As I write, union members from my union, the PSC, are joining striking Columbia graduate workers of SWC-UAW local 2110. I offer solidarity to the Columbia workers. I recently learned of somebody who worked at Columbia and who, like me, worked at Baruch College and Fordham University. His name was Jonathon Appels, and he was an adjunct who worked at several colleges, as you can read in his obituary here.
I received two “Sad News” emails from the two English departments in which I work last Friday. Both were about Jonathon Appels. And, even though I didn’t know him, I felt an immediate solidarity and sadness at his death. The similarities between our work lives, both adjuncts at Fordham and Baruch, struck me. For me, the labor struggle centers on changing, on very significantly reforming if not completely overhauling the exploitative adjunct faculty system that requires us adjuncts to work at multiple universities in order to sustain ourselves. What reform or overhaul means is that adjuncts should not be the majority of the workforce and that there should be much much much more opportunity for long-term adjuncts to move into full-time positions rather than be full-time part-timers, adjuncts who teach up to 75 students yet are still considered “part-time.”
Since I’m a fiction writer first and foremost, I should mention a novel that gives light to this issue: We Want Everything by Nanni Balestrini.
It begins with a worker from Southern Italy moving north to work at Fiat. At first, he simply wants to make money and work as little as possible. However, this situation slowly turns into a consciousness of how capitalism exploits the worker.
And there are critiques of not only bosses but union officials who attempt to control and diffuse the workers’ movement.
The Autonomia movement of 1970s Italy marked a critique of the Communist Party in Italy, the unions, and the old Left. Similarly, I have felt disappointed and frustrated by many in my union who don’t seem to agree that the two-tier, exploitative adjunct system needs severe reduction and/or dismantling.
However, as the Columbia graduate workers are showing us, people are willing to stand up for better working conditions, better pay, people who have survived this crisis so far and have become aware that many institutions have used the crisis to exploit workers further when the crisis has shown that the only way forward is one of solidarity. Solidarity is the only option. Anything else is a leftover ignorance of the pre-pandemic foregone world.