In this interview, Joe Grim Feinberg shares his experiences with a radically democratic union, Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago. Rather than waiting for recognition from the state, they have thrived by getting together as workers, declaring themselves to be a union, and organizing to improve their working conditions. Joe praises the IWW’s strategy of organizing a union for all workers that, if followed consistently, de facto leads to an anti-capitalist approach. Such a strategy faces many limits, as grad students are habituated into academic professionalism, which goes against the idea of industrial unionism. Instead of professionalizing for individual insertion into the capitalist rat race, academics can take pride in what they do through organizing and taking control of the production process.
CW: Can you tell me how you came to get involved in radical organizing, particularly in relation to universities?
Joe: I guess I always had radicalism around me when growing up, because both my parents were involved in student movements in the 60s and 70s and in various political things after that too. As an undergraduate, I didn’t get that involved in university politics, and not even as a graduate student for the beginning of the time that I was there. I think that like a lot of students that are active in politics your first impulse is to get out of the university and to get out into what seems to be the more real world. Maybe that’s especially an impulse that’s strong in the United States where universities are so cloistered. Part of being a radical means you’re critical of that separation of university life from the rest of the world. So, it kind of took a catalyst to get me directly involved in the politics of my own university.
I could go into the specific history of what happened at the University of Chicago, but basically the administration made some tactical blunders on its own side, which made a lot of grad students, all at the same time, angry. Some of us who were already interested in labor organizing realized that this was kind of a moment when, if anything was going to change about the university, this was the moment to try to do it. Secondly, we were pissed off ourselves so we wanted to get back at the most immediate adversary. It took precedence over organizing somewhere else where we weren’t located. I think, through that, I came to appreciate the value of organizing where you are, and using that as a basis for being active in the so-called outside world. People, also, in other struggles respect you for organizing where you are when you come to them for solidarity. That’s not to say that there isn’t a constant problem of getting too isolated and forgetting or not having time for real meaningful solidarity. But, I think the solidarity can be especially meaningful when it comes from a position of you fighting for yourself while you’re fighting for others.
CW: Could you say more about the organizing you were involved with as a grad student worker?
Joe: Maybe it would be worth mentioning that I had already joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) a couple of years before getting involved in grad student organizing. So, I was helping out with a couple of those organizing campaigns. I was kind of scattered between different things and without being a major player in any of them. I was also involved in a radical discussion group in Chicago that a few friends decided to start up to create some more dialogue between radical groups and to bring together the different people who generally either talk just to themselves or talk past each other or at each other. Those were the two main things, this discussion group and the IWW. So, when the organizing drive started at the University of Chicago, there were some people who were advocating various other ways for improving the situation of graduate students. But, what I got involved with was a unionization campaign: Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago.
Already having the experience of being in the IWW, that was my model for how I thought an organizing drive could work. In other words, to explain what I mean by that: you first of all find a few people who are working in the same workplace, you get together and you declare that you are a union. You don’t wait until you have over 50% of the workplace before saying, ‘we finally have a union.’ So, it’s not a drive to convince more and more people and then get to an all-or-nothing position. Rather, you start where you are and you grow and grow. There’s a good line that some of the fellow organizers in the IWW say: ‘when you organize this way, you never lose.’ There’s a frequent line that more mainstream unions will say: ‘we have to do this because we want to win.’ I’ve heard that a lot from some of the people, who I respect a lot and they do great work, but that’s a particular perspective that I strongly try to avoid. So, we don’t do all of this because we want eventually to win; we do it because right now we are constantly winning. If you organize, organizing itself is always a process of winning. It also means that if you lose an election for unionization, you are not back to zero. You don’t lose your union. At the University of Chicago, we are also hoping to get union recognition, to have a National Labor Relations Board recognized union.
CW: Could you say a little more about the history of how you started the union drive there, and whether and how you were able to push an IWW approach? And then, how did the decision to go with a business union happen?
