by Lucy Saliger, Adjunct Faculty Member, English
Over the weekend as I waited anxiously, I tried to write one last post before the vote on Monday. But my parents had come to visit us from out of state, and I hadn’t seen them in two years, so I wanted to savor what time I could with them before they left our home on Monday. I didn’t have enough time to finish that last post. I didn’t want to rush it and put up something that was half thought out and not particularly worth reading. But in the liminal space of last weekend, when there were no more last votes to turn out and many of us felt that it was possible for the results to go either way, I thought a lot about the union-building work of the past five months. I wrote the title that I’ve retained here. And I wrote this:
As we wait to count the votes tomorrow to find out if we will win an adjunct faculty union, I’m thinking about what we have done. We have already forged a living, active solidarity among many adjuncts and with many of our tenured colleagues and other supporters on this campus, across the larger community, and around the country. Prior to this, many adjuncts felt invisible and isolated from one another. This effort has profoundly changed us individually and as a campus. Many of us have forged new relationships and found abilities that we never knew we had. Many of us have grown stronger and closer to one another.
We have changed the balance of power from one in which we passively accept whatever is doled out to us to a situation in which we have more continuing say in determining what happens next. We collectively decide via this election whether and how we will begin working toward a contract with far more job security, due process, a grievance process, fairer wages, benefits, and a structure in which to do all of this.
Whatever the specific numbers are in tomorrow’s vote count, it is clear that contingent faculty cannot and will not remain isolated and passive about our labor conditions. These labor conditions inevitably affect our students’ current learning conditions as well as their own future hopes for their studies and working lives. These inherently bound-together realities determine the kind of societies and individuals that we can become.
Even adjuncts who have told me that they planned to vote against the union know that something is wrong in higher education and at our own institution. On the first day that I went to help get out the vote with one of my favorite SEIU local organizers – Sandy, a woman who has battled enormous difficulties during her life, has worked hard for home health care workers to have the right to unionize, and ultimately became an SEIU organizer herself because of her deep commitment and idealism – on that day, she and I spoke with an adjunct who told us he was anti- union. We talked on his front porch as his young kids played outside around us. Although we clearly had very different views about unions, he said to us: “St. Thomas needs to get back to being St. Thomas-dot-e-d-u rather than St. Thomas, inc.”
That’s as far as I got before the election. What remains clear – what the senior administration members themselves have even acknowledged – is that the status quo in UST’s dealings with adjunct faculty is not, for most of us, just fine or even okay. UST’s status quo for adjuncts has left people teaching for years – even decades – with no sick-leave, no retirement pension, no formalized job security, absurd wages for the amount of labor required, and in too many ways, a sense by many that we are “second-class citizens.”
I would go further to argue that adjuncts have not been admitted as citizens of UST at all; we’ve inhabited this and other institutions as labor units who can be ‘flexibly’ cast out again with no citizenship rights – in some ways akin to the ways in which bracero workers – ‘guest workers’ – could be brought in and then cast out if their labor was no longer wanted.
What we have done in this unionization campaign is to enact our citizenship – our full humanity – in this place where we work, teach, and live parts of our life without waiting anymore for others to bestow these identities upon us. Political theorist Bonnie Honig, writing about immigrants in the U.S., says:
We have here a story of illegitimate demands made by people with no standing to make them, a story of people so far outside the circle of who “counts” that they cannot make claims within the existing frames of claim making. They make room for themselves by staging non-existent rights, and by way of such stagings, sometimes, new rights, powers, and visions come into being. (101)
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a perfect parallel. As someone with family, close friends, and former ESL students who have struggled with the difficulties of immigrating to the U.S., I know that staging demands under those circumstances can be vastly more challenging and dangerous than staging our own demands for inclusion and decent compensation and benefits as adjuncts at UST. Nonetheless, grasping the connections between ourselves and others gives us a wider body of lessons to learn from and provides a vital broad context to our own situations.
Those lessons show us that any effort to bring about serious substantial changes in our society takes sustained effort. The hyper-exploitation and precariousness of adjuncts in higher education are part of broader trends in our society. As with other movements, we are bound to experience setbacks and defeats along the way, but when we keep at it, our ultimate victory becomes more and more likely.
Yes, we feel disappointed. When we walked out of the NLRB office on Monday afternoon, many of us – UST adjuncts and our committed partners in local SEIU 284 – had tears in our eyes. But we had each other to lean on and learn from. Many hugs of solidarity went around between us all. We were disappointed, but not demoralized.
We who have worked to win a union at UST feel good about our efforts. We and many of our coworkers proudly cast our yes votes for the union. We know, as do even many who voted no, that the administration would never have engaged with us even to this point had we not organized for a union and held this election. We will see now what the administration rolls out in seven days, as they’ve promised. Whatever it is, we should all know that the way to get and hold onto gains is to actively organize and participate. Passively waiting for administrations to ‘do the right thing’ out of the goodness of their hearts will only lead to further erosion of the quality of education and the treatment of those who do the teaching (or much of the other work) in our schools.
Every time we try for big changes, we learn new lessons, forge more alliances, and make ourselves more likely to ultimately win. And all along the way, we will have a great time building relationships, learning together, mutually aiding one another, and creating together an exciting new democratic culture for adjuncts and our fellow workers at UST and in our larger community.
I want to express my profound gratitude to my fellow adjuncts, our tenure-line colleagues, workers in many capacities at UST, our wonderful local SEIU community activist partners who gave their all in this effort, and all those in our larger community or elsewhere who stand with us! Onward!
Honig, Bonnie. Democracy and the Foreigner, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.