In 1919, an annus mirabilis of global revolution, Helen Taft was president of Bryn Mawr College. She was also the daughter of the Republican president and Supreme Court justice William Howard Taft, and sister of Robert Taft, author of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. Nonetheless, she endorsed the right of workers to strike and remarked that, “the wealthy men of the country certainly owe the professors a living wage.”
The views of Helen Taft were heterodox both within her family and in academia more widely. While the rest of the country was aflame with labor standoffs from the Seattle dockyards to the steel mills of Pittsburgh, campuses stayed silent. When they did decide to join in on the action it was to supply undergraduate strikebreakers, who descended from august institutions like Harvard to undermine organized labor.
Colleges had been sites of elite conservatism since the first colonial-era seminaries. If you taught or studied there, the chances were high that you were already part of the ruling order, or hoped to join its ranks or work in its service. Bryn Mawr was an anomaly; so, too, were radically minded professors like Thorstein Veblen or Charles Beard or John Dewey, not to mention W. E. B. Dubois.
A century later, the climate has changed. During this past March and April, a campaign its organizers called “Labor Spring” made landfall on over seventy-five campuses from Hawaii to Maine. Their aim was to highlight the ongoing struggles to unionize campus-based workers, both academic and nonacademic. The strike of forty-eight thousand University of California faculty, hailing from every grade and variety (including graduate students, postdocs, and researchers), and the strike of nine thousand faculty members at Rutgers University, the first such uprising in 257 years, was the culmination of a wave of college labor unrest that had been building for several years.
Labor Spring events took place at elite schools like Georgetown and Yale and MIT; at Duchess County Community College; at public universities including SUNY Stony Brook, the University of Maryland, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Massachusetts Boston; in state colleges like Boise State, Central Connecticut State, and Wayne State; down South in labor-hostile places like Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas; at law schools including at Duke, CUNY, and New York University; at largely black colleges like Howard and Tuskegee; at denominational institutions like Texas Christian University; and at Catholic schools including Holy Cross and Catholic University.
As impressive as Labor Spring’s size was its social composition. Rallies, forums, workshops, teach-ins, and marches embraced every level of academic workers, and often included unions of nonacademic college employees. Hospital workers, nurses, janitors, cafeteria and clerical workers, maintenance people, housekeepers, as well as undergraduate resident advisers and dining hall workers all took part. Outside unions, local labor councils, clergy, and immigrant rights groups joined in, as did United Students Against Sweatshops, Jobs With Justice, and Workers United. This was especially true of Starbucks organizers looking to link campus labor activism to their campaign to kick the company off campus. Here and there politicians showed up to cheer. Labor Spring had clearly touched a nerve.
Yet by and large these were small-scale events, hosting dozens; rarely were over a hundred people in attendance. They were strictly local affairs and drew little attention outside the rank-and-file activists who organized them, and they were scarcely covered by the mainstream media. In part, this was by design. The aim of the architects of Labor Spring — professors housed mainly at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University — was for “a hundred flowers to bloom” at schools from coast to coast. Little attempt was made to coordinate or establish a focused presence for what after all was an extraordinary national, if highly fragmented, phenomenon.
Nor was much suggested by way of political direction. By default, the events manifested a single-minded focus on the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. This may have been all that was possible, but closer inspection suggests otherwise.
The backdrop for Labor Spring was a nationwide preoccupation with economic inequality, a fledgling socialist movement (hitherto out of action for a half century at least), a new willingness to interrogate capitalism, an imminent threat to democracy, and a remarkable labor upsurge happening off as well as on campus. Given this background, it’s plausible to imagine that Labor Spring could have been more ambitious as well as focused in terms of its aims. But Labor Spring also acted in an arena, the university, in which labor struggle had been off the agenda for as long as anyone could remember. Despite its limitations, Labor Spring’s crowning achievement has been to orient campus politics, perhaps irreversibly, to the labor question.
