By Sofya Aptekar, Sociology
For the third year, UMass Boston hosted the Resisting Systemic Oppression Teach-in, organized by a grassroots group of faculty. This year’s theme was Solidarity in Action. CDU members organized two teach-in sessions: (1) Racial and Gender Equity in Unions: My Union Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit and (2) Solidarity Across Ranks.
The session on racial and gender equity featured a panel of UMB faculty and CDU members, a UMB grad student organizer, and two faculty members and union organizers from Worcester State University. We organized this session because of shared frustrations with our own unions. For example, we talked about being in white-male-dominated unions representing women-dominated faculty, and how privilege gets used to reinforce itself. In all of our unions, procedures get weaponized to replicate systems of oppression. In this way, criticisms of the union’s lack of engagement with racial inequities can get buried under the suddenly-relevant minutiae of Robert’s Rules of Order. Marginalized faculty are told to form a committee, the work of the committee is ignored, the existence of the committee gets pointed to as evidence that the union did something. Rinse and repeat.
Another issue is the default image of the worker. Who is the worker imagined by union leadership? Which identities are institutionalized? All too often, workplace issues central to the experiences of people of color and white women are bracketed out of the union’s purview. Yet, these are the most precarious academic workers. Linda Liu, one of the CDU panelists, pointed out how activist faculty who are women and people of color are likened to naïve children by union leadership. The focus of business unionism is so narrowly defined that it makes sense for people not to get involved.
At a time of a resurgence of the labor movement, we risk replicating structures of oppression. Without a focus on intersectionality, people of color and white women are sacrificed in the name of unity. How do we make sure not to repeat these mistakes in our progressive union caucuses?
The section on Solidarity Across Ranks came together as an effort to create room for an open conversation between graduate student workers and faculty of different ranks. When the administration’s strategy is to divide and conquer, pitting grad students against faculty and NTT faculty against TT faculty, we wanted to explore our common ground as workers in the same struggle. Each constituent described some of their most pressing workplace issues, followed by a dialogue.
Graduate student employees do an increasing amount of teaching on our campus, as well as nationwide. At UMass Boston, the teaching positions are budgeted in different ways and there are no set rules about how to get a job on campus. This contributes to conflicts around the availability of teaching positions, needed by many of our graduate students to survive financially. There is a felt tension between graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty, particularly the most vulnerable associate lecturers, who can lose their livelihoods on short notice. As elsewhere, the administration and even many faculty frame graduate student teaching as an apprenticeship. GEO members point out that that this concept is used to silence student worker organizing and is particularly vacuous because most of our grad students do not plan to go into academia. Graduate students are stuck in the conflicting roles of employees, customers, and products of the neoliberal university.
All faculty were previously graduate students and most were also graduate student workers. Two CDU members spoke about the working conditions of NTT and pre-tenure tenure-track faculty. Non-tenure-track faculty, who are really the tenure-excluded faculty, were rarely socialized to expect a non-tenure track position upon earning their graduate degrees. And yet, given the dramatic growth of the academic proletariat, that is what most face, along with catastrophic loan debt. The issues of NTT workers include unfair compensation but also lack of recognition and respect. At UMB, NTT faculty are the majority of faculty. They have heavier teaching loads, get paid less, and live with job insecurity (especially the growing share of associate lecturers). They are excluded from faculty governance and underrepresented in the union leadership.
Pre-tenure faculty have a precarious hold on the tenure track. At UMB, they are often buried in service work, as staff is continually downsized and faculty takes on the additional tasks of running programs. At the same time, they are expected to produce original research, publishing articles and books, all while teaching, advising, and supervising student workers. Tenure-track faculty are paid to perform teaching, research, and service, so while it might seem that they do half the teaching of NTT faculty, teaching is only a portion of their contracted work. If they get tenure – which most do at UMB – the service load becomes truly overwhelming, particularly for women faculty. Of course, NTT faculty also do service and research, but that work is unpaid and unrecognized in our workplace.
This teach-in session created an all-too-rare space for us to have these conversations. One takeaway is to be aware of the power structure in which we are embedded as we strive to work together. For instance, when graduate student workers speak up, they face not only the administration but their faculty supervisors. Another is our common mission to provide the best and most affordable education. Unfortunately, we neglected to invite anyone to represent our staff members – an oversight we will correct in the future.