Power Despite Precarity: The Contingent Faculty Movement as a Social Movement – Non Profit News


The following is an excerpt from Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education by Joe Berry and Helena Worthen (2021), reprinted with permission from Pluto Press. Use the code NPQ30 at Pluto Press for an exclusive NPQ reader discount.

I hope that UPC will break out of the narrow confines of what usually passes for collective bargaining and attack the university on a wide front, aimed at transforming the university into something that services far more people than it does now.

John Hess, 1981

Andy Blunden, an Australian Marxist, researcher, and trade unionist, has written a book titled Hegel for Social Movements (2019) as a way to make Hegel more accessible to people who are participating in a social movement.1 The book is written for activists who are likely to have studied Marx as a way of interpreting their own experience, but who have probably been reluctant to invest time in studying Hegel.

Hegel posited that it is through the contradiction or combat of oppositional ideas that new and qualitatively different ideas arise. Marx took Hegel’s concept, the dialectic, and applied it to the material world, testing it throughout his study of human social relations, in everything from economics to evolution. Blunden explains how social movements and the simple abstract ideas that animate them are also the product of this dialectical process. In his book, he describes the arc of a social movement:

To begin with, at point zero, so to speak there is no social movement, there is only a number of people who all occupy some social status or location. But they are not necessarily aware of sharing this status with others. This social status may be being an educated woman, or an African immigrant, or a carrier of the BRACA gene. [p. 61]

Blunden is outlining this process in order for us to appreciate how Hegel’s fundamental idea of how change happens through the resolution of rising contradictions lies at the base of contemporary thinking about change, including changes in biological adaptation to the environment, changes (transitions) in human history, changes in collective and individual psychology and of course, changes in social movements.

Or, in our case, someone is hired as a contingent. We might be grad students, research assistants, one-class professors, or half-load or full-load professors off the tenure line, but we would all be hired without job security, or contingent. However, we do not see that as what we have in common. We do not view ourselves as being part of a broad group, but instead assign ourselves individual blame for our status as contingents. At the same time, we question it. We would ask, “Why, if I did all the right things—went to a good university, got an advanced degree, won grants, published research—why am I getting older and older and still don’t have a tenure-track job?” The phrase “all the right things” is an indicator of thinking of one’s status as being outside of any conflict that might be bigger than the individual level. Of course, doing “all the right things” is not really the ladder that one climbs to grasp the brass ring.

Then something happens which either creates a problem for all the people of this social status or provides an opportunity of some kind. Perhaps only a few people are aware of this fact, or perhaps all of them, but in most cases few of them are aware that the project or opportunity is one shared with others or have an adequate concept of it.

This opportunity started to open up for contingent faculty on a national level in the US in the 1990s, at the time when the MLA Radical Caucus held its first separate gathering for non-tenure-line faculty and when the first COCAL conferences took place. These gatherings were the “opportunity,” because they gave people a chance to meet each other, share information, organize, and discuss the idea that the problem was the mounting casualization of the faculty. It was still not widely recognized that this was not just a set of individual failures-to-hire, but a staffing policy that served multiple agendas. The few who were aware took it upon themselves to talk about it publicly and on the adj-l listserve, for example. A few analytic pieces began to appear in book form, in organizational media, and even in the mainstream press. Blunden continues: “Then someone proposes a concept of the situation that they all share, and signifies this concept with a word (probably an existing word imbued with new meaning, or a new word altogether) or some other artifact (such a Gandhi’s charkha) and publicizes this.”2

This doesn’t happen all at once. In our case, the use of specific words to name our social status tells its own story. Part of the story has to do with higher education administrators trying to find a euphemistic label for this swelling workforce that did not give them a public relations problem that involved contingents gradually replacing traditional full-time professors. In the CSU system, we were Lecturers. Lecturers themselves have not challenged that label. In other systems, the name of our group has been a matter of great contention. In the California community college system, for example, we were part-timers, because under state law we were unable to work more than 60 percent (now 67 percent) of a full-time load. Some organizers would aggressively use the full legal term, part-time temporary, to make a joke out of the fact that one could be temporary for 15 or 20 years. Adjunct is the word many of us knew first, especially outside California. This was behind the partial list of these labels in Joe Berry’s book, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower.

Then in the last few years, along with the words “gig,” “precarious,” and “zero-hours contract,” the word “contingent” came into focus and it became more or less the term of choice. “Contingent” names the common condition that makes good teaching impossible: lack of job security and therefore lack of academic freedom. Thus today we speak about the “contingent faculty movement.” The ultimate goal of this movement, though not universally understood by everyone in it, is the elimination of contingency, to replace it with the standard for job security found in other kinds of work: “just cause dismissal”. So “contingency” would be an example of naming what Blunden says is “a concept of the situation that they all share.” He continues:

Thanks to this new concept, all the affected or interested people have an understanding of their situation and probably some degree of consciousness of being part of a “group” sharing this situation, and they begin to act in concert in some way. [However,] [n]ew concepts can arise only in institutions where there are definite norms which are capable of manifesting contradictions and stimulating the formation of new concepts. Where “anything goes” there can be no contradictions.

Higher education is certainly an institution with definite norms—for example, the norms of what good curriculum, good teaching, and other good practice look like. The AAUP Statement on Tenure and Academic Freedom is an example of one of those norms. The mission statements produced by every institution of higher ed, even the sleaziest, also boast of “quality,” which is another norm.3] In the daily effort to practice “quality” under degraded working conditions, every contingent has lived under the pressure that shows the sky through the cracks in the contradiction between what is supposed to happen and what does in fact happen. But taking action is not easy:

To know the problem does not immediately mean to know the solution. Many different solutions will be tried out one after another. The initial concept is thereby modified; misconceptions are dispelled through bitter experience, more and more adequate concepts are formed, until the problem and solution come together in a simple abstract idea which encapsulates the shared problem in such a manner as to be able to transform their situation.