Joe: Well, I don’t think there’s been a decision to leave behind the IWW approach. Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago is kind of taking a ‘dual approach’ at this point, is how I’d put it. When we started, I was the only active IWW member involved in the organizing committee that we had. We didn’t start off by founding an IWW branch there. That would have been one way to go if there had been support for that. But what we decided to do was to start our own independent union. I as well as other people who weren’t IWW members came to a consensus about the general approach, which was, like I said, to start with people you have, form a union, and grow. We founded this independent organization that wasn’t recognized by anyone else but ourselves, called it ‘Graduate Students United,’ came up with a website, membership cards, bylaws, a procedure for running meetings, and tactics, and ultimately a longer term strategy for winning concessions and improvements from the administration, using the power we had as organized workers, understanding also the limitation we had by being not yet a majority of the workplace.
So, we started with, first, a period of organizing before we had any formal membership. We tested the waters, talked to people, and organized one rally before there was any formal organization. And then, when people already knew us, and already respected us, we launched Graduate Students United as a membership organization that people could join. Actually, the first day, we had an event, and I think we got 75 people to join, to sign membership cards that day. Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that a useful part of our approach was that we charged dues from the start.
With a lot of unions, a standard approach is that you try to sell the union by saying, ‘you don’t have to pay any dues until you get your first contract, and dues will come out of the raise you get in that contract.’ It sounds like a good deal if you’re thinking of this in terms of a consumer—how much money you put in, how much you get out. Maybe it’s a good strategy for winning elections, probably it is; it seems like a good argument. But we charged dues. On the one hand they’re nominal: we charge five dollars a year. Given the resources we already had as students at the university, we could use university spaces for our meetings, and we didn’t need major capital to start things off, and we’re using all-volunteer labor. That has been enough to cover the cost of photocopies and posters and things like that. But, what I’ve found in talking with people is I never met anyone who was really turned off by paying five dollars. On the contrary, people would say to me that they felt like it was a real thing, that we were serious about it. They were happy to pay their five dollars to be part of something and that they knew the five dollars would go to some good. That meant that they were already invested in it in a way that wasn’t just, ‘am I gonna get a better contract that will give me this five dollars back?’ But they give the five dollars knowing that this is part of a collective effort that won’t get it back for them just as individuals but will be part of improvements that all students will enjoy.
We did win a few concessions through the kinds of protests that we organized, public protests on campus, including a teach-outside day to see how many people supported us and how many people were graduate students who were teaching all the classes. We won an almost 100% raise after about a year of organizing, and some improvements to health care access and child care access, though not as much as we’d like to get if we had even more power in negotiating with the university. The administration doesn’t treat us as a negotiating partner. It makes these improvements after the fact, after we organize, after we make demands, after we cause trouble. It presents them as its own decision. But we can claim, and I think most of the grad students agree with us, that our organizing has been the cause of that. We’ve been pretty successful in that way.
Since I have been out of the country, I’m not up to the minute in our books. At the time I left we had about five hundred members. Those members are concentrated in social sciences and the humanities, so we have a pretty strong showing in those fields, but it’s a big university with a lot of graduate students. And we have a lot of supporters who never got around to signing membership cards. But formally we are still pretty far from having a majority of grad students in the union. There’s a lot we can still do in that position, but there are also things we can’t yet do.
So to tell the other part of the story, about our involvement with the mainstream business unions, we decided at some point that it was in our interest to be a part of a larger union federation. And it would also be integrating us into the union movement as a whole, so this was a time for us, not only to get help from a union that had more resources, but also to ultimately support other unions and be a part of that process of solidarity. So we held an internal election to decide which union federation we should affiliate with. First we had a committee that met with different unions and came up with a list of them and of the pros and cons of affiliating with each of them. Our list included the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who are the largest graduate student organizing federations. Also, we considered a couple others that were active in Chicago: the SEIU was interested because they have other members at our university, not teaching professionals but other workers—and the IWW was also on the list, and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). We had an election internally, and the members chose dual affiliation with the AFT and the AAUP as the most beneficial option. I think the IWW would have been a good thing, and we’ll see in hindsight how our ultimate choice worked out. But, certainly those other unions, especially the AFT, has a lot of money and resources and was willing to make the case that, ‘if we think you can win, we’ll put in all those resources and help you get a contract.’ For understandable reasons, that’s an attractive thing for our members. There have been some complications with that. I don’t know if you want me to get into the details.
