Jane McAlevey is a Senior Policy Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center. Her most recent book is A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. She spoke at CAUT’s 90th Council meeting in April about fighting the race to the bottom.
You spoke about the need for university and college staff to get organized. Why?
As the crisis at Laurentian University demonstrates, we’re already facing some serious crises. When I began as an organizer in 1995, the ratio of adjuncts to full-time tenured faculty in the American university system was 1:3 — it’s now the exact reverse. Do you want to lose everything or change before it’s too late? For us to rebalance austerity, to have a robust quality education system, to have more tenure track faculty — we have to be ready to take on a grotesque inequality of power that exists in Canada, as it does across the United States.
How has the pandemic changed things?
I think that we are in for a war in the academic arena, coming out of this pandemic, where governments and administrations will decide everyone can do distance learning, who needs professors right? We're just going to be robots on a screen from now on. We need to build incredible alliances among and between, full-time tenured and more precarious workers, and between the students and the parents and the community. If we don't do that, we're all going to go down in this process if we don't change how we're doing the work right now.
What can academic staff do to improve working conditions and protect public post-secondary education?
For you to avoid a race to the bottom, we need to understand that winning rests on one overarching variable, and that’s power. It doesn’t matter if we have clever lawyers or negotiators. We have two sources of power: we have voting, and we have the ability to strike. Both depend on high participation. The other side has the media, tons of financial resources. And on our side, we have our numbers. Can we get our numbers to translate into the kind of power that we are capable of? We need unity. And we must actively build unity —it doesn’t just happen spontaneously. We need tight and effective workplace structures. And we have to build demonstratable and sustainable supermajorities. In my whole life experience, where we build high participation unions we can also change politics.
How does having a supermajority lead to victories?
Without high participation from employees, we are not going to win when the climate is super hostile. In April 2018, 75,000 teachers in Arizona walked off the job in an illegal strike. They could only get away with that because it was 100% from every school in the state. In 2020, because of that level of organization and mobilization, lawmakers passed a 1% tax on the rich in Arizona to fund education and take away the austerity excuse of the government.
Can we win better contracts in an age of austerity?
I don’t go to the bargaining table for bad contracts. I’m in it to win what workers deserve. We leave a lot of power on the table by ignoring the lives of most of our workers when they are not at work, even though they’ve got connections that could be brought to bear in the power equation we’ve got to shift. All too often, weak unions make alliances in communities with weak organizations. That will not bring us a win. If we map out who really has the power in communities and figure out who — meaning who among our membership at our own institutions — has connections to those powerful people — that’s how we will win. Unless we build incredible alliances among in between, full-time tenured and more precarious workers, and between the students and the parents and the community. If we don't do that, we're all going to go down in this process if we don't change how we're doing the work right now. What we have found time and again is that among the members of the union, there are powerful connections that exist that we often leave untapped because we haven’t done the internal work to better understand just how powerful the members connections can be when we collectivize our knowledge.