Blunden uses the phrase “bitter experience,” and everyone who has been involved in this movement recognizes what that means. We can all think of people whose lives were permanently damaged—or lost—because of the ideas that were tried out but failed, or morphed into something different and left people behind. But once a certain critical mass has been reached, the movement continues. Sometimes it is the very outrageousness of the opposition—for example, the 2012–16 attacks on City College of San Francisco by the ACCJC (Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges) and its corporate and government allies—that spurs the movement forward.

But—a “simple abstract idea”? It is actually the case that major social movements of the last thirty years have been animated by simple abstract ideas. Examples are the SEIU “Justice for Janitors” campaign and the UPS Teamsters, who in 1997 struck around the slogan “A Part-Time America Won’t Work.” In 2005, immigrant workers marched to “A Day Without Immigrants” and “We’re Workers, Not Criminals.” The hotel-room cleaners in UNITE-HERE in the 2010s used the slogan, “One Job Should Be Enough.” In Chicago in 2012, it was “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve.” In 2018–19, the teachers in three states struck under “Red for Ed(ucation).” In all of these cases, these simple abstract ideas were useful for people organizing on their own behalf, but also spoke to the public on a recognizably common-good basis, therefore making appeals for solidarity, not charity.

Another simple abstract idea is Medicare For All. The idea of a national healthcare system for the US has morphed from the single-payer (government-payer) program that was supposed to be part of Social Security, to the early days of Medicare in the 1960s, and then various campaigns for Single Payer since the 1980s. Today, Medicare for All, which was part of Bernie Sanders’ platform, would transform (actually abolish) the entire health insurance industry. Is today too soon for a comparable “simple abstract idea” for higher education? Is it possible to develop, from the Blue Sky agenda discussed in Chapters 6 and 7, an idea that works both for self-organizing among ourselves and one that engages other workers to act together with us?

Blunden describes stages that are recognizable but our movement has not arrived at these yet:

All going well, next begins a process of institutionalization. The abstract concept enters general social practice and becomes part of the language. Actions formerly carried out by activists are carried out by institutions—either new institutions (such as a Sex Discrimination Commissioner) or existing institutions are modified (new occupational safety procedures are introduced). Sometimes the activists themselves are appointed to positions in the state apparatus, and even whole activist groups may be co-opted into institutions, such as Aboriginal self-help groups who receive funding for the services they provide.

Through this process the original concept gradually dissolves into everyday discourse and its origin is forgotten. There are no longer any special institutions dedicated to dealing with the issue, but the entire society has been transformed. (p. 62)

The most important example of this historical sequence in the US is the history of the Black Liberation Movement. While the anti-slavery movement dated from the 1600s, it was actions by Black enslaved people themselves during the Civil War, who enacted a general strike, refused to work and then joined the Union Army, that changed the war from being a war to save the union to being a war to abolish life-long racial chattel slavery. That action was animated by the simple abstract idea, “Freedom!” which has been part of the Black movement ever since, through the years of Radical Reconstruction (the attempt to institutionalize revolution in the South) and its defeat, through the years of Jim Crow segregation laws and disenfranchisement, the Second Reconstruction of the 1950s–70s (the Civil Rights movement). Today it motivates the current movements to create full legal and social equality under the law and in practice.

The contingent faculty movement is at the point where to know the problem is not yet to know the strategy for winning. The real battle—for resources and authority sufficient to turn the course of history around before we burn up the world we live in—will take place on a level above our fight right now. But this shifts us into thinking on the proper scale. The most obvious conclusion to draw is that the transitions we need to bring about are not going to be won by individual local unions at the bargaining table. They go far beyond that. A comparison between the Blue Sky conditions envisioned in Chapters 6 and 7, “What we fight for” versus what is captured in the CFA contract should show how incommensurable, yet how closely linked, they are.

However, at the level of our rising national movement, we can point to examples of how our efforts have led to changes that have become institutionalized in some respects. We have recognition by major unions, action plans, and strategic initiatives flowing from them; legal changes that have been pressed and won in legislatures, courts and other government bodies, and the spread of collective bargaining at a time when collective bargaining is itself under attack. The movement is also much more conscious of its place in the broader struggle within the political economy of higher education.

We are entering this dialogue at a moment when a lot is at risk, but a lot is possible. The rest of this book is intended to be a guide to navigating that moment.



Joe Berry and Helena Worthen. “The Contingent Faculty Movement as a Social Movement.” Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education. pp. 155-160. ã 2022 Pluto Press. Reprinted with permission.

Use the code NPQ30 at Pluto Press for an exclusive NPQ reader discount.



[1] Blunden, A. (2019). Hegel for Social Movements (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV); all quotes from Blunden in this chapter are from p. 61 of this volume.

[2] See https://youtu.be/cXXYsVhlv1U for a view of the small spinning wheel used by Gandhi and an example of how it was (and is still being) used as a symbol of a movement (accessed January 18, 2021).

[3] We contrasted two views of “quality”—one judged by typical outcome measures from a management perspective and the other from a student and faculty learning perspective—in our article, “A CHAT analysis of college teaching”: Worthen, H., and Berry, J. (2006). Our Working Conditions are Our Students’ Learning Conditions: A CHAT Analysis of College Teaching (pp. 145–159). In Sawchuk, P., Duarte, N., and El Hammoumi, M. (eds.), Critical Perspectives on Activity: Explorations Across Education, Work & Everyday Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.



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