Capturing Lightning in a Bottle
Organized labor’s raw numbers remain woefully low. Union density continues to decline in most sectors — the percentage of the labor force belonging to unions has declined, or at best stagnated at around 10 percent. Limited to the private sector, the figure is 6 percent. While member totals have risen recently, the numbers can’t keep up with the growth of the workforce.
Yet, between 2021 and 2022, the number of National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) elections surged by more than 50 percent from 2021 to 2022. So too have strikes and organizing drives. The amount of workdays lost to strikes also rose by more than half; the number or workers involved grew by 60 percent. These stoppages and unionizing campaigns have often been driven by independent unions (as at Amazon) or in concert with established trade unions, or sometimes in the absence of any union — the case in one-third of the strikes in 2020. Worker centers (referred to as “alt-labor” as they don’t really function as collective bargaining agencies), once a rarity, now number 250. Rank-and-file insurgencies inside two of the country’s most powerful unions — the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Teamsters — have actually taken over the leadership, promising not only renewed militance and organizing, but to pursue progressive political options regarding environmental and other matters. Meanwhile, 71 percent of the public supports unions, a number last achieved in 1965 (moreover, those belonging to Generation Z are the most pro-union).
Every sector of the economy shows the imprint of this rebirth of the “labor question.” Railroad workers came close to bringing the economy to a stop. Miners, machine-makers, communication workers, John Deere tractor makers, Nabisco and Kellogg cereal producers, bus drivers, meatpackers, electric vehicle steel workers, and others from the industrial heartland displayed renewed militance. So have poultry workers and tomato pickers. Auto workers and teamsters may soon face off against the car companies and UPS.
Low-wage workers in the retail and service economies, where it is considerably harder than in other sectors to mobilize and sustain resistance, have lately managed to do so, most notably at Starbucks, where over three hundred cafes have voted to unionize since December of 2021. Organizing drives and strikes have happened at industrial laundries, Trader Joe’s, REI, and Chipotle. Even the vital and supposedly invulnerable logistics networks have shown signs of strain, most notably, if tentatively, at Amazon. Public sector workers, especially schoolteachers, and those in the burgeoning health care economy, especially nurses, have been walking picket lines for the last several years, often in Republican-held states. Accordingly, the media christened the fall of 2021 “Striketober.”
Unrest has surfaced in the most unlikely places. Museums, high-tech ateliers, IT headquarters, social media outlets (Gawker and Buzzfeed, for example), the offices of nonprofits, libraries, and even operating rooms and law offices have all confronted unhappy employees asserting their right to organize. These workers have demanded not only monetary compensation but respect and a voice. As on campus, the labor question had rarely been asked in these locales.
All Quiet on the Academic Front
Strikes, historically, don’t happen much on campus, especially not by members of the faculty. When, rarely, they did happen, the issue was almost always about academic freedom and tenure. Often enough they were spontaneous and did not involve a union or demands for collective bargaining. Professional associations in the early twentieth century, like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), eschewed the union imprimatur, even though, as Upton Sinclair acidly observed, it really consisted of “an organization of intellectual proletarians, who have nothing but their brains to sell.” Maybe so, but proletarian consciousness was an alien import in the academy and gained little traction.
Even during the 1930s, when the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) established beachheads in Boston and New York, it maintained a no-strike policy, defeated attempts to overturn it, and outlawed left-wing led groups like the New York College Teachers Union. After World War II, the Congress of Industrial Organization’s (CIO) United Public Workers of America, which had won bargaining rights at the New School, Howard, and the Hampton Institute, was destroyed in the great Cold War purge of the labor left. Real collective bargaining and the occasional strike were confined to nonacademic campus unions among clerical, service, and maintenance workers.
College students, staunchly Republican before the Great Depression, did have a change of heart when disaster struck. Student antiwar and anti-fascist movements flourished. Embattled coal miners and other industrial workers could count on aid and reinforcements from radicalized undergraduates. Worlds once so far apart seemed far less so when a capitalism in crisis made mass youth unemployment and dimming prospects a universal fate. Joie de vivre of campus life instead seemed like “dancing on the edge of a volcano,” in the words of one student activist.
