Søren Goard: Work in the 21st Century University: Graduate Workers’ Organisations in the Face of Adjunctification


The Adjunct Movement has not been as loud as the Quebec CLASSE movement. Most of the people involved are in their mid 20’s and early 30’s – certainly not as youthful and militant as the Chilean Pingüinos1. There have not been on mass demonstrations and occupations. But they have managed to build something profound within their education system; organising against some of the most embedded and most advanced neoliberalism. Their successes, as well as their limitations, are not just fascinating but also provide useful lessons for any of us wanting to fight marketisation in education.

Who are adjuncts? 

The term refers to graduates, mostly studying for PhDs, who teach, mark and research either to fund their work or because it is a requirement of their programme and who don’t hold any permanent contract. Many universities grant waivers to these students on the basis of them fulfilling this work. However, even with waivers, many adjuncts live on less than minimum wage. This is despite, or rather because, higher education is now run more on adjunct labour than full-time labour.

This situation is emblematic of the transformation of US Higher Education. One of the key motors of that over the last few decades, has been the proliferation of private, for-profit, colleges recruiting ever-greater proportions of students. This isn’t just the Ivy League or the top ten – it’s institutions like the University of Phoenix – a behemoth corporation that operates mainly over the internet with quick and vocational courses. I will look in more detail at the transformation of the education system below but for the purposes of understanding what adjunctification is, let’s just start with this image. Whilst on the one hand universities like Phoenix have opened up a new market, they have also begun infringing on the territory of state universities, often dragging them further into the whirlpool of competition and market values.

Adjunctification as a key motor of neoliberal universities.

Adjunctification is a tendency that slots very neatly into the overall tendencies towards commodification and marketisation. In keeping with the experience of neoliberalism worldwide the line between public and private has become increasingly undermined, overwhelmingly in favour of the private. For teaching, it means not only an undermining of academic quality and freedom but of actual academic labour capacity. Getting senior students to teach fresh students provides a means of cutting staffing costs. Keeping those senior students in a permanent and vicious cycle of adjunct-ness ensures that they work to the greatest efficiency. Most crucially they have a shelf-life – and the rotation of stock is a fundamental part of keeping labour costs low.

The dereliction of working rights is just one reason to oppose the process of adjunctification. By forcing researchers to grovel for scraps of funding it pushes them towards corporate sponsors – inevitably making it harder for those researching knowledge with a low profit margin to maintain academic freedom. In many Higher Education institutions, adjuncts can’t get representation from the local lecturers’ union2. Even if they do have the right to get involved in the union, the pressure of time and finances usually undermines their ability to. Rushing from one campus to another, juggling different jobs, makes it incredibly hard to have the time to build the kind of profile necessary to get elected to the unions, or consistently raise issues relevant to adjuncts.

However, in spite of these conditions, adjuncts across the US have found ways of organising around their grievances.  What they’re doing is exciting, audacious trade unionism that comes face-to-face with one of the key motors of marketisation. Whilst the history of graduate organisation stretches back into the late 60’s, this has been a deeply uneven process, and only just in the last few years has it increased in scope.

GEO at Illinois State

Faced with continual attacks on their conditions, adjuncts at Illinois State (Urbana-Champaign) set up their own union, the Graduate Employee’s Organisation, and in November 2009 went on strike for tuition fee waivers – effectively fair pay – and won. Last November management tried to take the waivers back and refused to go into negotiations3. As a result the GEO voted to form a strike committee. Without even needing to strike they got the administration to agree to keep the waivers. The GEO has existed in different forms since the early 1980s, but became a fighting organisation in the early 2000s in response to the administration’s attempt to deny them legal representation. They combined union organisation with political agitation; bargaining, strike action, occupying management offices when negotiations bottlenecked, and building campaigns with active participation from students and local workers.

The continuous recurrence of attacks from the administration is just one reason for the GEO to attempt to build networks wider than the campus. Hence, since 2008, they’ve been part of convening a national coalition the Association of Graduate Employee Locals. The success of this model is justifiably open to criticism – it certainly hasn’t been able to confront the trends that lie behind the administration’s actions. But it is clearly effective in its locale; a testament to the democracy and politics of the organisation.

