Higher education is now a battleground between workers and corporatization


Capitalism ends up ruining all good things.

Corporate CEOs are overriding COVID safety measures with demands to “reopen the economy”, a sanitized term for “keeping our profits afloat”. Upcoming quarterly results from Wall Street will outweigh measures to deal with the climate crisis. Even social housing, food, and medical programs originally intended to uplift humanity are being disciplined to monetize everything and adopt business models that differentiate the “deserving” from the “unworthy.”

Higher education, too, has been a central arena in the struggle between the pursuit of profit and social good. As Joe Berry and Helena Worthen note in their book, Power Despite Precariousness: Strategies for Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education (Pluto Press, 2021), over the past 40 years, “we have seen higher education transform into a for-profit industry.… The flow of money through the entire academic research project has distorted this who is studied, what is judged, what is published and who has access to it. And with skyrocketing tuition fees, endless fees and hidden extra costs, along with privatized student loans and skyrocketing student debt, “the higher education industry, like the industry real estate and its brother, the financial industry, found a way to suck up the wealth accumulated by the previous generation during the 1950s and 1960s”.

Look beyond Latin mottos of higher education and lofty hymns to truth and knowledge to see what’s steering the ship of higher education: just survey the names of buildings at your local university. In my hometown of Seattle, you can walk to the University of Washington’s Bank of America Executive Education Center (with its Boeing Auditorium), adjacent to the business school in PACCAR Hall,”named for Bellevue truck manufacturer, PACCAR Inc., in recognition of his $16 million gift to UW. (Apparently, with an eight-digit gift, you get ALL CAPS naming rights.) Walk south and on your right you’ll see William H. Gates Law School, named after the corporate attorney and father of Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates. Then walk past the old Physics Building now named after the elder Gates’ wife, Mary Gates, between the two computer buildings bearing the names of Bill Gates and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and the across the walkway to watch a basketball game at Alaska Airlines. Arena, or maybe a tennis match at the adjacent Nordstrom Tennis Center.

Notice, this is supposed to be a public institution.

The selfish naming rights and tax deductions these elites reap, along with the board positions their generosity buys, are perks incidental to their true purpose: the creation and maintenance of a funded assembly line. by the state producing the intellectual capital necessary to feed their voracious private profit-making machines.

Fortunately, this dystopian vision is not without organized resistance. It centers on the growing army of precarious university workers, who together do most of the teaching and research in higher education.

Fifty years ago, more than three-quarters of university professors were tenured or tenure-track, and only a quarter were temporary or auxiliary teachers. Today, these figures have changed, with 75% of college teachers employed in a precarious way, as “auxiliaries”, lecturers or teaching assistants to doctoral candidates. They have no long-term job security. They have to stay on the lookout every year – or even every academic term – to get their next teaching or research gig. It’s not that different from Uber drivers scrambling for the next ride.

They are the frontline workers of the academy, and they see and experience firsthand the damage that corporatization inflicts: for students, the stress of deep debts, high rents, and a lack of proper supports; for teachers, poverty wages, precarious housing, delayed medical care and the mental burdens that all precarious workers carry in the capitalist economy.

As administrations reduced tenure and conjured up a massive workforce of precariously employed teachers and researchers, the new proletariat organized itself. Today, a significant percentage of teachers, from community colleges to major public and private research institutions, have formed unions to fight for better job security, higher salaries, decent benefits and reasonable work.

Power despite precariousness dives deep into a front of this global battlefield. Authors Berry and Worthen, who combine decades of experience in teaching and university organization, offer the reader an in-depth, classroom-level case study of how educators in the education system California State University organized and built power: first by taking on and overcoming institutional inertia and elitism within their own union ranks, then by challenging university administration.

The authors describe how, in 1960, California established a plan to open up higher education widely by making it free at all levels – community colleges, California state universities, and the University of California system. This notion of education as a social good, as opposed to a commodity to be purchased, has been at the center of struggle not just in California but across the country for the past 60 years.

In California, the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 cut funding for education and other social services, triggering a seismic change amplified by subsequent budget choices by Democratic and Republican state legislators. In the late 1970s, California legislators budgeted three times more public funds for the University of California and California State systems than for state prisons. Forty years later, these State aid percentages have practically reversed. Thus, “state support has been diverted from public assistance to punitive functions that target marginalized populations”, note Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen in Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities, another excellent book dissecting the academy’s corporate heist.

But the defunding of higher education has not been enough to tip the scales sufficiently towards corporate power. Worker power was also to be harnessed through divide-and-conquer employment programs. Berry and Worthen note that the same decade of the 1970s also saw a pronounced tilt by universities towards hiring contingent faculty, fostering divisions in the ranks of educators. “The creation of a permanent two-tier system within the faculty was a powerful weapon against the emerging faculty unionization movement,” they write.

At Cal State, it took a while for educators to fight back. Berry and Worthen trace the history of lecturers organizing and struggling to build unity with tenured faculty at Cal State’s 23 campuses. Poorly negotiated union contracts in 1995 and again four years later spurred educators – led by younger, more militant lecturers – to win a contested leadership election and begin to steer the union in a progressive direction.

The book outlines a number of steps taken by the new leadership, each an important part of rebuilding a union in any industry: the creation of organizing structures on every campus, head-to-head conversations one-on-one to recruit members and identify leaders, strategic planning to develop the union’s own vision for the future of the university, and organizing contract campaigns to prepare for the strike. Notably, the authors describe how the new leadership brought in activists from the Ruckus Society to teach teachers how to take direct action. This is a good example of the kind of cross-fertilization that needs to be done more frequently in the labor movement.

As grassroots activists, Berry and Worthen do painstaking work detailing – sometimes at a very granular level – the formative steps activists have taken to recover and rebuild their union. Their quotes from long paragraphs of union members rightly elevate the vital voices and experiences of grassroots activists – too often overlooked in union histories. They devote several chapters at the end of the book to important questions for any union organizer seeking to build their power, including: “What makes people move? “Who is the enemy?” “Who are our allies?

Berry and Worthen also devote two chapters to what they call the “Blue Sky Proposals,” in which they lay out a set of ambitious goals largely articulated around union contract battles. All good ideas, of course, but negotiating contracts over wages and working conditions is only a doorway into the larger fight for the soul of higher education. From the chapter titles, I was hoping for deep azure vistas, but only got robin’s egg blue. I finished the book still eager to learn more about how Berry and Worthen, as lifelong socialists, would return to their opening critique of the capitalist hijacking of higher education and apply their considerable experiences to Articulate a social movement vision for higher education unions. This may be their follow-up book.

This broader vision is, indeed, urgently needed today. The billionaires whose names adorn campus buildings across the country can rightly boast that they have made substantial progress in taking control of higher education. The organized resistance of the workers and students of the academy is the only thing standing in the way of a complete takeover.

Fighting for good wages and benefits and greater job security in the ways that Berry and Worthen detail is an essential step in this resistance. But that is not enough. For example, unions – whether in higher education, transport, warehousing or food delivery – must not limit their efforts to dealing with short-term precariousness, but rather wage battles demanding the end of job insecurity, period.

Contract negotiation in particular is an opportunity for workers to issue these bold challenges. It is also a good time to raise fundamental questions around power, control and the mission of the university, by contrasting our vision of the social good with their vision of private profit. And we should measure our progress, fight by fight, strike by strike, not only by the quality of the contracts won, but also by how well we succeed in loosening the grip of the profiteers and bringing the academy back to a place of learning that serves everyone and society as a whole.

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