[This interview originally appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly’s special issue on graduate student organizing.]

Graduate students occupy a liminal space in the university. Like undergraduates they take courses and write term papers. Like their faculty advisors they conduct original research, present at academic conferences, and in many cases publish in scholarly journals. Like the growing number of contingent faculty hired off the tenure-track they teach courses for compensation that pales in comparison with the value that is being produced for the university. Thus we felt it important to broaden out the focus of this quarterly and place graduate student organizing in a wider context. 

What follows is an interview with Kim Tolley, editor of an instructive and engaging volume on, as the title clearly states, Professors in the Gig Economy. This is the not only the economy that more and more graduate students will enter upon receiving their PhD, but one that is already determinative of many features of graduate school itself. Kim Tolley is a Professor of Education at Notre Dame de Namur University, where she helped lead a faculty unionization campaign (including adjuncts) in 2016. 

Michael Schapira: In the preface to Professors in the Gig Economy you give a rather capacious definition of an adjunct, including graduate students as well as part- and full-time contingent faculty hired off the tenure track. Not everyone would draw grad students into that category. What are the stakes involved in making that kind of gesture at the beginning of the book?

Kim Tolley: Historically grad students do belong in that category. My field is history of education. I invited two historians to write the first two chapters. Tim Cain’s chapter on the long history of organizing talks about how early on in the 20th century graduate students were part of bargaining units. In the City University of New York system they were in bargaining units as early as 1968, and they were in the unified union that followed in the early 1970s. I came out of UC Berkeley myself, where graduate students and post-docs had organized in the UC system. These are all public sector universities where there has been a history of graduate student organizing. 

They are definitely contingent faculty from my perspective and I think from the perspective of fellow faculty at my institution. Sometimes they are called teaching assistants and run discussions, but sometimes they are actually lecturing and teaching courses. But whatever work they are doing, they are working for a salary that is simply not enough.

We do have grad students in the part-time faculty bargaining unit at Notre Dame de Namur University. When we began organizing, the NLRB ruling on Brown had not been overturned. The NLRB ruling in the Columbia case occurred in August 2016, after we had successfully voted to unionize. So how did we end up with grad students in our union? When we submitted union cards to the NLRB in San Francisco, graduate students who taught at least one course identified as adjunct faculty, and this is how everyone saw them. Even the Notre Dame de Namur administration did not question that they worked as part-time faculty. Thus around a dozen or more grad students ended up in the part-time bargaining unit certified by the NLRB, and all the full-time faculty, including tenure-track, were in the second. We never talked about the fact that grad students were in the part-time bargaining unit, because we just considered them part-time faculty colleagues. 

What initially gave you the idea that there is a book or collection here? Did it come from prior interests, or did it come from the organizing experience that happened on your campus?

I was very involved in the initial organizing effort on my campus. At the time I was in a leadership role in the faculty senate, and we decided to organize along with adjunct faculty and graduate students.

But in terms of how I got involved in this process of editing the book…We had organized and won our union election and were just about to start collective bargaining. I would say that I decided to do this book simply because I thought someone needed to write about what was going on, and I thought it would be useful for us to reach out to all these individuals across the country who had been involved in different organizing campaigns from different perspectives. I thought we could learn a lot from their work because we were just about to start collective bargaining. And in fact we did learn a lot.

You put together a nice collection as well. I wanted to get into a few of the essays in the book. In the first essay A.J. Angullo talks a lot about the rise of managerialism in the administration as a cultural shift in universities. This dovetails with some real material shifts in universities, with changes in the academic labor market and funding structures. How have you thought about the relationship between this cultural shift in the administration and more material shifts in academic work? Do they reinforce one another? Is there a priority guiding the relationship? 

I don’t know whether anyone has done any quantitative research on this, but there may be a correlation. I’m teaching at a Catholic university, and one of the more interesting articles I’ve encountered recently was from Joseph McCartin on labor problems in Catholic universities. It was interesting because you’d expect a Catholic institution to be mission driven and non-profit – with capital letters, not considering profit-making at all times.  But he found in a survey of Catholic institutions that the composition of people on the boards had changed. In the same period about which Angullo was writing, more Catholic institutions began to seek out board members who were working in business, who had business expertise, who were perhaps not just wealthy philanthropists, but who had some interest in and experience in how to run a corporation. 