CW: Can you give me a brief synopsis of what’s gone on with that?
Joe: Basically what happened was that when we had the affiliation election, Obama had just been elected and had promised to overturn the Brown decision that denied graduate students organizing rights at private universities. So all of the major unions were thinking, ‘we’re gonna get a green light to organize through our normal methods, and getting the University of Chicago grad students would be a feather in our caps.’ So, everyone wanted us then. Then Obama himself stalled and the Republicans stalled, and the AAUP, who is dually affiliated with us, they themselves don’t have the resources to do a major drive, so they were waiting for the AFT. And the AFT’s been waiting for the NLRB decision to change. Basically what it’s meant is that, after two years of being, from our perspective, affiliated with them, they’ve been pretty limited in the amount of resources they give to us. On top of that, the struggle for collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin made them, understandably, devote a lot of resources to organizing in Wisconsin, and that took resources away from organizing with us. And the NLRB decision is still up in the air. It became an organizing issue for us last fall, actually, when GSU was able to start a national campaign to get the NLRB back on track and to look at cases again, in particular the NYU case, which would overturn Brown if the decision comes in grad students’ favor. So, GSU has been organizing around the NLRB, but without much support from the AFT. If the NLRB decision never comes through, then we still have our union, we still have our members, we still have our own internal process, our bylaws are still the way they were. We’ll keep going and then it might even be more convincing for members to affiliate again. To re-think it, affiliate with the IWW, who would be a good fit at that point. But if an NLRB decision changes things, then we’ll have the option of formal legal recognition, which is a very attractive option. It does give you new kinds of bargaining power, along with the disadvantages it involves.
CW: So, you mention the IWW affiliation possibility. I’d like to ask you more about that.
Joe: I remember hearing how devastating it was for organizers of other grad unions to lose unionization elections. Hearing about that kind of experience was part of our motivation for organizing the way we did with: ‘if we win the election, great. If we lose the election, no sweat. It’s just the NLRB.’ Like I said, we haven’t had the opportunity to get there. So it’s been both a curse and a blessing that we haven’t had the support of the AFT, but also haven’t had the distraction of putting all effort into an NLRB election that you might lose. My goal, and I think the others involved have generally agreed, is this: the way you get the election, the way you might win, is to have a strong group that will be there even after you lose. Well, we’ll see at this point. There’s still a question mark about what happens with the NLRB.
CW: I’m wondering, from your perspective as an IWW organizer, what do you think the disadvantages of not taking an IWW approach, affiliating with the IWW, from the get-go are? Conversely, what would be the advantages of taking an IWW approach?
Joe: Like in the abstract, or in our case, if we had not affiliated with the AFT and gone straight with the IWW at that point?
CW: I guess there are two questions. There’s thinking from the beginning, if you’d taken an IWW approach instead of an independent union. Then, there’s a second question of, what if from this point you’d go with the IWW instead of the AFT?
Joe: I guess at the beginning, an obvious benefit would have been to be a part of a large organization that already had had a lot of the discussions we had about setting up our bylaws and creating an organization with its own set of symbols and name and its own new traditions. We could have taken a lot of that ready-made from the IWW. We would have had help, support, and organizers from outside of the university. I mean, our fellow workers supported us, but the level of concrete support would have been different if GSU had been an IWW union.
