Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: Acquiescent No More: Tenured and Tenure-Track Are Finally Fighting Back, by Rebecca Kolins Givan (Rutgers):
Too often, complacency is the assumed natural state of the tenured professor. Solidarity, on the other hand, is an elusive and foreign concept. Even before higher education was plunged into a full-blown public health and economic crisis, the “widespread inaction” of tenured faculty has been, for some, an embarrassing and persistent reality. Even as universities risked becoming pared-down sites of work-force preparedness, resting on exploited, contingent academic labor and funded by exorbitant costs pushed onto students, many in the secure professoriate sat idly on the sidelines. Entrenched acquiescence, coupled with a lack of institutionalized bargaining rights, has helped to normalize a lack of direct political engagement from the most comfortable and well-protected academic workers.
As opportunities to land a tenure-track job have evaporated, those who have risen to the few remaining secure positions in the profession have by and large refused to use their professional privileges to speak out, whether on behalf of their contingent colleagues or to push for broader investment in public higher education, accepting instead that “the system is horrible, unethical, but it works for them.” While some tenured professors simply feel too overworked to participate in political activities, labor struggles, etc., others don’t see any reason why they should in the first place, choosing to identify “as thinkers rather than as workers.” But, as Jennifer Fredette forcefully argues in a group faculty interview for The Chronicle Review, “To have tenure and to stay in your lane is to be complicit with the injustices of the system in which you have secured this privilege.” While addressing the need to defend the most precarious workers on campuses, Naomi Klein put it even more succinctly: “Got your tenure? Make some trouble!” ...
Draconian cuts, disproportionately hitting the most vulnerable in campus communities, coupled with unsafe plans for a return to face-to-face instruction have moved faculty, especially tenured and tenure-track faculty, from acquiescence to action.
Moreover, amid widespread protests against institutional racism and police brutality, more faculty are joining efforts to resist slashing cuts affecting campus workers of color, and the abandonment of diversity efforts and ethnic-studies programs. But such a political awakening is inevitably accompanied by the realization that faculty who are not unionized and are unaccustomed to acting collectively in their own interest, let alone in the interest of the less powerful in their institutions, have a lot of ground to cover and plenty of professional and legal obstacles to overcome if they want to get organized and mobilize their collective power.
The sad fact of the matter is that relatively few faculty have formal collective-bargaining rights. At private colleges, the Supreme Court’s Yeshiva decision of 1980 designated faculty members part of management, and therefore ineligible for protection under the National Labor Relations Act. However, the persistent problem of a professional culture of faculty acquiescence, as Guido Marx’s words demonstrate, long predated the legal denial of the faculty’s collective-bargaining rights. For tenured and tenure-track professors looking to engage in political struggle, overcoming these institutional and cultural barriers can feel like fighting with both hands tied behind one’s back. But it shouldn’t. Along with countless existing organizations and campaigns that faculty can join, learn from, and help with, there are many stirring historical examples of workers without bargaining rights taking action, from Columbia graduate workers to West Virginia teachers. While some might think of collective bargaining as the highly ritualized and regulated process of employers and unions sitting across the table from each other, negotiating over a narrow set of legally constrained issues, academic workers are demonstrating that collective bargaining is much more than this. When employees organize, take action, and win changes in their working conditions, they, too, are bargaining collectively. ...
Collective action by faculty, pushed out of their acquiescence by stark budget cuts, threats to their health and safety, and a national reckoning with structural racism, is on the rise. Whether this action is sustained and whether it leads to unionizing or formal collective bargaining remains to be seen. There’s an old saying in union organizing: “The boss is the best organizer.” These faculty are getting organized in response to the callous decisions of their bosses. Even without officially sanctioned collective bargaining rights, faculty are finally adopting a “wholesome group consciousness” and moving from acquiescence to action, from complacency to collective organizing. They are asserting that, when it comes to universities, faculty are essential workers who can and will bargain collectively, with or without the support of the law.