Still, while college students and some faculty discovered that they had a social conscience, it was not one that perceived the campus itself as a site of anti-capitalist class struggle. That happened off campus. The quad was still a privileged precinct: only 12 percent of college-aged people actually went to college; in 1910, less than 10 percent graduated high school. The industrial revolutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the incorporation of American business enormously increased the demand for lawyers, accountants, mechanical and chemical engineers, agronomists, technicians, and managers. They constituted a new, secular cadre there to erect, stabilize, and administer the new order. Students and their professors comprised a self-conscious aristocracy of talent. This was true both of private colleges and the land-grant state universities erected during the Civil War and again in 1890.
Only during the upsurge in public sector unionization in the 1960s and 1970s did the AFT, the National Education Association (NEA), and the AAUP gain a real foothold among the academic labor force. Even then, however, the ethos of professionalism persisted. So, in New York, for example, where the Taylor Law (adopted in 1967) outlawed strikes by public employees, it was nonetheless defied well over three hundred times between 1967 and 1994. But only a small handful of those renegade walkouts were carried out by the faculty of public universities; nationally, the trend was only worse. After the 1970s, a decade of considerable labor militancy across the whole economy, faculty strikes steadily diminished. Most of those that did take place did so at public colleges, especially community colleges.
Of course, this trajectory mimicked the general decline of the labor movement, of its organizing drives, of its strikes, and of its shrinking share of the labor force, especially among workers in the private sector. Rare exceptions, including graduate student organizing at Yale and New York University, which doggedly persisted in the face of bitter administration resistance, proved the rule: the campus remained largely immune to the labor question.
All of this has changed in the last few years. The number of successful unionization drives on campus has soared. So, too, has the number of unionized faculty, particularly among graduate students, teaching assistants, and adjunct and nontenured faculty in private institutions of higher education. Just in the last three years the number of recognized unions of undergraduate workers went from one at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to over a dozen. A veritable flotilla of unions — the United Electrical Workers (UE), the UAW, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), UniteHere, and the Teamsters (not to mention a host of independent unions and the usual suspects from the AFT, the NEA, and the AAUP) — have taken on university administrations everywhere. A new grouping, Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education, made its appearance in 2020. A coalition including 130 unions called Higher Education Labor United formed in 2021. This may be little more than a paper tiger, but strikes have tripled when compared to the period from 2012 to 2018.
So, what happened? Is this a blip, a temporary aberration? Or is the campus becoming a new site of proletarianization, part of a more global labor insurgency? Or is it all a kind of social hallucination that will dissipate in time?
Up the Down Escalator
Phase changes in the understructure of American capitalism have periodically shifted the levels of education necessary to sustain the system. The long era when family capitalism predominated — through most of the nineteenth century — did not, by and large, require formal training beyond grade school; a high school degree met the most advanced needs of commercial management. Beyond that, a baccalaureate was of greater social than vocational value.
Scientific, technical, and organizational transformations of the underlying economy beginning around the turn of the twentieth century changed all that. Industrialization. plus the rise of the publicly traded corporation, endowed higher education with a new mission. In 1900, there were fewer than one thousand colleges and about 160,000 students. There followed periodic explosions in higher education between 1900–1930 and 1950–1970: college enrollment quadrupled between 1940 and 1970, and once again since the turn of the new century. To give a sense of the scale of this transformation, universities awarded 9,400 BA degrees in 1870; in 2009 they handed out 1.6 million. The GI bill of 1944 — fondly described as “the magic carpet to the middle class” — and the Higher Education Act of 1965 provided the financial underpinnings that supported this expansion in the second half of the last century.