But there were some disadvantages to going that way too. Not only the fact that I was the only member of the IWW involved from the start. I guess at that point I was faced with the choice of trying really hard to convince all the other organizers to join the IWW or to say, ‘look, this is where we all are right now. Let’s start something right now and maybe later we can join or not join together.’ At that point, I think for somewhat unfair reasons, but some of the reasons are also partly the fault of the IWW and partly that it’s misperceived—it’s perceived as an organization with a specific kind of ideological orientation that, in a context of grad students where everyone has their own political theory, you have people who think, ‘well, that’s not me, I’m a whatever… I’m a Trotskyist, so I’m not going to join the IWW. I’m a liberal democrat…’ So, that was a disadvantage. That’s not my interpretation of the way the IWW works when it’s working well. And I don’t think it’s the way the IWW should be seen. It should be an organization for all workers.
CW: Do you have a good way to respond to radical-minded grad students who make those kinds of critiques—to convince them that whatever their politics is it could be consistent with the IWW?
Joe: Since we didn’t go that route, I didn’t have these arguments that much. But, when I’m talking to someone about it, I say, ‘the IWW is precisely not a political union. Other unions support Democrats for political office, whether its members support those candidates or not. The IWW will never put its resources into pushing a political candidate. It’s a union where you can have whatever opinions you want about how parliamentary elections should go, how the state should go. You can even be a Republican and be in the IWW. It’s different from an anarcho-syndicalist union in that sense. It’s not a union for anarchists, even if its strategy includes many points that anarchists tend to sympathize with. The point is IWW members share a strategy of organizing, and that strategy is to be a union for all workers.‘ People have reason to be confused and have mixed feelings about the IWW, because there are some tensions within the organization and its history. Is it a union for all workers or is it a union for revolutionary workers? Those are real questions that I wouldn’t just toss out. But, I like to take the part of the IWW that says: we need a union for all workers. What does that mean? It’s a strategy that a lot of us think will ultimately lead towards abolishing the wage system, but the strategy that’s important is right now, what do you do on the ground? And that is, you collect everyone together who works in a certain industry and then, say it’s everyone who works at universities, and then within that framework you can focus on a single, smaller unit. Everyone in that unit is eligible. And you start by signing people up one-by-one. And you start by seeing that the basis of your power lies in organizing together as employees—whatever ultimate political ideas you have. That’s part of the beauty of the IWW: it’s a place where you can come and, through that organization, it gives you a place to argue over those things, but you don’t have to have those ideas before starting, before joining.
CW: Two related advantages I see of an IWW approach: one, that it’s, like you say, not an ideologically political organization, but it kind of embodies an anti-capitalist politics in practice. By organizing together as workers we’re trying to improve our working conditions, which includes fighting against wage exploitation, which is part of capitalism. Second, related with that is the industrial approach of the IWW: organizing across industry. So, for us as grad students, an IWW approach would advocate for organizing in collaboration and solidarity with other workers in the whole education industry, recognizing that divisions between workers are one of the biggest obstacles to building our power. So, I’m wondering, were you able, in your independent union approach, to maintain that kind of anti-capitalism in practice, and also that kind of organizing across the whole education industry approach?
Joe: On the anti-capitalist side of things, my idea of the IWW is that its anti-capitalism comes from being consistent in that organizing approach. If you’re consistent in the organizing approach, de facto it leads to an anti-capitalist approach. If you’re consistent in advocating for improving conditions in the workplace, if you’re consistent in opposing the structures that cause your exploitation, if you’re consistent in advocating for power of employees and decreasing power of employers, then that leads to an undermining and ultimately an overthrowing of capitalism. But, you don’t have to jump from the beginning to the end at every moment in the conversation. I think you can be a totally legitimate, full member of the IWW and not be at the point where you think that it’s a question of overthrowing capitalism. It’s a question of maintaining this strategy consistently right now. And so, I feel like we’ve been able to maintain that strategy consistently. Most people who are active organizers in GSU not only came to consensus on that strategy but also had one or the other idea about ultimately making systemic change that would be related to changes in the overarching economic system.
