This article was written by graduate students in a U.S. Labor History colloquium as part of a series on “The Living History of Our Union”—a section of our website dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of our own history.
By AJ Boyd
“The boss will always try to divide and conquer,” declared Sherry Wolf, senior organizer of the Rutgers chapter of the American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT). While this was in the context of a discussion about labor in higher education, Wolf’s statement resonates with labor struggles under capitalism everywhere.
Julie Greene, a labor and immigration historian at the University of Maryland, specifically addresses how capitalism thrives off divisions in her article “Rethinking the Boundaries of Class: Labor History and Theories of Capitalism.” Greene applies a class analysis to the academy, arguing that the tenure track becomes a medium through which class in academia is experienced. By generating hierarchies, management can create the illusion of no shared interests among the institution’s laborers, who are classified as tenured faculty, adjuncts, part-time lecturers, lab assistants, teaching assistants, and so on. If this illusion takes hold, management can hinder solidarity and pushback against poor working conditions and unfair labor practices.
Greene’s article is a call to action for more organizing in higher education, especially when it comes to the consciousness of tenured faculty members about the pecking order. Rutgers AAUP-AFT has a strong history of solidarity across hierarchies because of its practice of, as Wolf puts it, “acknowledging the differences [and] turning attention to who is creating the pecking order.”
In our interview with Wolf, emerita faculty Ann Gordon, and union president Becky Givan, I learned why unions in higher education are the answer to Greene’s call to action. Rutgers AAUP-AFT not only encourages solidarity but turns solidarity into organizing for tangible change. The union has shown how tenured faculty can protect the most vulnerable, most importantly by negotiating a work-sharing program, in times when management is threatening additional layoffs and manufacturing a fiscal crisis. The union is living testament to what a union can do for workers in higher education.
Academia is not immune from the gig economy, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in contingent faculty. Greene asserts that 75 percent of university faculty are contingent, relying on short-term contracts with an administration that sees them as disposable. Sherry Wolf smartly named the crisis the “gig-ifying of higher ed.” This also means that 75 percent of university faculty have a more tenuous relationship with academic freedom because they are not protected by tenure.
Those who do have academic freedom, tenured faculty, should be using it to protect contingent faculty and elevate their concerns. Wolf expressed a need for a realignment of tenured faculty. Though they directly benefit from the under-compensated labor of graduate students and non-tenured faculty, since this reduces their teaching loads and allows for a focus on research, the privileges of tenured faculty will be more and more in jeopardy if these circumstances continue.
The threat to contingent faculty has become a threat to the premise of tenure. In 2017, Missouri and Iowa introduced bills to abolish tenure for public universities. While both bills failed, that is not a sign that all is clear. As recently as 2020, Georgia’s public university system board voted to allow “its colleges’ administrations [to] remove a tenured professor with little to no faculty input.” The tenure crisis is here and very real.
Solidarity has been key to Rutgers AAUP-AFT’s success, but the struggle for solidarity in the first place has had to overcome management’s intentional designs aimed at creating division. The division of labor in higher education is more than just tenure versus non-tenure, as Greene points out. The various categories within non-tenured faculty and staff help “make it easier for administrators to maximize their workplace control and minimize costs.”
Management benefits in the long term, while the benefits for tenured faculty are short term. Sure, tenured faculty can enjoy a relatively lighter class load and protected academic freedom of speech, but these will only exist as long as tenure exists. As previously shown, the privileges of tenure are increasingly being challenged and even redefined so that they are becoming unrecognizable as tenure.
An anecdote shared during the interview described a time at Rutgers when distinguished tenured professors did use their status to protect contingent faculty by signing a letter of solidarity. This letter was successfully used as leverage during bargaining with the administration. Bargaining is more successful with solidarity in the ranks. The union does not just fight for its members, but for all employees of the institution.
When I was first accepted to Rutgers, my graduate student mentors said: “Oh, they’re unionized there!” I thought, “What does this mean for me?” It means that I was coming into an institution where collective bargaining had won funding extensions for doctoral candidates, was still working towards extended funding for more than just candidates, and had secured TA/GA appointment extensions. It means that despite my vulnerability as a graduate student, the AAUP-AFT has provided not just a space but a coalition of people who will advocate for me and others in my position using their privilege.
Because Rutgers AAUP-AFT is allied and integrated with graduate fellows and teaching assistants, I do not have to wait to help protect the future that I want for my generation in higher ed. By joining the union and learning its history, especially the triumphs, I am able to proselytize to fellow graduate students, both inside and outside of Rutgers, about what a strong union can do for them and call them to action.