opinion | The New School eventually heeds a strike by laborers paying poverty wages

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In a three-week strike by aid workers at New York University, the New School, which ended this weekend, the immediate problem was a fundamental one: pay and benefits. But beneath the surface, the rift rumbled between the school’s progressive rhetoric and the dingy reality of how associate professors are treated.

Colleges like the New School — where, frankly, I used to be an editor — are vulnerable to labor unrest, not only because they often don’t pay very well, but for the same reason that Starbucks faces a wave of union organizing was. Their left-leaning, highly qualified workforce, and the people they serve, increasingly expect management to live up to their stated beliefs.

Before the strike, some auxiliaries — the permanent, part-time workers who make up about 87 percent of the faculty on campus — made only $4,000 per hour of instruction, and they weren’t compensated for tasks as time-consuming as grading papers. This is nowhere near a living wage, and it goes to people who have typically completed an advanced degree and are now trying to pursue a career in education. Take Dianca Potts, whose mother never went to college. Potts now teaches courses like “Writing the End of the World” as a supplement, but by the time she started the semester, she told me, she was so broke she wasn’t sure she could afford it between classes to buy coffee.

When negotiations began, the notoriously progressive school initially offered a small raise, saying it could not afford to pay more without damaging its underlying finances. The school has a small foundation and it depends largely on tuition fees to fund its operations. But even as inflation rose, adjuncts were asked to turn it on its head — while the university hired expensive management consultants and offered its president the opportunity to live in a multimillion-dollar townhouse in New York City.

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This apparent injustice did not jibe with the principles of equality that have become so important on college campuses, especially left-leaning ones like the New School. Like most colleges, the school regularly announces DEI initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion. And the school’s president, Dwight McBride, tweets things like “Liberation is intersectional.” It’s not surprising that many low-paid employees ended up asking, “What about me?”

“Words like ‘justice’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘care’ should be used with care about what they really mean,” says Matthew Spiegelman, who teaches photography at the New School’s Parsons School of Design. “The more they get used to conversations and don’t respond to them, the less they mean anything.”

These tensions are shaking the academy far beyond New York. At the University of California’s campus system, postdocs, academic researchers and graduate student workers quit their jobs last month for a pay rise to help cope with the state’s high housing costs. (The latter group has not settled yet, but the postdocs and academic researchers ratified their contract this weekend and got back to work on Monday.)

Many universities have few dining room staff – large numbers are left after being summarily laid off during the 2020 lockdown – while those who remain are pushing for higher wages. At the College of William and Mary in Virginia, a student organizer recently told leftist online publication The Real News of her efforts to help the school’s dining room workers, many of whom are black: “You can’t talk about racial justice without it about.” Class justice and labor exploitation.”

Colleges and universities get away with paying poverty-level wages to key workers like associate professors because, frankly, they can. In the liberal arts and humanities in particular, there are many more tertiary-level teachers than full-time positions. As a result, a 2020 report by the American Federation of Teachers found that half earn less than $3,500 per class and nearly 25 percent rely on government safety-net programs to make ends meet.

Still, there’s almost always someone taking over the gig hoping it will lead to more, confident they can beat the odds. “I grew up in a generation where we were really conditioned to feel like we had to pay our dues. When I started teaching part-time, I understood the fact that I wasn’t making much money as part of the experience process,” says Alhena Katsof, who has taught at the New School since 2018.

The New School was founded a century ago as an iconoclastic attempt to shake up the then monastic world of higher education and confront contemporary social and economic issues. Therefore, the dismal personal finances of the school’s auxiliary faculty can be read as a betrayal of the founding principles of its founders. But school officials seemed willing to ignore the irony until their striking teachers forced them to take notice.

If the agreement reached last weekend is ratified – and almost everyone believes it will be – things will get better for the New School supporters. They will receive an average salary increase of more than 30 percent over the next five years, while those on low incomes will double their salaries. So hooray for the New School, who finally managed to do the right thing. But the rest of the college industrial complex should take notes. Equal opportunity, inclusion and justice are also economic issues that, like charity, start at home.

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