I think there are problems with that too. It’s not that simple, being consistent. Someone else can say, ‘well, I’m being more consistent in sticking to advantages that we have right now, instead of irresponsibly fighting on.’ There are a lot of questions that come up where you can understand how one gets to a more conservative business union approach. My idea of being a Wobbly means, at every moment, figuring out what is the approach that will be consistently undermining the system while it is improving the conditions of workers. And I think that the best way to do the one is to do the other, in both directions. For me, that’s what the Wobbly approach comes down to.
CW: I really like how you’re talking about consistency here. That brings me to a question that I’d like to work through with you. You might be one of the few people in the world who have thought about this much, as an IWW person who has experience organizing a grad student union. U of Chicago is one of the only examples I can think of that has taken something like an IWW approach and that has had some success with it. I’d like to ask you a critical question about the IWW approach. Thinking about consistency, for grad students, grad instructors, and teachers, what is our role as workers within the education system within capitalism? The education system, from an anti-capitalist perspective, is a major part of capitalist reproduction. Through education, students are disciplined, categorized, and their labor power is valorized for sale in the job market. Class hierarchy is reproduced through that. So, I feel that with this question of consistency, I feel that as teachers, we have sort of split subjectivities between being waged exploited workers and being participants in this kind of disciplining of students, participating in capitalist reproduction. We are also ourselves going through that disciplining process as students. So, we have these complicated, split-up subjectivities. From an anti-capitalist perspective, we would want to push the organizing as workers part. So, I wonder, through your experience organizing in this grad union, are there ways you’ve thought of creating a more nuanced view of anti-capitalist organizing in the education industry?
Joe: Well, on the one hand, I think that you’re right that this tension is especially salient for graduate student instructors. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s entirely unique to us. I think almost every worker participates in reproduction of the system, certainly outside of the workplace, in home in all sorts of ways, in educating children, watching TV and absorbing political ideologies and arguments. But also, every workplace has its own components of not only producing surplus value for the owner but also producing conditions for reproducing the system as a whole. It’s especially difficult for graduate students who are teaching people to act a certain way in the world. You could say something about workers at arms production plants who are absolutely exploited as workers, but who are in a very difficult position in the world economy of exploitation. Police have probably an even more difficult situation than grad students, with respect to the internal tensions that they have to deal with.
But, you’re right that it’s a very specific situation that we have. Each workplace is different, and we should understand those differences. I wouldn’t say that I came up with an easy answer. This also gets me back to your previous question about solidarity. I think sometimes that solidarity with other workers was more difficult than I hoped it would be. Part of that is maybe something that’s always going to be the case when you devote a lot of time to organizing one cause, one program, one campaign, or whatever. People were burnt out when it came to showing up to some allies’ demonstrations. That might not be different for grad students or anyone else. But you are dealing with a system that not only employs people and forces them to be part of this reproductive system but also gives them a lot of psychological reward for playing that part. So, grad students are taught to think very highly of their profession—and that idea of professionalism really goes strongly against the idea of industrial unionism. Not that I don’t think there’s a place for it. I think that every workplace has a certain professionalism to it, and it’s not only legitimate but very valuable for the personal realization of any worker to be able to take pride in the work they do. I mean, craft unionism speaks to an important need that comes out of the division of labor in society. But I think that there’s room for doing that within an industrial organizing approach that places value on each part of the system of work without ordering them in a hierarchy. What the formula is for creating that kind of an organization, I’m not sure if it’s been perfectly worked out within the IWW. It’s a constant debate in the IWW, actually, how the industrial unions should be related to one another, what the categorizations should be. It’s not just a trivial debate. Should the industrial union focus on organizing all grad students together or should it focus on organizing University of Chicago janitors and nurses together with grad students? The industrial approach would generally be the latter, but there are certain practical considerations that come into play. It’s not an easy question.
