Will Art School Adjuncts Unionize?

From KCET Los Angeles:

Los Angeles performance art venue Human Resources doesn't have a regular curator, so it wasn't out of character that the organizer of Art, Education & Justice! was an outsider. What was irregular was that the organizer of the October 12 event was an actual full-time organizer, an SEIU (Service Employees International Union) employee and artist named Adam Overton. And while there were sculptures on the floor, art on the walls, and several performances, the whole to-do didn't add up to a show. Instead, it was a rally.  

Adjunct educators up and down the West Coast and across the nation are self-organizing. In the last two years, part-time and adjunct faculty at most of Washington DC's higher education institutions have unionized. On October 3, adjuncts at San Francisco's California College of the Arts announced they'd succeeded in voting for union representation following in the footsteps of the venerable San Francisco Art Institute. Now adjuncts are gearing up to hold elections for contractual representation by a union, a vote to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board, at the three big name private Los Angeles art schools: Art Center, Otis, and CalArts.

With around 150-attendees, the Human Resources event succeeded in raising consciousness and energy among art professors, current art school students, and the wider Los Angeles artist community. It's "part of a vital push towards reforming the education system," said artist and Scripps College Visiting Lecturer Elana Mann. "My students talk about the breakdown of the education system and even make artwork about it...unionizing adjuncts is only the first step in this larger struggle."

The stakes for teachers and students are high. 45-years ago, undergraduate tuition, fees, and board cost the equivalent of $9,461 per annum, and 78 percent of higher education faculty were on tenure track (an employment status that protects academic freedom and provides an annual salary with benefits). Today, an average student pays over $20,234 p.a. for tuition and board, rising to $42,224 for private institutions, where institutional spending on administration has increased 36-percent since 1989

 

Jessica Rath (CSSSA), her daughter, and Joshua Callaghan (Otis) speak at Art Education & Justice!, October 12, at Human Resources in Los Angeles. | Photo: Devon Tsuno
Jessica Rath (CSSSA), her daughter, and Joshua Callaghan (Otis) speak at Art Education & Justice!, October 12, at Human Resources in Los Angeles. | Photo: Devon Tsuno

 

The three-decade "trend to invest in non-instructional student services" identified by the  American Institutes of Research is coupled with a shift away from the tenure system. Today 70% of faculty does not have tenure. A full 50 percent, the National Center for Education Statistics reports, are part-timers, many of whom work at several institutions at once. Contracts are frequently semester-to-semester, with low salaries, and few or no benefits. Speaking to the impact of "adjunctification," artist Devon Tsuno, Cerritos College adjunct and Cypress College's Outstanding Adjunct Faculty of 2011, said: "Most adjuncts want to do everything they can for their students, but on a temporary contract, it's harder to develop relationships and programming, being contingent compromises quality."

For artist Bebe Beard, who travelled from Massachusetts to speak at Human Resources about the recent unionization of Northeastern, Tufts, and Leslie Universities, "it was painful to realize that, while my university professed, its mission of educating tomorrow's enlightened citizens, the reality is that the administration's goal is to maximize per credit profits." 

 

Ken Ehrlich led a Book Bloc workshop throughout Art, Education & Justice! Participants made Book Blocs: lightweight shields, painted to look like well-known books. By the end of the night, over 10 shields had been created. | Photo by Nancy Popp
Ken Ehrlich led a Book Bloc workshop throughout Art, Education & Justice! Participants made Book Blocs: lightweight shields, painted to look like well-known books. By the end of the night, over 10 shields had been created. | Photo by Nancy Popp

 

Ideologues and reformers on the left and right acknowledge an increase in instability among the middle class as a byproduct of the restructuring of the labor markets, which has taken place in the decades since the 1970s. These changes have been brought about by an increase in efficiencies and cost cutting in hyper-competitive global systems. Commentators discuss a similar effect in academia, referring to the implementation of corporate strategies within colleges and universities as the "neoliberalization" of academia. For Beard, who teaches at Boston's Wentworth Institute of Technology and Suffolk University, the corporatization of higher education...[is] "a key contributor to the undermining of the middle class. I want to change that for the coming generations." 

Read the full story online here.