CUNY Contingents Unite

The City University of New York (CUNY) is the second largest education system in the US, with over half a million students. Whilst their promotional video proudly trumpets their tenure of Rhodes Scholars and new full-time academics4, there is little mention that the majority of the academic functions of the university – teaching, marking and research – are done by adjuncts. Even with waivers, adjuncts (or ‘contingents’ in CUNY terms), earn several thousand dollars less than what is required to live in and around New York City.Whilst the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the CUNY trade union, maintains a relatively active and dense membership, representation for contingents is inadequate5. Moreover the PSC’s response to budget cuts from the State Governor’s office has been mainly through piecemeal stunts and lobbying, in conjunction with the New York Public Interest Research Group6. Students and contingents have been the ones organising protests and campaigns, when they have actually happened.

Contingents, frustrated with the PSC leadership’s failure to act against cuts that squeeze part-time and un-contracted workers, created the CUNY Contingents Unite campaign of 2008 in response. One part of what they have been doing is pressuring PSC to act. In 2012 they turned up en masse to the PSC congress in orange t-shirts demanding representation and heckling speakers who sidelined the contingent issue7. But they have not attempted to set themselves up as a separate union. The political basis of the organisation is demonstrated in their founding statement8, which stresses its resentment, not towards those workers who receive higher pay through tenure, but to the two-tiered system that makes it impossible to get tenure for those who don’t already have it!

How has US education got this way?

I mentioned above that it was a necessary simplification to see marketisation as a problem creeping over from private to public universities. Marc Bousquet emphasises that it is, to an extent, a simplification to see the trends of marketisation and ‘managed education’ as a result of for-profit universities infringing on the traditional public universities9. It is true, but only in the sense that it hardens up tendencies that have been taking place on a more fundamental level in public universities for decades. It is helpful to contextualise the development of marketisation within wider global trends towards neoliberalisation.

Neoliberalism, the class project intended to restore capital profitability in the wake of the 1973 OPEC crash, had at its heart what Susan George described as;

“The idea that the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions; the idea that the State should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy, or that corporations should be given total freedom, that trade unions should be curbed and citizens given less rather than more social protection10.”

Combined with a reaction to growing union membership and militancy, public institutions slowly adopted, through the 1970s and 1980s managerial and neoliberal mantras11. Faced with budget cuts they were driven, encouraged (though often willingly) towards adulating and mimicking the behaviour of the private sector. As well as producing an entirely new and bloated layer of middle management, such a shift required a reconstruction of the workforce. Tenure-track lecturers had been part of the move towards unionisation in the public sector, albeit after inspiration from fire-fighters and teachers12. Administrations subsequently looked for means to undermine the solidarity that bound these groups together. One tactic used was the development of liberal ‘institutional missions’, which gave the university a more progressive vibe. Often adopting the language of Foucault, side by side with the economic ‘common sense’ of Milton Friedman, university administrations could begin to incorporate more senior academics within the structures of management, pressurising them to put aside solidarity with other staff members for replacement with paternalistic ersatz responsibility13. The other side of this was to radically re-structure teaching. Over the last thirty years, graduates have gone from doing less than 1/4th of teaching to doing over 3/4ths14. This is then combined with an attempt to reduce the number of tenure-track positions available, creating an ever-growing rift between permanent and contingent staff.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s graduates were told, in accordance with what were known as the Bowen predictions, that academic careers were open for anyone who completed their PhD. What transpired is that PhD completers became the waste, rather than the product of, the system. These ‘completers’ were then used by ‘permanent’ management to create an ever-reproducing pool of ‘temporary and contingent’ teaching staff15.

Adjunct organisation is hardly new…

Graduates have been organised since the 1960s. At the University of California, for example, graduate employees affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers in the 1970s, but failed to win contracts for at least 25 years16. The GEO at Illinois Urbana-Champaign also has a history of actions dating back 30 years, in different organisations17. For the most part it was before the 1990s that the battle for recognition began. With different cases in different states, much of the struggle was, for a long time, over graduates’ legal definition. The landmark case came in 2000, between the National Labor Relations Board and NYU and Brown U18, when graduates finally won the legal right to be recognised as workers, not just as ‘students with added responsibilities’. However, the Bush era that followed saw a set of attacks on workers’ rights, and administrations were once again on the re-offensive. Since then, graduates have often found that their campaigns need to be overtly political.

The most visible attempt to build a unified national collaboration can be seen in the ‘Adjunct Project’19 – not a union but an online resource and toolkit, detailing graduates’ experience of exploitation and organisation against it. Whilst it looks impressive, the project’s funding comes in large from the Chronicle for Higher Education. This is surprising given the political colour and vibrancy of the organisations and their campaigns.

