By Miranda Merklein
Miranda Merklein lives in Seattle, WA where she works as a faculty organizer for SEIU Local 925. She is a former adjunct professor with a PhD in English from the University of Southern Mississippi, an MA in liberal arts from St. John’s College, and a BA in political science from College of Santa Fe.
By now everyone is aware, inside and outside of academia, of the wave of faculty organizing taking place across the country. I became involved in the movement two years ago during Campus Equity Week where I once trembled at a table with handouts thinking–knowing!–that I would most certainly be fired just for speaking out and bringing attention to the horror of “the profession.” This was preceded by my wake-up moment upon learning of the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko. However, I didn’t get fired then, so the successive risks I took got bigger. Finally, I decided to take an extended hiatus from teaching one year ago to eventually find full-time employment as an SEIU faculty organizer in Seattle.
Throughout my adjunct journey of loss and humiliation, the solidarity I found in the network of activists and leaders across the country always kept me focussed on one overarching goal: to do what it takes to improve the lives of faculty and students by organizing faculty and disrupting the conditions that make it possible to exploit and degrade an entire industry of professional educators in Higher Ed. The way I see it is that we have a duty to stand up and stop institutions from undermining the public good and the educational experience of our indebted students, who are also struggling to survive, some of them homeless and dependent on food banks, just like their favorite professors.
My own experience working as an adjunct was typical: I earned poverty-level wages working at multiple institutions and saw our courses cut for the specific purpose of denying health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, which so many of us voted for without ever imagining the cutthroat, heartless reaction from our employers. Despite the setbacks, every semester I shuttled between one and three campuses while struggling to keep gas in the car and avoid eviction for myself and my son. Several of my colleagues and I tried our best to get organized and fight back, but there were few prospects in resource-deprived New Mexico, which seems to exist in an organizational black hole when compared to Higher Ed organizing in coastal cities. Unfortunately, this is the case in several landlocked states–the situation looks and feels hopeless.
Although being on the tenure track means more security than any instructional position I have personally experienced, I don’t know too many tenured faculty who would argue that tenure itself provides sufficient due process against the assault on public Higher Ed, as there are plenty of cases where faculty have been fired, found their positions defunded, or have otherwise seen tenure eroded by rogue administrations and vengeful politicians, as in the case of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, which serves as a nightmare, worst-case scenario for faculty all over the country.
Faculty whose positions were once stable are increasingly subjected to irrational performance metrics and restrictive speech codes that essentially place a gag order on faculty’s right to academic freedom to the point where it is hardly viewed as a defendable policy in the institutional sense. Economic security is not as common as it once was, to say the least, even at prestigious R1s, due to wage compression and shrinking state funding that has reduced prominent researchers to frantic grant-hustlers trying to constantly fund their own positions only to lose half their awards to opaque administrative overhead after which they are forced to account for through legal perjury before the US government.
In my opinion, executive management and presidential salaries should be in line with those of modest civil servants; this would undoubtedly weed-out the professionalized profit-seekers. And governance in any case should be left to faculty and students. However, in order to accomplish real change on the ground, It is not enough to simply vent about the decline of the profession to each other in the hallways, social media outlets and comment sections. We have to equip ourselves with resources to apply the collective force necessary to push back and obstruct the pipeline of exploitation.
The problems in Higher Ed are painfully clear to most of us, yet not all faculty are able to improve working conditions through collective bargaining, whether it be due to anti-union state laws, fear of retaliation in the workplace, or because of the isolating reality of the work itself. This is why it’s important to build power organically and help faculty and students find professional organizing support on a national level. We must also continue bringing attention to the unsustainability of student debt through organizations like The Debt Collective.
By coordinating collective actions and walkouts in the spirit of National Adjunct Walkout Day, we can accomplish a lot in terms of shifting the power dynamic in our favor. In addition to work in the for-profit sector, Faculty Forward Network campaigns include: fighting for a renewed public investment in higher education, investing in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), where full professors can expect to earn little more than half of their counterparts at non-HBCU institutions, and ending the parking toll on teaching–because people who can’t afford a sandwich or medical care don’t deserve to pay outrageous parking fees just to do their jobs.
The gains made since Margaret Mary’s death are just the beginning. Faculty Forward Network is an opportunity to expand faculty organizing beyond current collective bargaining campaigns in order to mobilize a broad base. Building power collectively through membership and pooled resources is especially critical leading up to the Supreme Court case, Friedrichs vs. CTA, which will most likely result in national right-to-work legislation for the entire public sector.
It is time to act in order to rebuild the profession, support our students, and push these no-talent banksters out of Higher Ed where they have until now enjoyed free reign at taxpayers’ expense. This is our profession and we need to take back the agency we’ve lost as teachers, researchers, and workers. I invite you to join me and Faculty Forward Network today.