The Power of Recognizing Higher Ed Faculty as Working-Class

Rutgers University AAUP Rally, April, 2021, photo by Eric Ruder

Just over 20 years ago, Michael Zweig published The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret. At that year’s How Class Works conference at SUNY Stony Brook, academics from history, political science, labor and industrial relations, and other fields debated Zweig’s use of the term “working class.” Some thought it was a throwback to the 1930s or a tip-off that someone was a Marxist. But even at a conference attended by many academics from working-class backgrounds, no one pointed out that academics are working class. Twenty years ago, academia still seemed like a middle-class or even an upper-class job, even though that had started to change in the mid 1970s.Young academics expected that if they did “all the right things,” they would get tenure and live happily ever after.

That expectation was wrong in 2002, and it’s even worse now, as this grim report shows. Nearly 75% of faculty in higher education are precarious workers, more like restaurant and hospitality workers, gig performers, contract healthcare workers, and delivery drivers than the tenured professor. They are hired on a per-class, per-semester basis. They do not control the conditions of their work. They often lack access to offices, professional development, research funds, and opportunities to collaborate with peers or vote in faculty meetings. They may be asked to take on a new course with a week or less warning. Many are told what textbooks to use and what tests to give. They are likely to have to apply for a new campus parking permit or library card every semester. But they also don’t get personal respect. They are vulnerable to management whim, favoritism, harassment, and simple forgetfulness, not to mention a complaint from a single disgruntled student who wanted a better grade.

Many contingent faculty are shocked to realize that college teaching is a working-class job. But recognizing that can be liberating. Thinking about ourselves as “working class” clarifies our understanding of our contingency by helping us identify with the 99% instead of the 1%. It can also inspire us to build alliances to improve our conditions and our industry.

First of all, it helps us appreciate and identify with our students, who are increasingly working class, and like us, probably working more than one job to make ends meet.  We see their problems as our problems and become open to talking about common solutions. In turn they can see more accurately what it takes to be an academic and live the paradox of “love the work, hate the job.”

Second, it helps us understand and appreciate graduate student’s efforts to win the right to be recognized as employees (not “apprentices” on a stipend) who rely on their jobs for living.  Graduate student organizing is one of the hottest areas in the campus labor movement – and possibly in the labor movement overall — these days, with wins coming in from unions like USW at the University of Pittsburgh, UE at University of Iowa, UAW at Harvard and the University of California and SEIU at Duke, Northwestern, Saint Louis University, and American University, just to name a few.

Third, thinking of ourselves as workers can help us understand the value of building campus labor coalitions, organizations that include not just academics but also clerical workers, the trades, transportation, custodial, food service, and technical workers. Such coalitions create power through the interdependency of all the workforces in a college or university.

Fourth, concerns about the working conditions of contingents can form a basis for solidarity with the privileged 25% who are tenured and tenure-line faculty. They usually resist this idea, but the reality of how their work has changed provides a strong argument. Over the worklives of senior faculty, colleges and universities tightened their belts, drained resources from the classroom, built arenas instead of libraries, created freestanding “foundations” that were outside faculty control, and engaged in a series of internet-based shocks like contracting out administrative functions like payroll to IT companies, putting journals on line, shifting classes to Blackboard and Moodle, experimenting with MOOCs, and much more.  At the same time, requirements for tenure-track hiring and promotion were raised, contingent faculty became the majority, and administrative and advising work for tenure-line faculty increased. Some schools hired CEOs to run institutions like businesses.  With all this, tenure-line faculty were progressively cut out of the full exercise of shared governance. All this degraded the institution of higher education, and not just for the contingent majority. These changes affect students, tenure line and contingent faculty, and staff alike.

The good news is that some are organizing for change. Higher Education Labor United (HELU), a new organization that came out of the organizing around College for All, has been endorsed by 117 locals from eight national unions and organizations. HELU uses the term “labor” broadly: its membership includes unions representing clerical, staff, and other workforces as well as faculty.  The leadership team comes from colleges and universities in 29 states. HELU aims to establish a national strategy for higher education, something that the traditional faculty unions, AAUP, NEA and AFT, were never able to cooperate to achieve.

To get this rolling, HELU is convening a free Winter Summit, February 23-27, on Zoom. The conference will feature four afternoons of workshops and several keynote presentations, all focused on three goals: coordinate the surge of higher education worker organizing across the country, develop federal policy proposals to reverse the trends that have damaged higher education over the last several decades, and support politicians who will advance a program of democratizing higher education. Members of endorsing organizations will have opportunities to participate in decision-making.