CW: I like this distinction you made between professionalization generally and taking pride in the work that we do. Just thinking about the work that grad students do, such as in a classroom, part of that work is teaching, part of that work is disciplining and categorizing students. So, we can do teaching work, thinking about how teaching and learning happens all over society outside of the university—there’s teaching and learning that happens in marginalized communities in informal ways, and in radical movements outside of the university in popular education, and in ways that happen without the kind of disciplining and categorizing of student labor that happens within universities. So, I feel that we can be more selective in what we, as graduate students, take pride in our work—taking pride in creating good teaching and learning situations, and at the same time, fighting against the disciplining and categorizing parts of our labor that are part of the capitalist reproduction process. I think there are times when that distinction can be made clearer. For example, when your union had teaching that happened outside of the classroom, or when a strike is going on. Or just being explicit in the classroom about your and your students’ positionality in relation to the wider education system and capitalism, and the role that education plays in capitalist reproduction, and thinking about the different vertical strata of the education system, and about how students are pushed out at the lower strata and into marginalized communities and highly policed neighborhoods and funneled into the schools-to-prisons pipeline. There are a lot of connections between different kinds of organizing, different kinds of solidarity that could be made, through teaching in the classroom. This is kind of a segue to asking you about radical pedagogy—if you’ve tried any of that and how you think of that in relation to organizing.
Joe: Maybe one way I’d put it, as a general principle, I think it’s a good idea to see pride in your work as being conditioned on the organizing and solidarity with others. Part of the early success of the IWW came from its rejection of this pride in craft unionism, and taking that as a precondition for being able to organize workers who saw themselves as completely excluded from any kind of work that they were allowed to take pride in. The most exploited and marginalized workers were thus able to take pride in being a part of this organization and organizing as Wobblies, and through that, then you can have lumberjacks who are proud of their being lumberjacks and proud of being IWW members, and for migrant farmworkers in the same way. Hobo lingo was older than the IWW but it became a kind of professional pride to be a member of this class that’s excluded from all professions. But, I think that part of the internalized hope there is that through organizing and through taking control of the production process we put ourselves into a position where we can take some pride in what we do. Maybe that’s another way of saying something similar to what you just said: as an organized graduate student, I think the work of radical pedagogy can be a part of organizing, in its own sense, especially if you connect it with the kinds of pedagogy that you can do outside the walls of the university. So, to put it in an imperative sense: don’t just be proud that you’re such an elite graduate student, but be proud that you are part of a process that is making teaching into labor that’s worthy of being proud of.
I don’t think it’s worthy of being proud of reproducing an elitist system, and I myself have had constant trouble with identifying with my profession. In some ways, to get to the specific part of your question, for that reason among other reasons I also have had trouble being motivated to delve into what sometimes passes for radical pedagogy, or at least, let’s say, progressive pedagogy, which often in the United States, especially, involves great devotion to one’s students as the highest honor. Of course it’s almost embarrassing, a moral flaw, for me to admit that I don’t place the interests of my students as at the pinnacle of what I’m doing when I’m teaching at the University of Chicago. In terms of my own psychology, I know that I can’t exclude myself from the system of privileges that have enabled certain people to get where they are. And I know that most of my students at the University of Chicago have also benefited from this system. It is valuable to teach them, of course, and every individual deserves the best possible education. But I’m put in a position where the greatest thing I value in the world is not making these students into a new elite, which is what my position, if I don’t do anything else, would have me do—that’s what I’m paid to do. In order to engage in effective radical pedagogy, or at least pedagogy that’s worth being proud of, you do have to question the system, and that means getting people to question themselves, teaching them while you’re questioning where you are, being involved in struggles for other forms of pedagogy and other spaces of pedagogy, breaking down the walls of the university in that sense.
