Kirstein Remarks at St Xavier Teach-in for Adjunct Unionisation and Justice

Adjunct Professor Joe Berry, who has taught at many institutions such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and currently the University of California at Berkeley, is the central figure in the adjunct faculty pursuit of justice. His magnum opus, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education was the adjunct-contingent faculty equivalent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It revealed the persecution, the fear, the marginalisation, the disrespect, the subsistence wage (or less) that the new majority of the university professoriate endure today. He was also the driving force behind the formation of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL). He attended a session where I presented a paper at the American Association of University Professors, Shared Governance Conference in Washington that led to his e-mailing me this statement of support for the St Xavier University teach-in on Tuesday, November 15, 2011.


The goals that St. Xavier adjuncts and their allies on campus are pursuing have importance far beyond the St. Xavier campus. Organizing the new majority contingent faculty in the private sector of higher education, both in the non-profit and for-profit institutions, should be a primary task for all those interested in saving higher education and reversing the trends toward corporatization in higher education, not to mention helping to save the labor movement. In alliance with students, no one is better situated to lead this battle than organized faculty, but we must be organized to have an impact. I salute you for your efforts, persistence and courage. On behalf of the national movement of contingent faculty, sometimes referred to generically as COCAL (Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor), I look forward to your eventual success and welcome you to the struggle. I also hope to see some of you at the COCAL X conference in August in Mexico City.

In solidarity,

Joe Berry

One of teach-ins we had here was organised in 2004 by Professor Michael Rabe following a screening of Michael Moore’s, Fahrenheit 911. That was to oppose war against Iraq that the criminal, terrorist President George W. Bush lied our way into with his lies about weapons of mass destruction.

This teach-in for me is to oppose war against the working class in supporting workers’ rights to organise and form a union. People have fought and died and stood in solidarity for the rights of labour from the glorious writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, to the Industrial Workers of the World, to the Haymarket Martyrs, to the Homestead heroes against Carnegie, to the Ludlow coal miners against Rockefeller interests, to the Eugene Victor Debs wonderful brand of socialism and support of the Pullman Railroad workers, to the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, to the voters of Ohio who supported collective bargaining for public unions.

I have stood with pro-union, pro-worker Occupy Wall Street Movements from Chicago to Washington DC where I was a few days ago and its time to occupy SXU. As the son of a medical director of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union medical center in St Louis and a proud member of our Faculty Affairs Committee union, I declare, I declare we need to Occupy St Xavier. Occupy its ethics; occupy its values; occupy its mission; occupy its consciousness and assert the right of adjunct faculty to have what full-time faculty have had on this campus since 1979: a union.

Unions on college campuses are not strange or weird. UIC became the first major research university to have one in decades. Columbia College has one; Illinois State has one; SIU Carbondale faculty that are on strike have one; Northeastern Illinois University has one. Roosevelt University has one and many of these unions are composed of adjunct faculty: part time faculty who are paid by course and not a salary based on rank and years of service.

Faculty unions are good for students: if a union can provide even a modest amount of benefits and some job security and enhanced pleasure in teaching, your professors will feel more connected to the university. $2,300 for a course and no benefits is what most adjuncts make here: most professors in this country have no tenure and are at-will employees who fear one misstep, one cross word, one argument with a dept. chair or other unit head, and they are gone.

I wonder how you students here feel about this. Your classes have reading lists. Adjunct faculty have to calculate is this book too controversial? will it get me in trouble? Will my chair or other senior colleagues not like it and punish me for it? Will students complain or their parents because it is too controversial and radical whether left or right.

Tenured faculty who have job security will frequently WANT to choose a book that students may find controversial or provocative so they will read it and find it interesting! Do you want professors who engage in self-censorship or those who can teach without fear? Don’t get me wrong an adjunct union cannot cure all these ills, only tenure/tenure track faculty can escape this but unions can help and improve the academic product here and this has not been sufficiently addressed on this campus.

We are tuition drive. We have no endowment worthy of the name. We are burdened with $52,000,000 in debt; we live from semester to semester based upon student enrollment and the hope that administrators like a Susan Piros are not stealing us blind to the tune of $850,000. I am sure no one is now, don’t get me wrong but I am not worried that an adjunct union will bankrupt us. I am worried that the current course of the university will morally bankruptcy us and that the majority of our faculty who are adjuncts will become even more alienated from the university.

This is why our country’s educational system is no longer the envy of the world. Given what this country does to the world why should it be? Given the fact so few faculty members have academic freedom, it does not deserve to be respected and admired. Universities are like corporations in which education is secondary to bottom lines and doting on units that bring in money. The days where folks taught merely to fulfill their love of knowledge, love of student interaction, love of ideas existed only in the minds of oppressors and tweedy personifications of an Ivy League ivory tower. It is a myth that at-will, part-time faculty members don’t have to eat; it is a myth that faculty members age backwards like Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and never need a pension; and that they never get sick and don’t need health insurance.

I call on this university administration, that consists of decent people, to first declare that if their effort to stop unionisation fails at the Washington office of the National Labor Relations Board that they will not fight it in court. I call on the university administration to recapture the spirit of mercy and honour Catholic Social Teaching that has traditionally recognised the rights of workers to join in solidarity whether it be Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891), the Polish shipyard workers in Gdansk under Lech Walesa or the heroic Cesar Chavez who organised farm workers into the United Farmworkers Union (UFW). As Dr King said: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It is long enough now, it is time to bend it and to allow our majority of faculty members to have the unfettered opportunity to join a union. Their time has come.

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