contingent faculty as for others, but it’s never not there. Pre-tenured faculty at most institutions can, I realize, lose their positions in the first two or three years without cause, the risk of which is horrifically stressful, but even then–during the academic year, they’re guaranteed full-time work, full-time benefits, and full-time pay.

As long as contingent faculty jobs can be changed or taken away for any or no reason at all, their employment situations are worse than mine. No matter how complicated an institution or a political dynamic, I just can’t see that any other way right now.

Rally for Jobs and Student Loan Forgiveness in Philly, Monday 10/17. PLEASE SHARE WIDELY!

October 11, 2011


Folks: I’m posting the link to a flyer for the Where Are the Jobs protest in Philly on Mon, Oct 17. Because I’m not very technologically savvy, I can’t figure out how to make the pdf display directly in this window. But at least this way the pdf is stored somewhere you can download it yourself and help distribute it.


Once I can figure out how to make the actual doc visible in one of these windows, I’ll repost. In the meantime, please help me share!

The vitals:

RALLY FOR JOBS Monday, October 17, 11am Philadelphia City Hall (west side) 

March to the Regional U.S. Dept of Education 

Market & S. Juniper 


Join the movement to demand Jobs for All

For more information: 215-724-1618; phillyIAC@peoplesmail.net; on Face Book, visit AMERICANS NEED JOBS

‘Accountability’ isn’t enough [some angry language]

August 1, 2011

Not a great day for those of us who spend many of our waking hours fighting against various aspects of neo-liberal hegemony.

It looks like sometime today, both houses of Congress will pass a bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling; in that bill is also a radical realignment of our budgetary and social priorities, tilting our economic structure in more sharply towards the ultra wealthy. The poor, working, middle classes will wind up paying more for less, while the rich pay less for more AND suck up more of other people’s money for themselves. This outcome of the new policy is clear and well-documented.

What troubles me the most about it is that it will devastate working and living conditions the huge majority of the country. On that level, it’s a clear betrayal of all that’s good and right about our country.

After that, what troubles me most is the utter shamelessness of the Republican Party, which serves nobody but the ultra-elite (although it’s exploits the ever-living fuck of Evangelicals, racists, and anybody else who will listen to their madness). Other than the occasional token effort to make this effort sound like it was about anything other than vacuuming up more power and resources for themselves, they have made almost no effort even to pretend like there’s any agenda here other than real one. That is, like the moment in 1984 when O’Brien admits to Winston that the Party only does what it does because it can, the GOP is steadily revealing its true agenda–or trying to hide it less.

You’d think with the recent exposure of the Koch brothers’ machinations, the influence of the shady group ALEC, example after example of radical right-wing leaders sucking at the government teat while they decry government programs–and then not really even trying to explain themselves because they don’t really have to)… You’d think all those things would make conservatives act a little more cautiously as the (mostly) men behind the curtain are revealed to be what they are–selfish, greedy, inhumane pieces of subhuman shit.

Instead, the opposite has happened. As the conservative machine becomes more visible, it becomes even more brazen. As the institutions you’d expect to stop (at least resist) them continue to fail us–you know, the Democratic Party, the law, the voters–I suppose there’s no reason for them even to pretend to be anything other than what they are.

And that, activist friends, helps me focus on what I’ve been increasingly see as the heart of the matter for the last year, maybe more: how to excise the political, economic and social poison these subhuman scum have injected into the system for nothing but their own gain. Lots of us have adopted, adapted the terminology of “accountability,” which is close to right–how do we hold these monsters ‘accountable’ for what they’re doing? But I’m increasingly sensing that the discourse of accountability makes it too easy to let these criminals off the hook. Elected officials are held accountable at the ballot box, if ever. That’s not enough.

We’re starting to see some movement in the right direction, I think, and I’m currently hanging my hopes on:

The recall elections happening in Wisconsin  When elected officials do the opposite of what you elected them to do, grab them by the backs of their necks and throw them on the scrap heap. There’s no reason to wait two years to vote them out.

The ballot initiative in OH to overturn SB5  When your legislative apparatus passes legislation that the huge majority of citizens reject, override the vote.

I’m all in favor of conventional kinds of activism and organizing. Although I’m not terribly impressed with the Coffee Party leadership (the rhetoric of the organization sounds like a thousand other people who suddenly got political and don’t yet understand that they’re not the first people to have thought about this stuff, but maybe that’ll wear down soon), the general idea of a citizen movement acting responsibly and demanding same is hard to argue with. As a union member and leader-of-sorts, of course I’m committed to labor activism and unions as strategies and modes of organizing.