Given Wisconsin’s notoriety as the beating heart of American trade-unionism, it should not be surprising that adjunct organisation has been present there since the 1960s; largely in the form of the Teaching Assistants’ Association. Since the 1990s, and a historic tuition waiver win in 1997, the union has been built on the right to collective bargaining. As the crisis has intensified, TAA’s interests have begun to converge with campaigns against cuts to state budgets20. TAA members were at the centre of the movement around Madison in 2011 against Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to remove trade union rights21. This was in part due to the fact that attacks on collective bargaining would have made it far harder for them to ‘retain faculty’. Potential to resist was helped by the political strength of their unionisation. The TAA led the occupation of the State Capitol in Madison, and organised coaches of GEO’s from Illinois State to join them.

Several graduate organisations, as a result of finding difficulty getting representation in the local chapter of their AFT or equivalent union, have found other unions willing to take on their affiliation. For example, graduates at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh PA, joined the United Steel Workers and convinced the union to bargain for their rights against university management22.

Whilst these experiences are inspiring rejoinders against the apparent lack of struggle on US campuses, are they any use in building strategies for graduates who teach at British universities? Admittedly there are concrete differences between the US and the UK education systems. The US system is clearly more heterogeneous, especially with the wider and more pronounced division between state and private universities. The far greater variety between institutions and funding systems, due in part to the federated state system, appears to have mitigated against the formation of one national organisation for tenured academics, let alone adjuncts. That heterogeneity means it is theoretically far harder for graduates to represent themselves collectively on a national level.

In the UK on the other hand, postgrads who teach (often called Graduate Teaching Assistants, GTAs) have the right to join the UCU (national HE and FE teaching union), even if they haven’t done so in massive numbers. However, unlike in the US, adjunctification has not been the primary means of driving down staffing costs in the UK; the attacks on pensions will continue to have the greatest effect for the near future23. Crucially, US postgrads usually take 10 years to complete a PhD, whereas their British counterparts are increasingly pushed towards 4-year completions. The NUS has calculated that there are approximately 100,000 postgraduate research students in the UK24, though the extent of this number who are teaching and working as GTAs remains unclear. Certainly it is far smaller proportion of overall teaching staff than in the US. Hence, being smaller in number and having a shorter time at university, British GTAs have a less objective basis for organisation.In spite of the differences, however, both systems are clearly subject to increasingly totalising tendencies of marketisation and commodification, even if the US has experienced them at a far greater velocity.

Marketisation in the UK began seriously under the Thatcher regime in the 1980s, though it would be wrong to say that she pursued it with anywhere near the same vigour as she attacked miners and printers. That said, whilst shying away from a direct attack on grants and the public nature of the university, Thatcher and ministers like Keith Joseph did engage in repeated ideological attacks on student unions, left-wing and anti-oppression academics, as part of a multi-faceted ‘enemy within’. More crucially she successfully introduced a raft of neoliberal management directives against which academics were reluctant to resist, most importantly the Research Assessment Exercise which required academics to pile ever-increasing amounts of their time and effort (or that of their postgrads) into activity that made the institution more competitive and themselves more efficient and easy to manage26.

Similarly, it was John Major who, whilst being unable to successfully marketise education, set up the Student Loans Company and passed the 1994 Education Act in order to amputate the campaigning power of students’ unions. It was Blair and Brown, however, who introduced tuition fees, and their successive increases. Whilst their expansion of the education system was soaked in both progressive rhetoric and meritocratic assumptions, the reforms, in real terms, were an attempt to expand the skilled workforce for the benefit of British capital, with little or no increase in funding, and an opening up of the sector for private ‘investment’.

It is as if the last 30 years in the UK have been a process of laying the foundation for marketisation, dropping the gravel and pouring the cement. As these foundations have hardened, the most recent draft of reforms come as a cast iron plate dropped on top; a manoeuvre to prevent any form of resistance or counter-trends.

Whilst these tendencies also reflect the American experience, it is not yet the case that GTAs fulfil the role of a huge, casualised and hyper-exploited workforce as they do in the US. As mentioned above, the biggest attack on wages has been on pensions. However, this attack shares some of the qualities of adjunctification, in the sense that it is younger, and more casualised, education workers are the hardest hit. So whilst adjunctification does not yet operate in the same way between the US and the UK, it regardless exists and has the capacity to develop.

