SAN FRANCISCO — On March 8 the first Bay Area Arts and Education Justice Festival took place, bringing activists, teachers, and artists together around shared concerns about economic precariousness for artist-educators and broader social justice issues for workers and activists throughout the community. Held at The Lab, one of the few remaining arts spaces in San Francisco’s rapidly-gentrifying (and thus heavily policed) Mission District, the festival (titled “No Justice, No Service”) worked to move from campus-bound struggles over wages and working conditions to wider cross-class alliances coalescing around fights to live and work with dignity and security in the Bay Area, where high rents have pushed artists, teachers, and service workers to the margins. In addition to adjunct union organizers, we heard from students, fellow teachers and union activists, fast food workers organizing around the Fight for $15 struggle, poets and artists who address issues of police violence, gentrification, and debt, as well as members of the Black Lives Matter movement (made even more urgent by the police murder of a Latino man just blocks from the Lab).
Having lived in the Bay Area for 20 years, with experience in multiple activist movements, I have seen my share of similar events fall prey to self-congratulatory art exhibits, tepid displays of diversity for its own sake, co-optation by well-meaning but institutional liberal nonprofits and similar organizations, lip service from local politicians, and the difficulty of maintaining and building on whatever alliances might outlast the buildup to what often become one-off meet-ups. This felt different, though, especially in light of other recent actions, like fast food workers and other allies showing up at local campuses for National Adjunct Walkout Day on February 25, and adjuncts turning out in support of April 15’s national Fight for 15 actions. Students have worked alongside adjuncts and non-unionized staff to build viable networks of campus activism and artists, often saddled with student debt and unable to afford studio space, have lent their energies to supporting their peers caught in the nexus of the art-education-academic-corporate complex.
“Like so many other artists and academics,” said San Francisco Art Institute alum Jessica Tully, “I am inspired by the collective action and by seeing all the creative ways our art teachers are finding to make it feasible to continue to teach.”
It is no longer a stretch to draw connections between adjunct professors and other workers in the service economy. The corporate university model is deeply invested in the notion that treating all of its employees as disposable labor (while at the same time raising student tuitions at an unbelievable rate) can maximize profits. Currently, adjunct professors represent about 80% of all faculty at Bay Area colleges (the number was around 20% in 1970). Many adjuncts work semester-to-semester, contract-to-contract, meaning that we must hustle for work every summer, with no job security, no health benefits, and no institutional support for scholarly research and professional advancement. Many adjuncts have to take on additional work (either at other colleges or beyond academia), and an increasing number (including some full-time professors) now rely on public assistance to supplement their meager wages, meaning that the state is essentially subsidizing private universities. Clearly this is not a model that serves professors or students, much less any vision of liberal arts education most of us value as at least part of our mission.
“As an adjunct at an art college, I’ve seen the power of artistic creative advocacy for workers and social justice inspire, energize, and unite,” said David Skolnick, a senior lecturer at the California College of the Arts. “We are dedicated to improving working and learning conditions at our institution, but, more than that, we want to be part of a much larger movement that recognizes the primacy of the human over the corporation, social justice over profit margin, and democratic community over unaccountable hierarchy.”
For those who teach at arts colleges or in MFA programs — including the San Francisco Art Institute, California College of the Arts, Mills College (where I teach), and St. Mary’s, all of which have in the last year formed adjunct unions with SEIU local 1021 — adjunct professors face the challenge of trying to balance teaching with their own artistic pursuits, a tough equilibrium to maintain even for tenured artists and writers. To be an artist or writer in a vibrant yet expensive place like the Bay Area means grappling with high rents, lingering student debt, and limited free time and energies, all of which can take a toll on one’s artistic practices. Debt-ridden grad students are likewise realizing that for many, the costs of such arts programs far outweigh the supposed professional benefits of advanced degrees, especially as they see so many of their professors living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to find time to pursue their own artistic careers. Earlier this month, for example, the entire first-year class of the University of Southern California’s visual arts MFA program dropped out in protest of cuts, one more sign of the awakening of student, artist, and adjunct activism.
In the current anti-union climate in the US, where membership is down and neoliberal legislation at every level verges on outright union-busting, it is difficult to organize workers into an effective bargaining unit. It is even more difficult with part-time workers in fields such as academia. For a range of reasons, it has long been a challenge to unionize adjuncts. As contingent contract workers, for many of us our connection to where we work can feel tenuous. Some of us are too busy rushing from one campus to another, grading and prepping on the subway journey from one gig to the next, to ever establish relationships with peers and colleagues at any one school. Others may feel that an adjunct position is simply a temporary stop on the way to a tenure-track job, and thus don’t identify as alienated workers. Still others, we have found, tend to think of unions as the realm of the “working class” — more the purview of campus security and janitorial workers than professors and administration members. Despite such skepticism and deep structural challenges, adjuncts across the country have begun to realize that the increasingly corporatized university system does not have their interests in mind. Adjuncts, especially in the arts and humanities, are starting to recognize that the economic and political landscape requires a strong collective response, and adjunct unions have sprung up across the US as a result.
Of course, merely unionizing guarantees little, especially with pro-management laws and regulatory bodies stacked against us. The old saying that a union is only as strong as its members is never truer than when precarious workers such as adjunct professors organize to pressure administrations to bargain in good faith toward meaningful results. Despite the historic victories in the Bay Area for new adjunct unions, in many ways our work has just begun. Sometimes it takes struggle just to achieve a blank notebook or canvas, the basic necessities for creative action; now it is up to us to forge new models of artistic and educational justice, organized collectively against corporate interests and neoliberal cynicism.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.