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  • Writer's pictureDavid Williams

American Labor: The Despicable Hypocrisy of the Academic Left—a Christmas Scrooge story, by David Williams

In recent news we have seen a resurgence in the US Labor Movement, with unions gaining some traction after being decimated by Reagan and the Republican Right for decades.  The automobile unions have been successful in getting good contracts, giving workers a living wage.  While most historians are in agreement that the Middle Class basically came about because of unions (before them US working conditions were abysmal Dickensian nightmares), the American Right has always placed the interests of business and management before human beings & human rights, seeing collective bargaining as an abomination.  While this country was founded on notions of freedom, the concept of freedom was never truly imagined for all, as our English relations across the sea whom we fought against in the Revolutionary War were more than happy to point out at the time, loudly chastising the hypocrisy of Americans proclaiming freedom while at the same time torturing and thrashing millions of Blacks who would be offered zero rights.  The enslaved Blacks (of course) noticed this too, as did the indigenous populations who were brought to their knees in one genocidal attempt after another, which eventually led to the Trail of Tears, and the reservation system.  In truth, the economic fabric of America was designed for white men, and specifically for white men who owned property.  And it was on this privately owned property that lower caste men and women were “allowed” to work for the most minimum wages or no wages at all, while the gentrified reaped massive profits by selling goods like cotton and tobacco to England.  It’s no wonder that when the industrial revolution finally kicked into gear, the factory was modelled exactly on the plantation of slavery. This blueprint was adapted around the world.  Economic democracy was never part of the equation for America, and the Right has fought long and hard to make sure that the top 10% retain all control, keeping the lion’s share of profits.   (Currently, the top 10% own 72% of America’s total wealth).


Those on the Left—labor leaders, intellectuals, visionaries, artists, writers, humanitarians, women's rights advocates, imagined a more just world—and worked diligently to create a “more perfect union,” one that granted rights to all of its citizens—women, men, all races and all ethnic groups—while abolishing childhood servitude and giving women the right to vote.  They fought to instill fair and equitable labor practices and demanded that the government supply some basic social safety nets (like Social Security).  But these battles have been won and lost over and over again, for anything that smacks of “a public good” is perpetually under attack by the Right (including even the most basic good as a guaranteed old age pension or national health care).  Traditionally, it has been the intellectual class who has been at the forefront of progressive ideas based on fairness.  As Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Paul Krugman, has said, “History has a liberal bias,” meaning those who take the time to study in depth the workings of government, economics, environment, history, and science, almost always take a liberal position, which is nuanced, aware of the complications involved in all human affairs and of the unconscious motivations that drive our species.


The idea of fairness is not just a human concern.  It has been recorded throughout the animal world as well.  All animals are wired with status and hierarchy being part of their brains, driving mechanisms for competition and the dissemination of genes into the future.  But ideas of fairness also arise in the minds of animals who participate and live in social hierarchies. One of the most famous experiments regarding this can be seen in the famous Monkey Who Rejects the Cucumber video, which has since been repeated with numerous other species showing similar reactions to inequity.  Animals do not like it when there is not equal pay for equal work.  This concept is at odds with the dog-eat-dog philosophy of pure capitalism, where the market and competition alone determine any value and the winner takes all.  Social Darwinism, the idea that best rise to the economic top, while a discounted delusion (and never a concept of Darwin, only a gross misreading of his biological theory translated into social life) still persists, as it rewards the belief that economic success is totally up to the individual and his or her hard work.  This is the Horatio Alger myth.  But even in the Horatio Alger books, the protagonist always has a lucky accident fall on his side to change his monetary value and improve his standing in society. 


