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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2003

Case Studies in Mobilization

Alan Sears

Cogs in the Classroom Factory: The Changing Identity of Academic Labor

Deborah M. Herman & Julie M. Schmid, eds. Westport, Connecticut & London: Praeger Publishers, 2003; 232 pp; hardcover $66.95 US., £43.25.
The character of academic labour is changing dramatically in the context of capitalist restructuring and new patterns of corporate globalization. This book tracks the ways academic workers have responded to these changes through union mobilization. The major focus of the collection is a series of case studies of campus mobilization, primarily from the United States but including one from Canada. Editors Deborah Herman and Julie Schmid use the introduction to do a useful job of setting the case studies in the context of wider analysis that links these mobilizations to the restructuring of academic work in the context of a changing world.

One of the most striking aspects of restructuring, even more in the United States than in Canada, has been the shift towards contingent workers, increasing the role of part-time and limited-term employees. This trend is not limited to academic work, but is tied to the spread of lean production methods that stress speed-up, the minimization of what is termed "waste," and the development of increased workforce flexibility through multi-skilling and the expanded use of contingent employees.

Most of the studies in this book examine cases of mobilization by contingent academic workers, including graduate, part-time and limited-term employees. The increased casualization of employment in post-secondary education has made it more difficult to sustain illusions that academic work is exceptional, organized around apprenticeship, ideals of scholarship and norms of collegiality. One of the recurring themes in this book is the shift in identity as academic workers develop a new sense of themselves through collective action and challenge the individualist and competitive culture of the post-secondary workplace.

The contributors raise important questions about the relationship between contingent and permanent workers in the context of academic restructuring. One of the features of lean production as a management strategy is that it allows employers and state policymakers to postpone confrontation with the most powerful groups of workers by developing a contingent workforce to absorb at least some of the shocks of restructuring, work intensification and deteriorating working conditions. Wesley Shumar and Jonathan Church point out in their insightful article, "... university professors have thus far been able to imagine themselves as less affected by transnationalism ... because the flexible workforce (part-time and temporary faculty) has made it possible for the universities to maintain the traditional system of tenure and low teaching loads." (p. 24)

Academic restructuring, then, can place permanent faculty in a contradictory position as it might be possible (at least for a time) for them to defend their own conditions while those of the contingent academic workers and other university staff around them deteriorate. At the same time these processes can create new kinds of worker consciousness among permanent faculty in the face of increased precariousness, greater competitive pressures, new standards
of "relevance" in teaching, greater emphasis on new teaching technologies and a new culture of research entrepreneurship. The article by Darla Williams provides a useful example of mobilization of full-time faculty. Mike Burke and Joanne Naiman provide an important examination of the way the contradictions in the situation of permanent faculty can play out, examining the development of a two-tiered contract at Ryerson University.

This collection, written by activists, reminds us constantly that mobilization can lead to real changes for the better. Joe Berry draws inspiration for his own experience of organizing contingent faculty from important historical victories in which workers have overcome casualization through collective struggles, such as the mobilization of dockworkers in the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. William Vaughn shows that organization and member activism can succeed even where the law seems aligned against academic workers, for example in recognition battles in which employers seek to defeat graduate-employee unionization by claiming they are students rather than workers.

Many of the chapters show the importance of union democracy and real membership mobilization in the struggles of academic workers. Graduate-employee organizing has provided some inspiring examples of participatory mobilization of union members and bargaining strategies based on transparency and democracy. Richard Sullivan shows in his chapter that a business union approach and lack of democratic activism can be particularly deadly in this kind of workplace, leading to a hollow shell of a union without serious member participation. The very features that make graduate-employee and contingent worker organizing so difficult, including high turnover and a scattered and very differentiated workforce, can also impel activists towards creative and democratic methods that provide an important model for other worker activists.

This book combines valuable case studies with useful and suggestive analysis of the contemporary process of academic restructuring. I would have liked to see a bit more on the place of students in these struggles and the challenge of building effective solidarity as they face tuition increases driven by user-pay ideology, impersonal and overcrowded classrooms and overwork as they balance jobs, life and school. Many students have their own experiences of contingent work as they try to earn a living while at school. Overall, this book is a powerful tonic for those days where you feel worn down by the grind and resigned to the inevitability of the changes we confront.

Alan Sears is the co-ordinator of labour studies at the University of Windsor and author of Retooling the Mind Factory: Education in a Lean State published by Garamond.