The increasingly casualised California university system makes Toby Miller wonder whether unionisation has a future.
When I was a child, the Dutch-derived word furlough referred to soldiers in Hollywood movies who were away from the front, enjoying some shore leave. It's come to mean something quite different now across the US economy, including higher education, and including the University of California's massive and renowned system. It's how employers decide to diminish costs without firing people.
Let's make this personal for a moment. Starting in September, for at least 18 months my salary will be reduced by approximately 10 per cent. Rather than becoming a permanent cut - at least for now - the reduction will be "achieved" (I love these Orwellian terms) through compulsory furloughs.
Some of these will be campus-wide. The place will just shut down completely. Some furloughs will be more local, as we'll probably decide to shut down our department while others are open and vice versa.
There's a debate on about simply cancelling days of instruction, in order to bring home to students that teaching must be as affected as administration and research. This is no guarantee that we'll avoid lay-offs. So far, tenure and tenure-track positions are deemed safe, but staff jobs are not immune. Faculty are basically not in unions, while most non-managerial staff have collective bargaining. The last-in, first-out rules may hit them hard.
The 10 per cent cut I'm getting is a higher percentage than the one required of junior people. They will also be protected from increased teaching loads, which will fall on senior faculty such as myself.
Wherever possible, 2009 job offers have been rescinded, casual and fractional faculty have been "separated" (another fabulous example of doublespeak), and qualified students have been turned away. To try to avoid these across-the-board decisions, 23 department heads at UC San Diego proposed that the UCs at Santa Cruz, Merced, and Riverside (where I work) be shut down or downgraded. Thanks for the solidarity, chaps.
The story is similar across the country, from private to public universities. Some states are not in as bad a situation as California, which under Arnold Schwarzenegger's misrule as governor has gone from the fifth-largest economy in the world to the eighth-biggest. Perhaps the strength of the Californian economy will be renewed, but for now things look very grim. And of course, the desire of universities and their funders to run a system that privileges researchers who make things that can be sold, or train professionals who are in high demand, will only be renewed and strengthened by these changes.
I have no idea whether Australia will confront similar assaults on research schools like ours. Its odd arrangement, whereby constitutional and fiscal responsibility for public universities is split, makes for a different form of life from ours. The same goes for the respective prominence and power of academic unions. In the US, faculty in private schools do not have the constitutional right to collective bargaining because they are deemed to be "managerial employees" (come on down, Mr Orwell, and claim your prize one more time). The situation in public universities varies. So we're largely without a union in the University of California, though graduate students have one. Some states have unions that cover everyone.
In the long term, I foresee a massive casualisation of labour as precarious jobs take over from good ones. The philosopher Antonio Negri refers to the flexible workers of the new economy as a cognitariat because they have high levels of educational attainment.
This new proletariat is not defined in terms of manufacturing or opposition to ruling-class power and ideology. Indeed, it is formed from those whose immediate forebears, with similar or less cultural capital, were the salariat, and lived their lives confident of guaranteed health care and retirement income. The cognitariat lacks both the organisation of the traditional working class and the political entrée of the old middle class.
The freeway professors who drive across the southern half of California to teach at any number of our 70 universities fit the bill. Their laboir has long gone unacknowledged as a crucial part of the system sustaining fancy researchers with tenure. Now their numbers will swell from being a majority of teachers to being the invisible norm. One can only imagine what would happen if they became fully organised industrially and functioned as a unit in place of being atomised selves. For now, they are the first to be jettisoned, as tenured faculty are asked to teach more for less pay. But very soon, they will be back in front of the class while we swan around complaining about our workloads and salaries.
Professor Toby Miller is chair of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside.
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