Intimations of an altered form of campus consciousness, a premonition of what was to come a half century later, surfaced in the 1960s. Rebellions erupted against the “multiversity,” against its depersonalized treatment of students and its bureaucratization, its emphasis on slotting students into vocations, and its studied unwillingness to challenge the established order. This new climate riled up students, who responded across the country with protests, most famously at Berkeley, where student activist Mario Savio gave his famous speech decrying the “odious” workings of an administrative machine that could only be halted by throwing your “body upon the gears” to halt it.
Some undergraduates balked at the fact that they were training to staff the mushrooming mid-level professional, managerial, and administrative positions in business and government that the postwar economy called for. A few, in left-wing circles, actually imagined that their skills might allow them to exercise real control over the direction of the economy. Most just settled in.
Like the college unrest of the New Deal years, the ’60s student movement had as much or more to do with life off campus. Civil rights and antiwar politics dominated. Anxiety also grew that the multiversity not only was behaving like a corporation, but that it was run by trustees who were themselves top-drawer financiers and industrialists. These representatives of industry had increasingly designed the university to serve the needs of the military-industrial complex and the social engineering targets of domestic policymaking elites.
Meanwhile, the labor question was rarely asked. Collective bargaining among undergraduates was virtually unheard of. Professors at private colleges knew what it was, but had little or no experience with its workings. Moreover, the notorious Yeshiva University decision offered those audacious enough to try unionizing no protections under the National Labor Relations Act. That was not true at public universities, but still the labor movement kept a low profile there as well.
Professors and their students (who were destined for managerial and professional occupations) in some sizable numbers did evince active sympathy for others not as privileged: African Americans particularly, the poor more generally, and the oppressed and exploited of what was then called the “third world” or “undeveloped world.” Which is to say, this fragment of the more socially conscious campus population saw itself as a caste apart from but in some hypothetical fraternal alliance with fragments of the domestic and international proletariat and peasantry.
Alliances between left intellectuals and artists, on the one hand, and popular insurgencies on the other, went back a long way. Prewar Greenwich Villagers, for example — Max Eastman, John Reed, Emma Goldman, Mabel Dodge, John Sloan, Randolph Bourne, Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Sanger, Van Wyck Brooks, and many others — threw in their lot with radical labor movements. The IWW, anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, the Socialist Party, and strikers from the mines of Colorado to the silk factories of Patterson could count on aid and comfort from the left-wing, bohemian intellectual and artistic community, some of whom held down academic posts, many of whom had graduated from the Ivy League. They hardly constituted a class. By and large they were abandoning the class they had been born into, aligning instead with the workers’ movement and its promise of an entirely new way of life: in a word, with socialism.
During the New Deal era, this alliance continued, although the socialism dropped out. Writers, artists, and intellectuals were, by and large, staunchly loyal to the New Deal, and championed the newly insurgent labor movement. If the impetus was no longer about overthrowing capitalism, it was nonetheless anti-capitalist in so far as the corporate and financial establishment found itself in the crosshairs of this labor-intellectual united front. Not socialism, to be sure, but an American version of social democracy, was on the agenda.
For people Sinclair might have called “intellectual proletarians,” the labor question and the movement to which it had given birth was the paramount social dilemma, even if most of them would not have considered themselves bona fide proletarians. Both the CIO and the Roosevelt administration maintained robust institutional reach into these circles. And their circumference was extraordinarily wide. Taking the side of labor and all the oppressed was a heterogenous milieu that included movie stars like Bette Davis and even Ronald Reagan; Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, and other eminent scientists; distinguished scholars Carl Van Doren, C. Wright Mills, and Reinhold Niebuhr; writers including Lillian Hellman, Alfred Kazin, and Archibald MacLeish; and musicians like Duke Ellington and Aaron Copeland.
Nonetheless, the warrens of higher education remained mostly immune to what one historian has called this “laboring of American culture.” Some workers in the off-campus cultural realm — Hollywood writers and actors, for example, or orchestral musicians, or onstage and backstage theater people, or journalists — unionized and felt an organic connection to the organized labor movement. But for the most part, intellectuals fell outside this union realm. Moreover, they did not see themselves as a professional guild.