So, for this year’s Christmas Scrooge story, the prize for greatest hypocrisy goes to the Academy, where a caste system was put in place back in the 1970s, which led to perpetual injustice.  The reason this inequity is even more egregious than the sins of business inequity is that universities are home to a mostly liberal faculty, the ones who write the books on progressive thought, liberal policies, rightfully critiquing the abuses of commerce and creating historical records that reside outside of myth.  But these same mostly liberal faculty (and administrators) are guilty of what I would call Crimes Against Humanity, as the university system violates every innate sense of social justice that even a Capuchin monkey would reject.  In the 70s it developed an outright caste system that is one of the most abusive labor cultures in the United States.  This is the two-tier system, created to save money. The tenured caste would be in one category, and once granted tenure these profs could not be fired, reprimanded, or intimidated, allowing for the existence of free speech that could not be stifled through governmental control, so that ideas might arise and be disseminated according to logic and reason and not political manipulation.  Tenured faculty have long claimed that these rights give them the ability to teach freely and do research that is unbiased and not prejudicial, not dependent upon outside forces that could taint scientific or free thought.  The other caste that was created were the lower caste "adjuncts." They are the ones who now teach almost 80% of all university classes nationwide, but they have none of the perks or benefits of the tenured faculty.  Normally, adjuncts teach 4 classes, where tenured faculty usually teach 2, but adjuncts are paid only a fraction of what the tenured make, often less than a third or less of a tenured salary.  Adjuncts get no sabbaticals, no free computers, no money to go to conferences, no travel expenses, no research funding, no housing allowances, and often no medical benefits or retirement.  And living in a well-defined caste system, upward mobility within an institution is impossible, as new hires for tenure spots are rarely if ever taken from the “untouchable” caste.  You must be HIRED into the tenure caste in order to be accepted at the top ranks; you can't work your way up. For adjuncts, their PhDs, the books they publish, mean nothing, as they are not counted as achievements.  And adjuncts have no idea if they will be employed from one semester to another, as each semester they are hired on the spot, so there is never any kind of security like tenured faculty enjoy.  Adjuncts can be fired at any time for no reason and without recourse, while tenured faculty are guaranteed lifetime employment and a good retirement income. 

Th two-tier system tells us a lot about human nature, as even in the “ivory tower,” where justice and truth are supposed to be the driving concerns, and questions of fairness are often addressed, the tenured walk the same halls as the adjunct caste, who perform the same services of teaching, writing, and publishing, often with the same degrees, but hardly anyone in the tenured caste ever raises an eyebrow.  The lower caste exists right under the noses of the upper caste, yet they are not seen, not acknowledged.  If they publish a book, there is no mention made of it.  The tenured seldom know anyone’s name in the adjunct caste.  Adjuncts exist as ghosts, unseen, unrecognized, underpaid, exploited, and abused.  And if they DO try to form a union, they are often fired, as they have zero rights as workers.  But these are the people who are teaching the large majority of America’s students.  They seldom have unions, because tenured professors seldom have unions.  The tenured caste tends to see itself as “above all that” and doesn't want to get its hands dirty.  They feel that they have nothing in common with blue collar workers, like truck drivers or auto workers. Afterall, they make a living wage, or better, and have a pretty cushy life, not having to do the most laborious classes the adjuncts are forced to take on.  For example, at the U of Colorado, Writing department adjuncts must grade 50 pages per student a semester, teaching 4 classes, which equals 80 students.  No tenured teacher would ever be asked to take on a load like that!  And while tenured faculty are free from internal harassment, adjuncts are routinely treated like children, monitored, scored, evaluated, even though they might have decades of teaching experience and multiple publications.  It’s a miserable existence for adjuncts, but many get caught in the snare of academica, unable to find other work, unable to get a public school job (public school teachers have a union and decent pay and benefits. A first year Kindergarten teacher in a public school makes more than an adjunct with a PhD and publications), because getting a teaching certificate requires a two year full-time commitment while making no money. Universities do not require teaching certificates. After spending 16 or more years in college, adjuncts hope for a tenured job, but almost always in vain.  99% will never arrive there.  The tens of thousands of adjuncts usually end up with no retirement income and end up living in destitution in their old age.  Nobody does anything to stop this sin.  Nada.

Einstein believed that intellectual workers were just in much need of unions as any other workers.  He also saw that “The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job . . . [and that] an ‘army of unemployed' almost always exists.”  This is certainly true in Higher Ed, as more and more PhDs are pumped out than will ever be able to find jobs.  And adjuncts do live in perpetual fear, never knowing if they will be hired or fired, living without hope.  Most love teaching, and as someone whose job once was to evaluate adjuncts, I never saw an adjunct who was any less of a professor than a tenured one.  Usually, they were better, giving more attention to their students.


No matter what people say, it means nothing compared to what people do--the actions or inactions that they take.  Selfishness and greed know no boundaries in humanity, though even I would like to think differently.  If the Liberal leaders of America, residing in the institutions of Higher Education, have never even attempted to clean their own house of a despicable caste system, blatantly unfair, where do we go to find true and honorable champions of

justice?  To the Capuchin Monkeys I suppose. 







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