To some extent I’ve seen that at my own school. When you have a board composed of people from corporations, they bring some of that culture to the work they do. Some of that corporate culture involves thinking about support for infrastructure and thinking about higher compensation for administrators, but not particularly a great concern for the workers who are producing value through teaching at the school.

I can add some anecdotal evidence for what it is worth. I’m an adjunct at St. Joseph’s University. There has been a lot of change in the administrative ranks recently and lots of investment in the Business School and graduate programs in Education and other “cash cow” programs. 

I had a question about Catholic universities, which factors into the chapter on Georgetown. There is also a chapter on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). You could say that these are both mission driven schools. Do you think there is any value in making a case based on the substantive normative commitments of these universities, instead of making an economic case? Do you find any hope in appealing to the mission of universities, or is that a lost cause?

I think that’s a great organizing strategy, if that’s what you are asking me. Every institution, whether it is Catholic, an HBCU, or secular has a mission statement. I don’t know where you’d find an institution that had a mission statement that didn’t emphasize social justice, making a difference in the world, or transforming lives. You have to ask, when these institutions are refusing to pay adjuncts a living wage, to what extent are they adhering to their mission or not? To whom does their mission apply? I think those are great questions. Students and parents I think care about the mission too.

That was a point that we tried to make in our chapter on organizing at Notre Dame de Namur University. One of the strategies was to organize in light of the mission. It wasn’t just a strategy though. In the first conversation we had as a faculty about organizing, we talked about if we were going to do this. We didn’t know at the time how many people would express interest in going forward, but we decided that if we were going to do this, we were going to proceed in light of our mission. Part of that mission at our university entailed treating other people with respect. That was important to the faculty there, and was also important to the students to see that we were organizing in that way. 

We can speak about your home institution a little more. In the chapter you co-wrote you quote an adjunct who said the mid 2010s were hardest on them because of the massive rise in housing costs in the Bay Area. How much have the manifest and gross inequalities in your region over the past few decades shaped some of your thinking about these issues?

To some extent, of course it does. Unionizing that is happening across higher education, as well as at the K-12 level, is a response to larger macro forces driving inequality. For elementary teachers in Colorado and Arizona and elsewhere it is a response to a kind of political stance that state governments have had that has resulted in a tightening of control of funding for public institutions. We don’t often think of that as creating inequality, but it does. When I think about inequality, I can on the one hand think of corporations and the one percent pursuing riches. But that’s not the way I’m thinking about it now. I’m thinking of the decisions that a society has to make for civil, public, and private institutions that are serving the public good – and educational institutions fit in that arena as serving the public good. That is why for many decades we chartered them as non-profits. They served the public good and to function well, they required some kind of infusion of public cash. Today we have a politically conservative mantra that claims we are paying too much for public institutions, that we should trim the fat, etc….but let’s face it – there is no more fat to trim in public institutions. 

In the private arena schools have been suffering as well because there has been this growing cost of living. To some extent the incredible escalation of rents in the Bay Area is not the fault of schools like mine. But it does put an enormous pressure on adjuncts who are trying to make a living in the area. The problem there can’t be solved entirely by unionization. When rents are increasing by 30% per year, as they have in the past few years in the town of Sunnyvale, which is right next to me, there is no unionization process that can keep up with that. We’re between a rock and a hard place.

This might be too big a question, but with the presidential election cycle coming up what kind of national priorities would you be looking for in addressing this problem of adjunct labor? Maybe the question is, given what you just said, whether it would more targeted to higher education or whether it would have to be something more sweeping like the Green New Deal?

There is language in the Green New Deal that supports unionization. And to me, to prevent the 180-degree U-turn on the National Labor Relations Board rulings is really important. For example, in 2004 the Brown NLRB ruling said that private university graduate students couldn’t unionize because they weren’t employees, and that was reversed in 2016. The recent spate of unionization campaigns in private universities is because of that ruling. Under a conservative government, like we have now, that ruling could be overturned, and we could go back to a ruling that says you can’t unionize. The ability for anyone to unionize depends on federal law under the National Labor Relations Act. A dedicated conservative government could overturn everyone’s right to unionize and organize in the workplace. So I think support for people to better their working conditions and earn a living wage should be paramount. 