The vision guiding the young leaders of HELU is broad working-class mobilizing to address the crisis in higher education. To accomplish that, it’s time for faculty see themselves as members of the working class and stand together to fight for change.

Helena Worthen, University of Illinois

Helena Worthen is the co-author, with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Majority in Higher Education (Pluto, 2021).  She has worked and taught as a labor educator and teacher unionist in California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.  

This entry was posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Labor and Community Activism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Power of Recognizing Higher Ed Faculty as Working-Class

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  3. Denise A. Narcisse says:

    This came to an email-in box I come into only sporadically now. My 16 years of experience in academe supports Worthen’s candid and insightful commentary.
    A proud graduate of the U of I system (UIUC, UIS, and UIC)
    Denise A Narcisse


  4. Pingback: Links: Neoliberal economics; working-class faculty; the dud Winter Olympics – Catholic Mass Online Search

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  6. oklahomafed says:

    It seems like the cuts in higher ed come where higher ed is needed most.


  7. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Helena and John, this essay is outstanding and something I have been looking for. Can I reprint this (or a portion of this) for the Higher Education Inquirer with appropriate links and attribution?


  8. brandon spivey says:

    I can not see the lecturers unions or students unions as anything but a joke really. University lecturers play no role in society other than maintaining a class based system . If we pay attention to their roles, very few working class get into universities. If this was an issue for lecturers then why do they not refuse to collaborate with the classist system? Where is the solidarity and camaraderie with actual workers ?
    Universities are not progressive and are ‘capital funded business platforms’ They are fundamentally involved in a system that weeds out working class .and or the traits of the working class (to question to ask )In real terms , that is forcing working class students who are at the mercy of lecturers to pack away their life experience and not question and draw on their own lifes and culture. The UCU is middle class and to most of us they are ‘educated imbeciles’ with no real work experience or valid contribution to make to society.
    If lecturers go on strike this as no bearing on society as they do no significant constructive work. (Medical schools /Nursing might be exempt from that .) Most lecturers seem to be creepy thick fucks validated by privilege. I have seen middle class wankers ( I choose my words carefully) move from students to then being lecturers , to then writing about a society that realistically they are cushioned from so only have a theoretical understanding of.
    I know it is easy to discount ‘counter views’ but realistically is their a valid debate around class to be had in ‘middle class/elitists establishments?
    There is nothing more amusing than seeing ‘working class validated’ by their superiors .Then we see the adoption by the working class ‘lecturer’ of their supposed middle class outlook/status. Higher education (university) seems to take in the proles , pats them on the back whilst stripping them off common sense . It is clear that the infantile education passed out as degrees /phds is not enough to match what is lost in the process of ‘grooming’ and dismantling working class strong individuals who never seem to put their educations towards the good of society.
    Universities try to claim the ownership of the word and meaning of ‘Education’ when in reality they devalue its meaning and insult us all in wider society.
    I have become very aware of the absurdity of universities, they ‘cheat’ ,they have no morals and are at the service of industry and not progressive society. I am technically uneducated , seeing picket lines of wankers from universities is pretty cringe worthy and painful to watch to say the least. I do not write this to be abusive I support working class self education . I would have to dumb down to not comment on people who take university educations seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Glen McGhee, Dir., FHEAP says:

    I just noticed that Fabio Rojas posted — without an iota of irony —
    Anyone care to comment?


  10. Glen McGhee, Florida Higher Education Accountability Project says:

    Here is a rare in-depth look at California’s gig hiring in higher ed.
    Please add this to your list.


  11. Ray Mazurek says:

    Very glad to see this. Academics—including those in working class studies—been very slow to acknowledge that a new white collar working class now dominates university teaching in the U.S. I have long admired Joe Berry’s work and have used it in several essays that argue that a white collar working class exists. Perhaps we should talk about working classes and exploited classes and stop thinking about THE working class as if it is a single entity.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Szczelkun says:

    Great to see this and fully agree! In the UK there is a strong lecturers union UCU but most faculty would be embarrassed to say they are working class in the job (rather than have a ‘working class background’ which is acceptable). I think this is a core struggle as it goes to the heart of class oppression which was/is posited on the idea that working class people in general have less intellectual capacity than upper and upper-middle classes.

    Liked by 1 person

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