On April 9, the three faculty unions at Rutgers went on strike or the first time in the history of the university. And that’s a long history. When the institution was founded in colonial New Jersey, 10 years before the Declaration of Independence, it was called Queen’s College. We had been working without a contract since June 2022. The administration dragged its feet at the negotiating table, and the university’ president, Jonathan Holloway, threatened legal retaliation on the dubious grounds that government-employee strikes are unlawful in the Garden State.
The threats didn’t work. Rutgers was shut down for a week while Gov. Phil Murphy—who hated the disruption but had a pro-labor reputation to uphold—personally oversaw renewed negotiations. We returned to work in exchange for a commitment that went a long way toward addressing some of our core issues. We finally voted on the new contract over the weekend, with 93 percent of the members voting “Yes.”
Full-time faculty and graduate students made gains, but the most remarkable part of the contract might be the 43.7 percent pay increase for part-time lecturers, or PTLs, like me. That’s a big stride toward my union’s long-standing demand for “fractional pay”—the idea that, for example, an adjunct who does two-thirds of a full-time teaching load every semester should be paid two-thirds of the salary of a non-tenure-track, full-time professor.
I was hired as a PTL in January 2016, and I have taught at Rutgers for all but a few semesters since. These days, I live on the West Coast and teach an online class or two at Rutgers while devoting most of my time to writing and podcasting. But when I was still living in Jersey and teaching was my only job, I always taught exactly three classes in the fall and two in the spring, or the other way around. Why exactly five? Because if the administration ever slipped up and gave me six classes instead of five, it would have been contractually obliged to reclassify me as a full-time non-tenure-track professor and offer me health insurance. That’s a typical experience for de facto full-time adjuncts not just at Rutgers, but at state universities, community colleges, and private institutions of higher education throughout the United States.
Colleges everywhere have been increasingly relying on precarious arrangements for the same reason any employer prefers a lower-paid and more precarious labor force. The PTL union at Rutgers is fairly well-established, but adjunct unionization is a relatively new development elsewhere, and you can be sure that both labor and management at campuses across the country were closely monitoring developments in New Jersey.
My great-grandfather Morris was in the national leadership of the United Auto Workers in the sitdown strike era, when workers in places like Flint, Mich., occupied factories to demand union recognition. I can still remember hearing Morris’s wisdom repeated to me by my dad at an early age: No contract is perfect.That’s certainly true here. Speaking as a PTL, health insurance would have been nice. Still, the administration made a dramatic about-face, from pleading poverty (even as it sunk immense sums into dubious hedge fund investments) to granting a 43.7 percent pay increase for its most precarious academic workers. That was a vivid demonstration of something else Morris understood well: Strikes work.
The adjunctification of higher education is just one symptom of much larger changes within the structure of American capitalism. The replacement of cab-driving Teamsters with ultra-precarious Uber and Lyft drivers exemplifies the same drift. So, in a different way, does the shuttering of the factories where those sitdown strikes happened in the 1930s and the rise of the service economy.
Blaming these developments on technological change misses most of the point. Ride-sharing apps are new, but day labor existed long before Fordist assembly lines. No law of nature dictates that people who work in Amazon warehouses or Walmart supercenters will get worse wages or benefits than their industrial brothers and sisters in auto factories and coal mines. We are talking, in some of these examples, about the most profitable corporations on the planet. How those profits are distributed is a question of class power. People who work for wages are vastly more numerous than the people who sign their paychecks, but this is a double-edged sword. It’s almost always easier for an employer to replace any individual worker than for that worker to replace the job she relies on to pay her bills and feed her kids. That equation only starts to change when workers are willing to band together and disrupt the economic machine.
Strikes in one sector of the economy can help inspire militancy elsewhere, if workers understand the fundamentally common interests that bind everyone who has to sell their working hours to an employer to make a living. The Teamsters understand that simple truth. That’s why they are holding rallies with striking screenwriters this week and refusing to cross Writers Guild of America picket lines to make deliveries to Hollywood studios.
Some self-described populists or even socialists seem to feel a perverse need to deny this commonality of interests. Screenwriters and adjunct professors are dismissed as part of a “laptop class” that has little in common with “real” workers—a category supposedly limited to (typically) sturdy lunch-bucket men doing tangible labor. But that’s just a divide-and-conquer tactic wittingly or unwittingly deployed on behalf of the employing class.
It’s true enough that some jobs are done on laptops and some have to be done in person, and that the ability to work from home is a real privilege. It’s also true that membership in the “laptop class” is no guarantee of a more privileged position overall than a worker who has to punch a time clock at a jobsite. Ask the average screenwriter whether he would be willing to write his scripts from an office in exchange for good benefits and the kind of bare-minimum job security on which the studios have been unwilling to budge. Phrases like “laptop class” or “professional-managerial class” can be useful shorthands for thinking about the culture of college-educated Americans with relatively prestigious jobs. They can tell us something important about the mentality of contemporary American liberalism. But the fact is, going to college, working on a laptop, or having a job you might be tempted to call a profession doesn’t mean you exercise any managerial authority whatsoever; the intellectual nature of your work doesn’t alter your position in the class structure.
Class is defined not by your relationship to your computer, but by your relationship to objective economic structures. Do you own your own business, or do you have to sell your labor time to someone who does? Do you give orders or just follow them?
Anyone whose answers to these questions places him in the working class has a common interest in seeing more restlessness in American workplaces and more concessions from bosses. Every successful strike should be good news to him—whether it involves factory workers who fit a lazy cliché of what a “real” worker looks like or Starbucks baristas with nose rings or harried adjunct professors who have lots of social prestige and no health insurance.
In America in 2023, strikes work feels like half-forgotten lore from some ancient civilization. Everyone is expected to get ahead through individual “hustling.” As a culture, we consume an almost unimaginable quantity of self-help books, YouTube videos, and seminars on how to get ahead, get noticed, rise through the ranks, or become our own boss. Yet somehow, most of us remain workers—almost as if, in a system where labor is separated from capital, it’s mathematically impossible for everyone to be a capitalist.
The best strategy for advancement for the vast majority of the population is still the one spelled out more than a century ago by the socialist politician Eugene V. Debs. In a speech that got him tossed in prison for opposing American entry into World War I, he emphasized the common interests held by working people in every country and condemned “all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians” who were proud of saying that they had risen from the ranks.
“When I rise,” Debs said, “it will be with the ranks.”