It’s easy to be pessimistic and dire when thinking about this topic, but you have a chapter in the book about Georgetown as a positive example of how an organizing campaign could play out. (We have a contribution from a GU grad student in this collection that takes up some of the substance of that campaign.) Are there any other examples that you see as positive, even if not perfect, on this front?

Georgetown is the most positive example we know of – and I’m using we to include all of SEIU in that phrase. 

I can talk a bit about Catholic schools, because that’s the world in which I’ve been working. St. Mary’s College is a LaSallean institution and not a Jesuit institution, but they won their election and began to organize before we started. Their president said, “We’re not going to oppose this.” I think they had a fairly good outcome at their institution. 

They didn’t have anything called a just employment policy though. I knew that Joe McCartin and others at Georgetown had written about their just employment policy. They wrote some blog posts about unionization in light of that, which is why I had them write a chapter for the book. We wanted to know more about that or at least have something for readers who were completely frustrated. Even if they couldn’t unionize at their institution, is there some language or any role model that they can use to begin to get their faculty to initiate some change in light of the mission? We’re back to the mission issue we were talking about. We want everyone to try and live those ideals out.

It was very refreshing to see that chapter included. This can be a very dispiriting topic to engage.

We started with that example, as a case study.

There are two themes that recur throughout the collection – there is the issue of shared governance, but also what happens after a unionization campaign. Here one might think that there is a significant difference between adjuncts in the narrower sense – who have PhDs and are teaching in contingent roles – and graduate students. In thinking about these two topics of shared governance and what happens after a campaign, there are differences between bands of this large adjunct category. Is there a way to close the potential gap between these different bands that normally one would want to include in the category of adjunct?

How the bargaining unit is organized varies from institution to institution. CUNY is a really interesting example because they include graduate students in a unified bargaining unit. Almost everywhere else grad students are in a separate bargaining unit. It would be something that the unit would have to negotiate for at the bargaining table, if they wanted to participate in shared governance.

I can’t speak to that so much because in my institution we didn’t have a large group of graduate students signaling that they wanted to be involved in our effort. We have a small number of PhD students in my institution who would have qualified, but it might not have exceeded 30. 

I don’t mean to be a pessimist, but it’s difficult to bargain for shared governance in this context. When we bargained successfully to involve adjunct faculty in shared governance, it was very hard to have adjunct faculty actually choose to participate in shared governance without any kind of compensation. It takes time to sit on a committee and influence the outcome that is going on at an institution.  

We could all sit here and think that if we were a graduate student, we’d be working, teaching, doing research, finishing up coursework, and starting to write our dissertation. It’s a big ask to sit on a university committee devoted to curriculum reform. Even if I felt passionate about that, how would I influence my colleagues? I’m not saying it’s impossible. You can negotiate for that if the bargaining unit wants that, but my guess is that, as with most bargaining units across the country, the top priority is money. And then you get to considerations about quality of work life. 

One final question. I interviewed someone else for this quarterly who was a Yale undergraduate in the early 2000s and then was a graduate student at NYU in 2006, so he had a first hand experience of two key sites of this movement. I asked him about the site of organization as a specific site of learning on campus. Were there specific things that you learned in this campaign as a specific site of learning that wasn’t available in your more scholarly mode as a historian of education? 

That is the one question I could have used in advance. One of the most important, if not the most important thing that I learned, was that in this institution the whole unionization campaign began in a conversation between two of us. I learned that you can start a unionization effort with just two committed people. That’s all it takes. That’s really important. 

I learned how to organize, because we organized ourselves. We knew it would take talking to people face to face. I learned a lot about what it takes to create cohesion around a large group of people. It basically takes one step at a time. For us it meant making up a list of all of the faculty and figuring out when they were teaching and figuring out what time we could encounter somebody and ask whether they would have one or two minutes for a conversation. 

Literally getting up at six in the morning to get to campus by seven to talk to someone before their teaching, and staying on campus until 10 at night to talk to someone after their last class finished. Are there two people who have the commitment to do that? And then, how do you begin delegating that work when you have three people, and four people? I’m not saying that’s all it takes. You have a sense from what I’ve described that the work is enormous, and yet starting it is simple. 

That’s a hopeful note to end on.

I think graduate students deserve the right to organize. So if I can help people understand that it’s not hard to start, I’ll feel very happy with this interview. 

 Michael Schapira is an Interviews editor at Full Stop and is a Visiting Professor at the Siberian School of Advanced Studies in Tyumen, Russia.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.