4.19.2012

what if the ants unionized?

sidewalk ants in shadow

A couple years ago at a family funeral, I sat at a table with a side of the family I see only at funerals. That branch of the family tree is more educated than the rest, and one is in fact a college professor and department head at Oregon State (OSU). Making conversation over salad and casserole, I offered that I was considering pursuing a Ph.D. but wasn't sure. Both the Professor and his wry wife shook their heads, "No, no, no." "Not," said the wife, "unless you really want to research your subject." "The days of a cushy professor job with an office, a minimal teaching load, sabbaticals, and summer vacations are over," the Professor said. He has been told to hire more and more adjuncts to replace full-time professors like himself who cost the university too much with their salaries and retirement and health benefits—those disappearing full-time job benefits most baby boomers have taken for granted, the workers' perks unions fought for before said unions were targeted for annihilation.

Aware of my plight, a writer friend (whom I would link to if I could) recently pointed me to the Adjunct Project, which presents an ever-lengthening Google spreadsheet detailing the wages and working conditions of part-time college instructors across the U.S. (Psst.) The school I teach for is on the list. (Shhh.)

Of course it's never been good bourgeois form to talk about money. But without such documentation made public, no student, paying what they do now in tuition, whether in public or private school, would believe the tiny fraction of their tuition that most of their instructors—who, let's remind ourselves, possess at minimum a master's degree—these days actually get paid, while high-level administrators keep giving themselves raises. With college now a full-blown racket, a college-administrator acquaintance mentioned the other day she's considering working a weekend job on top of her full-time job because the student loans for her master's program (which degree benefits her day job and employer, by the way) were coming due—that or she might apply for a Ph.D. program, which would simultaneously defer and compound her student loans. Another friend owes around $80,000 for a master's degree, and though he has a full-time teaching job, he can't afford the student-loan payments on top of rent and food, so his retired baby-boomer parents are paying off the debt with their social security and pensions. And yet another teacher friend is over $100,000 in student-loan debt for an English graduate degree (but she's on her own with this one, no parental assistance)—that's right, not law, not medicine, English—the current lingua franca every globalized body in the world now speaks, so ubiquitous that native-English-speaking countries believe its study is worth nada. This is how the U.S. values educators and education? Educate them into debt. Keep them poor and uncomplaining. Mice (remember from Steinbeck?) live on crumbs.


Portland IWW poster, 9th & Powell

Mice, ants—pick a metaphor. What if the worker ants organized? What would that world look like? The ants might carry signboards: "We built this anthill from the ground up with our own antennae and without any breaks or weekends and all for the queen's larvae!" Except, of course, an ant colony functions as a superorganism with division of labor necessary for the survival of the whole. "The ants go marching ten by ten, hurrah, hurrah." Let's all keep talking impolitely and thus subversively about money, shall we? Who has it, who doesn't, whose labor, whose rewards, and why?

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