Formal intellectual life had not yet been entirely cloistered within the academy. On the contrary, it thrived in the public arena, where academic credentials, if any, served more as an honorific than a vocational license to think. These public intellectuals hardly constituted a corporate body. Intellectual proletarians they may have been. But their ties to the labor left had little to do with their relationship to the means of production, even cultural production.
Little or nothing of this labor-left-intellectual alliance survived the domestic Cold War. The labor movement purged its radical unions, and left organizations shriveled. Intellectual life was increasingly confined to the campus, where it was professionalized and siloed off into balkanized departments. Bureaucracy, once an alien life-form, was imported from the business world into academic institutions that structurally more and more mimicked their corporate exemplars. Political communication between what was left of the Left on campus and the outside world dwindled as even left-wing academics adopted coded languages suited to departmental specializations, opaque in large measure to the general public.
A Social Hallucination
After the enormous labor upsurge of the 1970s, led largely by a rebellious rank and file, the organized labor movement entered into a protracted decline. Tellingly, that uprising made virtually no impact on campus life. So along with the labor movement itself, the last vestiges of its alliance with the progressive intellectual community withered away as well. Conniving with the Cold War foreign-policy establishment abroad and maintaining its own hidebound foot-dragging when it came to questions of racial and social equality at home, the leadership of the official labor movement had exhausted its credibility with the campus liberal left. There was no there, there. The bipartisan, neoliberal regime had seemingly exterminated most expressions of social conscience. Not only was the labor movement dormant, but so too were most other forms of dissent; only the ghosts of radical feminism and black liberation movements lingered on.
Suddenly and out of nowhere everything changed . . . or seemed to. A palace revolution inside the AFL-CIO in 1995 ousted the entrenched leadership (the first time that had happened in over a century). The new guard, led by John Sweeney of the SEIU (then and still among the most militant segments of the labor movement), promised to make good on the pledge to organize the millions of the unorganized. More and more of those workers were women and people of color, and the upstart regime also committed to breaking down the racial and gender barriers that had long disfigured the house of labor.
Just before this, Francis Fukuyama had prematurely pronounced the End of History. This was a view shared widely by house intellectuals, policymakers, and media savants infatuated with the magic of the market, in awe of high finance, and convinced that deft social engineering would allay any festering social unrest. How dreary a forecast for what remained of the left intellectual world! So, it is not all that surprising that what was now a largely campus-based liberal left greeted the Sweeney revolution with great excitement.
Reacting, they organized a “Teach-In with the Labor Movement” in 1996 at Columbia University. Expectations, given the generally dismal, apolitical zeitgeist, were minimal; maybe a few hundred would show up. Instead, two thousand did. Undergraduates and graduate students, full-time faculty and adjuncts, and unions of campus employees and off-campus workers attended. People came from all over the Northeast. It lasted three days. Ten other campuses around the country staged teach-ins more or less simultaneously. National press coverage was extensive, and was as astonished as the teach-in organizers to report that the labor movement, a dimming memory, was back.
But was it? Or was this a kind of social hallucination? What happened after the Teach-In was practically nothing at all. Despite genuine efforts to organize the unorganized, the movement continued to hemorrhage members. Its political muscle, already atrophied, grew even weaker as the neoliberal Democratic Party consigned its working-class instincts to its attic of embarrassing memories. The circles of progressive intellectuals that had been so elated tried to sustain the momentum of Columbia for a few years, but eventually gave up. The alliance had been a phantom. No rebirth of the labor movement or the labor question was on the horizon.