Not without a fight…

Since 2010, the greatest resistance to marketisation has been from undergraduates and FE students. In the wake of the heady days of 2010, the movement has struggled to regain momentum. In the face of an apparently immovable government, two choices appear. First, to fight each case or aspect of privatisation and marketisation as it emerges – as with the movement at Sussex27– or to wait for a Labour government in 2015, in order that they might, by some extraordinary act of philanthropy, grant us a graduate tax…28 The only real choice, for those interested in education being a right, not a privilege, is the first. Build local struggles, like in Sussex, into a generalised fight-back, is the only option. In that sense, being able to see the potential in any point of friction is vital.

It seems likely, in this context, that GTAs will be at the sharp end of funding cut-backs, and will experience progressively higher rates of exploitation, as departments try and squeeze a few more National Student Survey percentage points out of their staff. They already suffer high rates of exploitation and casualised conditions29. But in terms of objective numbers, there simply isn’t the same potential within the British postgraduate community to build separate unions or mass campaigns on an American scale. This, clearly, doesn’t negate the need to challenge casualisation and marketisation, but are the US graduate modes of organising worth replicating in the UK? Are they adequate for the challenge? In short: the methods are good but they aren’t enough in themselves. The building of unions and union organisations now has to be placed within the context of crisis and austerity. Can these organisations confront these attacks.

The key lesson, arguably, from the US adjunct movement is not a particular tactic in itself – whether joining the dockworkers’ or setting up alternative union – but the principles behind those tactics. Networking and organising large numbers of graduate workers, united around specific grievances on a political basis, and winning solidarity and unity with other groups on campus, are critical in this regard. In many circumstances merely building union membership has been an audacious and gruelling task. In the UK we have the advantage of being able to utilise the relative openness of the UCU, the anti-casualisation committees, and Student Unions, as tools that can accelerate the process of organisation; raising the politics in a more overt way than the UCU can perhaps get away with. Additionally we have the collective memory of a street movement, occupations, and local challenges to marketisation. This still acts as a powerful reference point, even if the high point has passed. Threading solidarity with graduate worker organisation through any new manifestations of these movements provides the basis for a far more serious challenge to marketisation.

When many administrations want to play down the cuts and claim that they are making none, highlighting the squeeze on GTAs, through political students and campus demonstrations, is powerful, especially if it is built on points of unity with support staff and their fights for living wages, against outsourcing, for example. These fights are unlikely to match the exciting dynamism of street movements, however. What we can do is demonstrate that the issues faced by GTAs are a means of bridging the sectional interests of students and staff, and are far from trivial.

The NUS’ own survey into GTA conditions shows that less than 10% would go to their Student Union when concerned about their conditions, while less than 12% would go to their trade union rep30. In part this reflects the woeful inadequacy of both student and trade union leaderships to confront austerity and marketization, or even to respond to localised grievances. The hegemonic politics of the NUS is at best summated as a commitment to ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘partnership’ with university management, reflecting all of the worst corporatist conclusions that the trade-union movement has made over the last 20 years. Corporatism in a period like this is suicidal. The postgraduate report is at least somewhat of a break with this mainstream, largely due to the role played by anti-capitalists and socialists in the postgraduate committee and NUS more widely.

These activists have argued for different approaches at different universities, but on ‘ensuring that whatever structures and processes are in place, they are ultimately transparent and fair31’. Acknowledging the ‘important role of trade unions, particularly UCU’ they suggest that ‘one possibility would be to create a graduate teaching committee with representatives from UCU, students union, and graduate teaching reps32’. What does this mean? In some ways it reflects Moody’s model of ‘social movement organising’33, bringing together different types of unions and social groups to build something greater than sectional interests.

A more compelling comparison is the attempt by rank and file trade union activists, faced with the threat of outsourcing at Sussex University, to ‘clear the blockage’ with a ‘pop-up union’. Whilst there are debates over its ultimate usefulness, what the pop-up represents is a recognition of the union as a tool, not an end in itself, and that those tools may need tactical re-fashioning at different points.

What the American experience shows, as well as the Postgraduate report, is that we may have to apply a similar political attitude to our attempts at challenging marketisation through GTA organisation. That does not mean we evacuate the organisations, like UCU or the SU, that we already have, but that we look at the possibilities of working through and beyond them, of opening spaces from above for casusalised sections of the workforce to organise, but also ensuring that those spaces allow those workers self-organisation.