CW: Do you feel like part of the problem is that people who try radical pedagogy approaches might not question their own complicity, through working in the university, with the system that they’re fighting against? Are they romanticizing a certain vision of the university or defending some kind of ideal of the university as a space outside of capitalism, outside of the system that they’re fighting against, rather than having a clear critique of the university? Perhaps this gets back to what you were saying at the beginning: seeing the importance of organizing where you are at, starting from that position of recognizing that wherever you are is an organizable terrain, that there’s no outside.
Joe: Yeah, I do think there’s some of that that happens. I wouldn’t go too far in saying that radical pedagogues in the United States don’t question their position. There’s a constant questioning that’s part of something like a ritual of self-denial that goes into being a radical teacher in the United States, especially at the university level. That’s a positive thing in general. Part of my point though is that actually it doesn’t have to be a self-denial. If you’re part of organizing to change and transform your position, then you don’t always have to be pointing elsewhere. One of the most frequent arguments we hear against our unionizing efforts, is that ‘we’re privileged so we don’t deserve to organize, we don’t deserve better conditions, etc.’ And the thing about this argument is that it comes from and is designed to persuade precisely those people who have radical sympathies. But for me, I think that the pre-condition of our having the right to speak about our position and the right to advocate for radical forms of pedagogy outside the university is our organizing to transform the university itself. It’s not just questioning your position—people are questioning their position—but how the questioning takes place and what your answer to the question is. So, not just saying, ‘I am privileged, I am an elite, I need to face myself,’ but, ‘I am in this position, this is what the system does, what can I do from this position to help change it?’ I think there’s a different implication if you follow that out.
CW: I have another more meta question for you. Radically minded academics have connected with each other through these informal networks, such as through conferences or listserves. But many of us are being pushed into more precarious kinds of working and living situations where it is, or it’s going to be, harder to continue doing radical organizing and radical intellectual work—if we have to teach four adjunct classes a semester just to get by. So, I wonder if you have any thoughts on how we can maintain our relationships and build the power of our informal networks of cooperation to make them better connected with movements and to support each other better.
Joe: I don’t know if I have any great new ideas. I’ve heard about great work that’s being done, like in the Twin Cities, there’s that Experimental College set up outside the university with regular classes. I know that there are people who went to Occupy locations and had teach-ins there. I think that to form these kinds of links is definitely important and making them more than a lot of separate instances, that’s the right question. I kind of like the concept that Edu-factory came up with of ‘autonomous university.’ I’d like to see that institutionalized in a way, but I think maybe some people are afraid of institutionalization. If networks remain too fluid and loose, it’s harder for them to turn into a movement. But, I think there is some space to really get involved with precarity as this kind of point of reference to connect with each other and with other struggles, and with tenured faculty who are worried about this impending precarity.
Especially, I see the whole world of adjuncts as being this huge mass of people who are far more marginalized than graduate students and, to a much greater extent, have internalized that marginalization and come to, I don’t want to say accept it—because the adjuncts I know (and I’ve been an adjunct as a grad student) reject the conditions and are angry about the conditions everyday. But, there’s a level at which, as an intellectual space, adjuncts are excluded in a way that graduate students aren’t yet excluded. Graduate students tend to be part of the same intellectual field as tenure-track professors. Then, if they finish their dissertation and don’t get into the tenure-track, then they’re pushed out into the adjunct world and excluded from this sphere in which their opinion matters and in which their papers can get published and in which they have time to do research and in which the research they manage to do on their own time will be taken seriously. So, that could be a really valuable thing, if grad students and other precarious instructors could actually create a kind of prospective space for adjunct intellectual work to become a leading force for rethinking the world as well as the university.
