A Union Fight at Marquette University

Sam Harshner

Like academic workers around the country, graduate workers and non-tenure track faculty at Marquette University want a union to end low wages and high health care costs. And like university administrations around the country, Marquette is fighting them.

Johnston Hall on the Marquette University campus in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, June 2008. Matthew Hendricks / Wikimedia

Interview by
Jamie McCallum

In the fall of 2018, graduate students, and non-tenure track faculty began organizing a union at Marquette University with the SEIU Faculty Forward campaign. Low salaries — sometimes less than half what adjuncts at other peer institutions make — and rising health care costs ignited a broad movement that included months of protests, petitions, sit-ins, and teach-ins, which have led to an important moment for hundreds of academic workers.

So far, the university has refused to agree to a fair election process that would guarantee the democratic vote of the rank and file is respected. The situation at Marquette is yet another example of how academic workers increasingly resemble their service industry counterparts.

A recent email from Marquette University’s administration noted that the school likes having contingent faculty on staff because it helps the school “control costs” and “maintain flexibility.” But it pays its administrators 80 percent more than the average four-year university.

It’s no secret that the Trump administration places restrictions on how workers can organize. But the last year of educator strikes shows it’s still possible to make gains. The Marquette movement is just one example of how that energy is percolating within higher education as well. Just this week workers at Occidental University and Mercy College voted to create non-tenure track unions. Their victory could show that it’s still possible to organize contingent faculty and grad workers in the face of an actively hostile presidential administration.

I spoke with Sam Harshner, visiting assistant instructor in history and political science at Marquette University. Academia is a mid-career shift for him: prior to 2016 he was a policy analyst at the state and federal levels for fifteen years. He’s now part of the charge to organize adjuncts and non-tenure track faculty into a union at Marquette.

Jamie McCallum

Why and when did the union movement at Marquette begin?

Sam Harshner

It immediately became evident that the university was exploiting its grad workers when I started school. Placement rates, especially in the humanities, were not great, and the school depended upon grad labor to teach its core curriculum (especially in English, philosophy and theology).

PhD candidates on near poverty-level stipends are expected to deliver the core of a Jesuit education with little expectation of job security once they leave Marquette. Many of the department chairs I’ve talked to at Marquette are really queasy about the job prospects of the students they work with, and they’ve done yeoman’s work trying to connect graduate degrees in history, English, philosophy, and theology to other career paths (like alternative academic jobs or in advertising). Nevertheless, most grads can look forward to years on the adjunct treadmill before they give up and crash out the bottom.

Things got even worse in 2016 when the school dropped the crappy high-deductible health care plan they offered to grad students and sent them off to buy even worse plans on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchange. Grad workers get a small stipend to help out with these expenses, but as the ACA erodes, more and more of them are going without coverage or getting onto Medicaid. It’s become an unsustainable situation.

Grad health care concerns are the real catalyst here. But we have other grievances too.

Adjuncts make as little as $3,000 a class and many of them have to cobble together a living by working two or three jobs at a time. They get hired on a semester by semester basis and have no formal assurances that they will have work in the future. They get by on poverty-level stipends and have to spend a significant chunk of their income on health care (or choose to forego it).

Visiting assistant professors/instructors (VAP) do significant amounts of service in addition to their academic duties. Some serve as directors or assistant directors of research or service centers and some are responsible for entire academic programs. Despite the integral roles they play, almost all of them have to make-do with an endless series of nine-month contracts.

Many of the women adjuncts/VAPs we’ve talked to said they try to time births so that they land in late May or June so they can have time to recover. For those unlucky enough to give birth during the school year, they have no choice but to return to work almost immediately. One of our former colleagues returned to work one week after having her first child. All of this is driven by fears that they will not be asked to return as instructors if they take time off related to childbirth.

Jamie McCallum

What is that you want the administration to do?

Sam Harshner

We’re asking them to remain neutral as we organize our union. We want the university to refrain from using tuition dollars to make anti-union pronouncements and we want to avoid spurious legal challenges and bureaucratic hurdles to our union election process. Universities like Marquette have traditionally gone to a pretty standard bag of tricks to delay and avoid a fair union election. These include misclassifying workers as “agents of the church,” “students,” or “managers.”

All these maneuvers relate to questions already decided by case law, and their only function is to either delay us into oblivion or capitalize on the more administration-friendly leanings of the new Trump labor board. The only response we’ve heard so far is to say that they will follow federal law, which is literally the lowest bar they could set for themselves.

Jamie McCallum

How are you protesting?

Sam Harshner

We’ve had three large rallies and numerous smaller actions pushing for the administration to give us a fair and democratic union election process. So far, we’ve gotten nothing.

We have been occupying the administration building off and on since May 1 because it gave us the greatest practical access to decision-makers. They had to walk by us and engage with us. During the occupation they had to read our signs, listen to our stories, and respond to our questions.

The results were really illuminating. People’s first reaction was to ignore us. They would walk past us and rush to either the elevators or the stairwell where a security person would usher them upstairs. Later it got confrontational. But the most interesting thing was what happened after the overnight occupation.

When people saw us groggy and bedraggled after a night sleeping on the marble floor, their demeanor changed. A number of people told us that, while they couldn’t sign our community petition, they did support us and that they would try to make our case to upper-level administrators. The upshot is that just hearing our stories ultimately turned a lot of people. It’s increasingly evident that most of the campus community is behind us and the administration is increasingly isolated.

Jamie McCallum

Can you talk about why this struggle matters beyond Marquette? What are the implications for higher education in general?

Sam Harshner

First and foremost, it matters because the shift to contingent faculty is a nationwide phenomenon that undermines the job security of all academic workers, tenured or not. Most studies find that three-quarters of all faculty are now non-tenure track, and the number of these positions has quadrupled since 1975. Professors in these positions have less access to benefits, lower salaries, and virtually no job security. Unionization is the only means contingent academic workers to gain job security and ensure living wages.

Second, because unionization of contingent academic workers is a significant prong in the labor activism we see throughout the education sector. Third, it’s significant because it would be a sizable labor victory in a state that has recently experienced the death of its public sector unions and the passage of a draconian “right to work” law. The Walker administration was a disaster for the labor movement in this state and we hope to be both a harbinger of its rebirth, and an example on how to do organizing in this anti-labor context.

Finally, it’s important because the unionization of contingent faculty is part of a broader resistance to the neoliberal university’s maniacal focus on skills, employability, and Carnegie classifications, which are used to determine the various types of schools within higher education. We want to return our university to its mission to focus on the care of the whole person.