In a period when the free education movement appears temporarily fragmented and demoralised, our ability as a movement to strengthen the representation and political organisation of graduates who teach could potentially be crucial in determining the social weight of the forces who oppose marketisation.Of course the organisation of graduates alone will not stop a process that is embedded in a more general onslaught, but it can at least provide additional flashpoints around which to organise. In doing this it can unveil contradictions which, in being drawn out, begin to undermine and negate the ideological phantoms conjured up to justify the neoliberalisation of education. •

Søren Goard is the Education Officer at Goldsmiths SU.

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1   The Real News, ‘Student Movement Rocks Chile’, video accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0z9UdQxThKo

2   ‘Unlike unions at most universities in the U.S., the PSC represents many different categories of academic workers’, Singsen, Doug ‘CUNY Adjuncts Deserve Better’, Socialist Worker (USA), November 19, 2010 http://socialistworker.org/2010/11/19/cuny-adjuncts-deserve-better

3   Reyes Rodriguez, Damian and Werst, Daniel, ‘GEO prepares for a strike’, Socialist Worker (USA,) November 26, 2012, http://socialistworker.org/2012/11/26/geo-prepares-for-a-strike

4   CUNYMedia, ‘CUNY Value’, 14 November 2012, video accessible at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=NR23F137fio#!

5   ‘CUNY Adjuncts Deserve Better’, Socialist Worker (USA), November 19, 2010

6   Ibid.

7   Ibid.

8   Anon, ‘About CUNY Contingents Unite’, Last updated 12 September 2008, accessible at: http://cunycontingents.wordpress.com/about/

9   Bousquet, Marc,  How the University Works, New York, NYU Press; 2008, p8

10  See http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/a_short_history_of_neoliberalism_and_how_we_can_fix_it However it is worth stating that all neoliberal projects have remained contradictory to their very core; requiring an expansion of state power and expenditure in order to fight to restore profitability on behalf of capital.

11  Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p12

12  Ibid., p18

13  Ibid., p13

14  Ibid., p2

15  Ibid., p20

16  Ibid., p33

17  Anon, ‘History’, last updated on 27 November 2012, accessible at http://www.uigeo.org/history-2/

18  Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p38

19  Anon, ‘About this Project’, accessible at http://adjunct.chronicle.com/about

20  Anon , ‘TAA History: The First Forty Years…And Beyond’, Accessible at: http://taa-madison.org/taa-history/

21  Bousquet, Marc, ‘Grad Employees Spearhead Wisconsin Occupation’, March 1st, 2011, Accessible at: http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/archives/282

22  Cech, Jeff, ‘NLRB Announces Landslide Victory for the Adjunct Faculty Association at Duquesne University’, September 20th, 2012, accessible at: http://adjunct.chronicle.com/nlrb-announces-landslide-victory-for-the-adjunct-faculty-association-at-duquesne-university/

23  Anon, ‘Key Information: Branch briefing – the impact on YOU’, Accessible at: http://www.ucu.org.uk/defenduss#key

24  NUS Postgraduate Campaign, ‘Engaging Postgraduates Students Guide’, last updated on 18th July 2011, Available at: http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/news/article/postgraduate/562/

26  Callinicos, Alex, Universities in a Neoliberal Age, London, Bookmarks; 2006, p18

27  Anon, ‘About the occupation – ongoing since Thursday 7 February 2013’, accessible at http://sussexagainstprivatization.wordpress.com/about/

28   NUS National Campaigns, ‘Come clean on Student Funding – Elections 2015’, accessible at http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/campaigns/come-clean-on-student-funding/elections-2015/

29  ‘Almost one in three postgraduate teachers did not receive a contract…The average postgraduate teacher will work almost twice the hours they are paid for…almost one in three postgraduates who teach earn below minimum wage in real terms.’ Burrett, Robin and Wenstone, Rachel, Postgraduates who teach’, NUS Pamphlet, 2013, p7 http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/1654-NUS_PostgradTeachingSurvey_v3.pdf

30  Burrett and Wenstone, Postgraduates who Teach, pp22-23

31  Ibid., p27

32  Ibid., p28

33  Moody, Kim, Towards an International Social Movement Unionism, 1997

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