author – activist – faculty – mom
After seven years of getting a letter every summer to tell me I still have a job, I now have Security of Employment teaching at UC Berkeley. This is due to the work of the labor movement, the same folks that brought us the weekend.
In times like these of economic crisis, people are desperate enough to work under terrible conditions. Corporations often use these opportunities to cut wages, hours, benefits, and retirement. They blame living wage labor costs for their decisions to send operations offshore, but in most cases, it’s the impetus to maintain high levels of profit for wealthy shareholders and top execs.
When I was growing up, nothing was considered more secure than a government job, but the government has finally opened up after the shutdown, having destabilized the financial lives of employees and beneficiaries alike.
Today in the Oakland Bay Area, workers in the bart subway system have gone on strike, after negotiations have repeatedly broken down. And yet, in the midst of all this bad news for working people, I am still savoring my own personal labor victory. It’s beenseven years in the making, and could not have happened without my labor union, UC-AFT local 1474.
When people hear that I teach on the faculty at UC Berkeley, many of them assume that I’m making good money. Good is a relative term. Prior to teaching at Cal, I was a freelance artist, in a constant state of economic insecurity, not sure where my next gig or check or project was going to come from. Since I began teaching, I have direct deposit. It seems like magic! I also have health benefits for my family. So in comparison to the compensation package from my artist life, I’m doing great. On the other hand, if you compare my salary to others on campus, I teach a full load and get paid just a little less than an administrative assistant. And that’s after I got the big raise. You heard that right. I get paid less than the bottom of the starting salary range for an administrative assistant to teach at the top public university in the US with my MFA.
Over the past decades, there has been a shift in academic labor from having permanent faculty teaching undergraduates to having temporary and part-time workers. In some systems we’re called adjuncts. At Berkeley, we’re called lecturers. Basically, we are teachers who perform similar or identical teaching duties to professors, but we are part of a permanent underclass of workers in the academy. Graduate students’ labor is also poorly compensated, but they are positioned so that the situation is (supposedly) temporary. The narrative is that they are just paying their dues until they can become tenure track professors. For lectures and adjuncts, however, we are permanently tracked into the lower tier of compensation. And I am one of the lucky ones. Many folks teach for decades and never know, from term to term, if they will have a job. Others don’t get a full load at one institution, and have to work at several different schools to make a living. Benefits aren’t even on the table.
I’m incredibly grateful to have a secure job with benefits, doing work that I love. I’m immensely thankful to my union for fighting for the rights of lecturers to get security of employment. They negotiated for a contract that forces the university, after we teach for six years, to either give us permanent jobs or show cause for letting us go (to prove that our services are not needed, or that we failed to do a good job). They no longer have the option of letting our contract lapse and replacing us with someone who will work for a lower starting salary. The union also helped me navigate the challenging process of getting security of employment (they call it getting through “the eye of the needle”). I love my students and my department, but it’s perfectly possible to be well-liked and still be denied security of employment.
The professor who hired me, a Black Brit, with English sensibilities about class broke it down in my initial interview: “they’re exploiting you,” he said. And he encouraged me not to let students pressure me to take on too many additional projects because the pay was so low, and I wasn’t being compensated for any of that work.
As a woman teacher, writer, and mother, I can’t help but notice all the multitude of ways my labor is exploited in this society. As a mother, I get paid nothing (although a nanny getting paid to do my job would get about $44,000). As a writer, I get paid next to nothing (although I hope to sell a book soon…) and as a college faculty member, I get paid less than the administrative assistant (who probably also deserves a raise).
It’s good for me to remember this when I look around and see that my house is chaotic or can’t seem to find time to exercise or wonder why I’m running late for everything. I’m fortunate, however, because my partner is a full-time working professional, so my family isn’t dependent on my income alone, and I’m not the only one parenting. Having been raised by a single mom, I know that many working moms are in much tougher situations, and that’s just looking at the situation in the US. For most working moms in the global south, my situation would be one of unthinkable luxury.
Like I said, good is relative. And I don’t just want good, I want better. Better working conditions and compensation for everyone. Better for me, better for the administrative assistant, better for my partner in the tech industry, better for the bart workers, better for the federal government employees, better for the people on public assistance, better for the working moms in the global south. I want to see a world where all labor, and particularly women’s labor is respected and honored worldwide. In tough economic times, it’s easy for working people to get pitted against one another. I know the labor movement has significant problems, but I haven’t given up on it. Today, as so many of us are thanking God it’s Friday, we might also thank the movement that made Friday matter.