Monday, February 26, 2018

Why Academic Strikes Don't Work

This past year has seen an upheaval in academia, as many academics in North America and now the UK have taken to the streets to protest their precocity of their work conditions. The entire system of adjunct teaching, with university administrators dictating unfair work conditions to academics, is made possible by the glut in the supply of teachers, but goes against the supposed ethics of higher education.

The thing is, I am with them 100% in spirit. But sadly, I don't think protests alone will work for two main reasons.

The first reason is simple - adjuncts have no leverage. They need the job too much, both materially and spiritually, and have (so too many think) nowhere else to go.

Basically, whatever the transaction, you need leverage to negotiate a good deal, and ultimately, you need to be ready to walk away if the deal does not please you. Rich people have the freedom to do this, poor people don't. If you walk into a car dealership and say "I need this blue car, give me a good deal!" you have just sabotaged yourself.

In a similar fashion, striking academics say "I need this job, physically and mentally, so give me a better deal!" That isn't likely to happen with the neoliberal university system that now exists in the West and elsewhere.

This principle was made abundantly clear to me when I faced workplace bullying by a supervisor a few years back. I worked in a Language Centre at a small university at the time, and my new director singled me out for abuse, berating me for taking sick leave, hauling me into a 4 on 1 surprise attack meeting, and finally refusing to renew my contract. These were all abhorrent actions, and very contrary to the 'spirit' of a university, I thought, especially coming from a researcher who specialized in the pain of conflict.

But in terms of academic administration, these actions were entirely logical. In response, I went through official channels by reporting to the harassment officer. When that was stymied (why would they turn out one of their own who was just doing business?), I escalated by going to legal counsel, and threatening to communicate the details of the case to the media and the supervisor's research network. I knew the bridge was burnt,  and as I advised fellow sufferers of academic bullying (Bonnah 2017), I also understood that getting ready to walk away from the job is a precondition to getting a better deal.

Ultimately, the chance of unethical decisions coming to light got the administration's attention, and I was able to settle the affair in a way that allowed me to heal from the abuse, finish my PhD, and find a better position. It was still unfair and unjust, and sealed my decision to move away from teaching and into research.

In a similar fashion, if academics in precarious conditions want a better deal, in addition to protests, they need to threaten legal action, and raise the media profile of the university's 'wrongdoing', not just decry their unfair working conditions.

Another condition of academic work that complicates this situation is that, in all honesty, academics are generally unorganized and disloyal to one another. When I was abused, my coworkers told me bluntly it was my own affair, and they wanted nothing to do with my case, which they said I had brought on myself. I joined an academic union, but after 3 months of exorbitant fee paying with nothing to show for it, I quit my membership and got a free legal counselling session that lead me to getting out and finding better terms. I felt abysmally alone throughout the whole process, and am sure it would have driven some to despair and depression. Former coworkers later told me of their abuse after my departure and how they wish they had supported me more, but their actions make sense given their own precarious work conditions.

In April, I will be an associate professor, and will cross over to the other side of the line. As Jana (2018) notes, the higher you rise in academia, the more you have to lose, and thus the less you stand by your principles by throwing in with striking academics. Unlike my supervisor, who excused his abuse of me by saying he was just "a man of the organization," I am willing to walk away from the job if it asks me to compromise my ideals by abusing others. But I hope that striking academics in North America and the UK realize that they need to be able to get together or else get out if they hope to find a better life.


Jana, B. (2018). "Universities, neoliberalism, and the (I'm)possibility of critique."

Bonnah, T. (2017). "Fighting Power Harassment: Surviving and thriving against workplace bullying." Linked In article.

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