On the potential and perils of adjunct organizing

Authors: Mike Dimpfl*, Duke University
Topics: Cultural Geography, Political Geography, Qualitative Research
Keywords: Labor, Organizing, Adjuncts, Unionization
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 4:30 PM / 6:10 PM
Room: Washington 6, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


On campuses across the country, adjunct unionization is producing material improvement to certain segments of contract academic labor. Dominant modes of adjunct organizing highlight the structural antagonism between contract academic workers and university administrators. It is common to see adjuncts positioning themselves as workers exploited by management. This echoes considerably more long-standing efforts by other campus-based waged-workers. Adjuncts are stepping into a decades-long history of campus organizing undertaken by generations of precarious wage-workers: men and women working as housekeepers, laundry workers, groundskeepers, bus drivers, and food service staff. As academics seek collective bargaining agreements, the principles that ground particular forms of adjunct organizing could see broader applicability. For example, in highlighting classroom teaching as work, adjunct faculty are orienting themselves to other existing forms of institutionalized social reproductive labor. This line of identification stands in contrast to the ideologies of value production in higher education and with the practices necessary to success on the tenure-track. Using examples from organizing with and being a member of a faculty union at a private, R-1 university in the US South, I will discuss the political power and potential pitfalls of adjunct organizing, especially identification with the material conditions of other precarious workers in institutional spaces. If that potential is to be realized without inadvertently doubling-down on existing systems of exploitation, I suggest adjuncts may see more change by turning away from institutional practices of systemic appropriation and instead shifting more fully toward the difficult work of cross-class, cross-sector organizing.

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