CW: I feel like one big obstacle for adjunct organizing is that, with being pushed out of the tenure-track world, there’s a kind of stigma against complaining. It’s individualized and you’re seen as kind of someone who failed on an individual level: you didn’t make it in this myth of a meritocracy in academia. I wonder if there’s some potential for really intentionally re-framing the conditions through which people are pushed out of academia—particularly, for people who take more radical positions in the research and teaching that they do, more radical than their disciplines are willing to handle. Maybe for grad students coming up, I feel like that imagined future trajectory as becoming a precarious adjunct kind of backforms onto grad students lives. As a grad student when you’re thinking about your future, that threat of becoming a precarious adjunct has a disciplining effect on the radical work that you’re willing to do as a grad student. So, I wonder if there’s some way we could organize to fight that stigma, to have a more collective way of organizing to avoid that.
Joe: All the details come in the process of organizing, but I definitely think that one of the imperatives for turning things around would be, first of all, to come again and again and again with the analyses that people like Marc Bousquet have made and, to their credit, Cary Nelson at the AAUP—which some people see as an organization of tenured professionals, but which has really taken seriously the issue of contingent teaching. They’ve done important research to demonstrate that there’s a structural cause as to why so many people are becoming adjuncts. When you look at the system as a whole, there’s no way you can argue that PhD holders are just getting to be less competent, and that’s why they’re not getting jobs, the way you can think about an individual case. It’s important to keep repeating and repeating that. But also, on an intellectual level, I think creating these kinds of alternative intellectual fields would help convince adjuncts and future adjuncts, grad students who are imagining that that might be the track that they’ll go down, that there’s legitimate intellectual work for you to do, and which needs to be done, and that you are in a position to do it that tenure-track faculty might not be in. You have a position in society that they’re not in, and you can shed certain light on things that other people can’t. And part of the struggle for improving adjunct conditions is the struggle for getting more time to do that kind of research. Again, I think it’s necessary to have all these parts of organizing so you can do more radical research and teaching, and see the radical research and teaching as a part of what you’re organizing.
CW: I wonder if there might be a way to make a kind of more formal kind of organization to institutionalize this kind of organizing approach that sees these connections from a kind of broader anti-capitalist perspective, maybe through the IWW. I don’t feel like there’s any institution that is working on it with that kind of perspective. The things I’ve seen the AAUP write have tended to buy into a romanticized view of the university, a bit too protective of the system as it is and of the professionalization process.
Joe: Yeah, any romanticization has a kernel of real hope and beauty in it, but the traditional US university was, generally speaking, as bad as any old elite institution in the United States. If we’re going to move forward we really have to look forward. And in some ways the mass of adjuncts offers a real opportunity. It is a terrible and inhumane situation for all the people who have to live through it, but it’s also the first time that this country has had not only such a large number of highly educated people, but a mass of people whose marginalization gives them an inherently critical perspective on the system that educated but refused to hire them. I think adjunct organizing has potential to accomplish things that were never done in the old, stable universities that people might romanticize, where every professor was a gentleman and also very likely a supporter of the system that made him.
So I see, from an organizational and political perspective but also the intellectual perspective, some real work to be done, like what’s been started in projects like the conferences at Minnesota [‘Beneath the University, the Commons’] or like our little journal at U of C, or the Minnesota Review as it used to be under Jeffrey Williams, or Marc Bousquet’s projects. Still, most of these projects, though they advocate for adjuncts, there’s not really a space that actually is made for adjuncts to be working through their own intellectual work. That’s something that could be part of a broader organizing project.
CW: That’s a really good idea. Have you read this Recomposition Blog? They have interviews and reflections by teachers about their working conditions. I feel like something like that, a space where adjuncts can talk about their experiences and discuss them with other adjuncts, from a radical and anti-capitalist perspective, would be useful.
Joe: And through that, not only to talk about their own lives as adjuncts but to create a space where they can talk about whatever they would like to be researching and what they are limited in their ability to do because of their position as adjuncts—because they don’t have time, because they’re not listened to, because their opinion isn’t respected. That’s the kind of thing that seems to me would be valuable.
Joe Grim Feinberg is a Graduate Student-Worker in Anthropology. He is a member of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago and the Industrial Workers of the World.