School teachers across the US are striking for many reasons, from atrocious working conditions to low pay. Polls show that most Americans support these teachers’ strikes.
What many people may not know is that similar protests are taking place at colleges and universities across the country. Graduate students, adjuncts, and lecturers are quietly engaging in direct actions that are just as important as the teachers’ strikes.
For example, lecturers recently took over the administration building at the University of Michigan, and half threatened to strike. And not so long ago, adjuncts organized a national walk-out day to draw attention to their problems.
To understand the recent protests, you need to understand one word: adjunct.
According to the dictionary, adjunct is defined as “supplementary, rather than an essential part.” We’re part-time faculty. Yet despite the definition, we are an essential part of the university.
In fact, around three-quarters of college professors are adjunct professors. Universities couldn’t operate without us.
Many people still think that professors make a lot of money. We adjuncts, however, don’t. We have the same credentials and responsibilities as full-time tenured faculty, but we make a fraction in comparison — often as low as $1,200 for a semester-length class.
Our employment is precarious: We only get paid if enough students sign up for a course, and it can get canceled even if we’ve spent weeks preparing for it. We typically get no health care benefits and we usually have no retirement or job security.
Many of us are deep in debt due to student loans and have to work multiple jobs around the clock trying to make ends meet. Far too many struggle with food scarcity or homelessness.
So why should we care about the protests of adjunct professors? Because academic job conditions now mirror conditions everywhere else in America.
When I lived in Flint, Michigan, in the “old days,” many of my friends’ parents were able to live a comfortable life in good factory jobs.
General Motors was a solid career path and college was an achievable dream for kids. Plant workers held jobs for 30 years and often could support their families on one income. People could take vacations, go to the doctor, and pay off their homes.
Those days are long gone. The plants have moved overseas and the jobs that are left don’t pay a living wage. All workers face stagnant and low wages. Foreclosures haunt neighborhoods, many people still can’t afford medical care even with Obamacare, and student loan debt lasts a lifetime.
In short, the university is just like any corporate employer across the US.
Years ago, I assumed that if I worked hard, my part-time position would eventually morph into a full-time position. I only realized too late that this was probably never going to happen.
Part-time faculty, like school teachers, have had enough. Yet we continue to teach because we have a love for teaching and for our students. We know there’s no way the administration will pay us what we deserve unless we demand it. So we’re demanding it.
I believe that these movements by educators are every bit as significant as the social justice movements of the 1960s, or the unionization struggles of the labor movement in the 1930s. Like those struggles, today’s teachers are making history.
We’re working Americans who teach future generations of students. Let’s all stand united — teachers, students, and adjunct professors together.