The Center Cannot Hold
Columbia turned out to be a hallucination because the foundations of the neoliberal political economy remained intact and still viable. Undeniably, rumblings of trouble had indeed surfaced: the savings and loan debacle of the late 1980s, the collapse of the Asian Tiger economies in the late 1990s; the dot-com implosion at the turn of the new century. And after all, the palace revolution inside the AFL-CIO and the wholly unanticipated turnout at the Teach-In were not imaginary. Rather, they were evidence of a thirst to confront the social inequities and injustices that had been accumulating for decades. Still, the system maintained good traction. It was abetted by a relentless assault on labor and its rights; deindustrialization that demoralized broad stretches of the working class and hollowed out its capacity for resistance; and the patriotic genuflections ginned up by the “war on terror.”
If today premonitions of a revival show up here, there, and everywhere, on and off campus, it first of all began in 2008, when the global financial system imploded. Labor Spring, Striketober, and the deeper phase change in the zeitgeist are offspring of the Great Recession. The Teach-In happened out of season and died as a result. Context is everything, and everything about the context for labor’s rebirth — and in particular for the eruption of the labor question on the alien terrain of the college campus — is nothing like it was in the 1990s.
Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, and (in its own less flashy way) the stunning ascent of a new socialist movement were symptomatic. Gross inequality in the distribution of wealth and income had been covered by journalists and book writers decades before the Zuccotti Park occupation in 2011. But these exposés made no impression on public life. Then came financial disaster, mass layoffs, wholesale evictions, liquidated savings, and the bailout of the perpetrators. Occupy registered a new fury, introduced a new social arithmetic (the 1 percent versus the 99 percent), and made economic inequality a commanding current event. Moreover, it attracted, if briefly, support by elements of the labor movement. And it is estimated that three-quarters of the occupiers were college grads.
Bernie Sanders has been around forever, or so it feels like he has. As with those books and articles about the maldistribution of wealth and the advent of a “second Gilded Age,” no one really paid this odd-duck socialist any mind. The Great Recession, Occupy, and the reputational collapse of free market capitalism turned Sanders into the most trusted politician in the United States. Matters of inequality and exploitation made a forced entry into public life, for which Sanders deserves a lion’s share of the credit. That a self-proclaimed socialist could have this kind of impact was not only unimaginable in 1996 at the time of the Columbia Teach-In, but for decades before that, at least since the Great Depression, and really not even then. Moreover, the meteoric rise of Democratic Socialists of America (like Sanders, long perceived as a relic from some bygone era, if perceived at all) followed on in the wake of the Vermont senator’s ascendancy.
Suddenly, anti-capitalism had reentered the public arena after a long absence. This constituted the deeper social ecology and moral atmosphere of Labor Spring and the wider labor unrest it echoed. The system had been failing for some time, predating the fall of Lehman Brothers. And then the deteriorating condition of the working class accelerated. Finally, proletarianization was infecting the halls of academe.
The evidence of system malfeasance is plain to see. Fully one-third of the workforce earns less than fifteen dollars an hour (47 percent of black workers). Seven million people make less than $25,000 a year. The Great Recession surgically sliced away millions of mid-level jobs, many held by women; well over half those jobs were lost forever, and only 20 percent returned after the downturn ended. In 2011, close to 12 percent of the population lived in poverty.
With or without the aid of information technology, the workplace is subjected to increasing surveillance, speedup, and granular-level discipline. Work weeks grow longer, as do workdays. Safety and health are sacrificed in the interests of productivity. Skilled jobs vanished, automated, went abroad, or are just gone. Children are hired to do jobs dangerous to their well-being, and concerted efforts are underway to repeal laws making that illegal: what appalling testimony to systemic retrogression.
Secure employment — always an iffy proposition where the law enshrines employment at will and when trade unions aren’t around to contest the employer’s will — has become ever rarer. Living precariously has become customary up and down the labor supply chain. It conjures up incongruous headlines in the most unlikely places, as in the New York Times report on “The Revolt of the College-Educated Working Class.” Cataloging what amounts to the downward arc of working-class life over the last two decades is a story of late, neoliberal capitalism in distress. A picture emerges of a “developed” country in the throes of underdevelopment.