But what we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Ohio right now is something else. Yes, it’s reactionary in the sense that it’s about undoing damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But more important, I think, is that it’s directly responding to the problems. It’s not waiting for Election Day to trade people who did bad things for other people who will probably do bad things–it’s attacking the problems NOW.

If there’s any chance of salvaging our current form of government (if, in fact, that’s even a good idea–but I’ll set that aside for now), I believe we have to start here. Punch the assholes in their faces for being assholes. Yank them out of office when they violate the will of the people. Organize against laws that nobody wanted passed in the first place.

This is, by the way, exactly what the Tea Party says it does. It’s also exactly what the mainstream corporate media reports the Tea Party doing. Two things about that: (1) No, they don’t. The Tea Party is nothing but a tool of the Koch Brothers and Dick Armey-and-friends, and is about as authentic a grassroots movement as ‘Americans for Prosperity.’ (2) Even if that’s not true (or getting less true–some analysts believe the Tea Party is getting out from under the control of its masters), there aren’t very many of them. Reports of the Tea Party’s mass-movement-ness have been greatly exaggerated.

If the Tea Partiers and progressives want to have an actual grassroots battle for the soul of the nation, count me in. When you Tea Partiers tell the Kochs and the Armeys and their friends to take their resources and shove them up their asses, when you tell your mouthpieces of Fox News you don’t need their corporate support–that is, when you practice anything you actually preach–then we’ll have an interesting situation on our hands.

What we did on our 4Cs vacation :)

April 11, 2011

[OK, Governor Corbett, if you’re reading this, it wasn’t a vacation, really.]

Lots of news from last week’s Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta, but I want to make sure this one gets posted sooner rather than later–

At the Annual Business Meeting on Saturday, CCCC voted resoundingly to approve the following resolution (authored by Holly Middleton and yours truly, with very helpful input from Steve Parks and the members of the CCCC Resolutions Committee, to whom we also owe thanks for endorsing the resolution before it hit the assembly floor):

WHEREAS NCTE/CCCC has shown a commitment to establishing fair labor practices for its own members and adjunct instructors of Composition; and

WHEREAS unions and fair labor practices for all workers are increasingly under assault; and

WHEREAS socially responsible event planners can negotiate competitive rates and labor-friendly contracts that protect CCCC in the event of a labor dispute;

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT CCCC consult with the hotel workers union and other labor organizations to schedule meetings and conferences in hotels and conventions with fair labor practices or contract with vendors which practice fair labor practices; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the CCCC commit to offering housing at conference rates in at least one hotel with fair labor practices at every meeting.

This is the first resolution the Labor Caucus has brought directly to the floor of our convention, and we wanted something both passable and substantive.  I think we got it.

Labor Activism at 4C

April 2, 2011

[This is the same message I’ve posted to the WPA, H-Rhetor, and Rhetoricians for Peace listserv.  Wanted to put it here so I could update it and/or point people to it.]

Sorry for cross-postings, but I’m trying to spread this as quickly and widely as possible.   –Seth


On behalf of the CCCC Labor Caucus


Anybody in Atlanta Wed afternoon for 4Cs who wants to fight against the attacks on labor (organized and otherwise) across the country right now:


It’s not hyperbolic to say that organized labor, and working people more generally, are under assault right now. You know the litany: Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Michigan, rumbles in lots of other places, all facing dangerous and heavy-handed efforts to hurt working people (academics and teachers at all levels included). While there are huge efforts underway in all these places to respond, we can’t let pass the opportunity to claim an organized space and time at CCCC for collaborating and collectivizing our efforts.


With the blessing of the Labor Caucus and CCCC, the group hosting the Pre-Convention Workshop “Labor Organizing in Hard Times” has decided to change our agenda for the day and to throw open the doors of the meeting at 3 pm to everybody who wants to join in the fight. Our decision to do this is based on the sense that it’s simply incumbent on us, as a Labor Caucus, to do as much of this work as we can together with as many CCCC attendees as we can find who share our commitments–or even come close.



Wednesday, April 6

3 PM-5 PM (Later if people want to stay and we don’t get booted out of the room)

Location: I don’t have an actual program yet, but we’re W.1 (Labor Organizing in Hard Times) in the program


It’ll be an open door, so there’s no need to RSVP. However, if there’s an issue you know you want to work on and want to make sure somebody else knows about it, feel free to let me, Seth, know (via e-mail is probably best: skahn@wcupa.edu).


I can’t say I hope to see you there because I hate that we have to talk about this. But we need to gather as many people as we can who care about labor across the country and put all these years of rhetoric training, all these years of activist experience, all the commitment we have to fairness and equity, to work.


[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.