All the same symptoms are now on display in the world of higher education. Contingent labor already accounted for a majority of faculty as of 2013; 50 percent at public universities, 80 percent at community colleges. As early as 2011 most faculty had fallen off the tenure track (1.3 million out of 1.8 million), and half of those were part-time adjuncts. Massive disinvestment in public education over the past fifteen years compels the professional precariat to face its fate: debt and downward mobility (only 45 percent of college graduates find work in their areas of study; 16 percent are unemployed). Health, childcare, and retirement benefits are scarce and minimal. Budget cuts and austerity lead inexorably to hiring freezes and overwork. The modern university depends on low-wage labor, on workers who can’t count on holding onto a job from year to year or even semester to semester. The regime of flexible production and the casualization of labor have been imported onto the campus, where contingent labor predominates. In 2004, 17 percent of full-time faculty were non-tenure-track employees; today 71 percent are, and of those only 20 percent are employed full-time.
COVID intensified the predicament. During 2020, 650,000 or 13 percent of the academic work force was put out of a job. A half century ago, 71 percent of college faculty held tenure-line positions. Now, about 75 percent are contingent employees with few benefits and no security. The real wages of full-time faculty fell 5 percent between 2021 and 2022, the largest decline since records began being kept in 1972.
Surveys document mass discontent. Low pay, the relentless extension of work assignments (seventy-hour work weeks are not uncommon), and high levels of stress breed it. “The bottom line,” according to one professor: “my job keeps me sick . . . feeling like the University is exploiting me and them” (her students). Harassment has become commonplace wherever this contingent workforce gets its back up. Resistance has mounted anyway. Conditions are that bad. One of the leaders of the strike at UCLA noted that “we are overworked and severely underpaid. We earn poverty wages.” He makes $27,000 a year and pays $1,200 a month rent for a place he shares with two roommates. Some UCLA grad students pay half their income in rent. Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers and leader of the union of graduate students and faculty, commenting on the California system strike, observed that, “The willingness of these workers to bring their campuses to a standstill is demonstrating that the current model of higher education cannot continue, and that the current system really rests on extremely underpaid labor.”
As it has many times before in the history of the labor question, the process of proletarianization, when it first strikes virgin territory, is shocking, enraging, and begins to resound with the martial music of “Solidarity Forever.” The scarcities, insecurities, and indignities of working-class life have infested the campus for good. The time when academics might consider themselves as a caste apart from, even if in deep sympathy and alliance with the labor movement, are over. Labor Spring was the debut of this new academic proletariat as a combat unit within a larger labor movement that seems poised to strike.
Consequences are measurable already. Energy and organizers originating within the academic working class have penetrated the wider labor movement. Some unions, particularly the UAW, have grown robustly thanks to their on-campus presence. That in turn helped the progressive caucus within the union win out over the old guard. So too, in the AFT, locals representing higher-education workers have strengthened left-leaning caucuses.
And the process may work in reverse. What’s happening on campus is an education of a different sort. A milieu of wannabe, mainly white, professional and managerial types, proud of its individualism, has long harbored deep suspicions about the working class, especially about the white working class and its culture and institutions, assuming their indelible reactionary character. Not only are they now learning what a union is really all about, but can begin to more viscerally appreciate the instinct for solidarity.
Predictions, always risky, are riskier now since it’s very early days. Mandarin colleges will continue to exist, and they will continue to turn out mandarins. Those producing these functionaries of the state and corporation will, however, have lost any pretense to status. Outside of those elite institutions, the crisis of higher education will only deepen. There, in public universities, in community and in mid-level private colleges, the social world of both students and their teachers is bound to become ever-more working class in composition. Moreover, given the pressures of an increasingly stressed economy, higher education is headed downhill. What might be the result? Its devolution may feed an anti-intellectualism that is very much in the American grain. Yet, this same sea change may inscribe the labor question on terrain from which it has traditionally been excluded.