Kudos to the students, who revolted en masse after paying a labor contractor $3,000 to $6,000 apiece to get $8.25/hour summer warehouse jobs in sweltering central Pennsylvania, and also to the U.S. labor associations to whom they appealed, Jobs With Justice and the National Guestworkers Alliance. Clearly, positive consumer associations with the Hershey brand helped students and their allies to package the sleazy arrangement as newsworthy (“It’s no Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” etc etc), but the only real news in the story is that this particular group of hyper-exploited students organized themselves. Which is great. However, since they’re guest workers and the slow-news, this chocolate-ain’t-sweet angle will grow stale in days, they’ll be out of the headlines long before the State Department deports them and slaps the wrist of the contractor who provided them.
Then we can all go back to pretending that this isn’t the norm for millions of “guest workers” and college students in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong: the Hershey’s arrangement stinks to high heaven, but it’s not the glaring exception to the way the U.S. treats its 50 million working poor of any description, guest workers and college students alike; it’s pretty much the rule.
Nor for that matter is it the biggest scandal in chocolate production. Far from it: Hershey’s and other major manufacturers are routinely complicit in sourcing cocoa from plantations that employ very young children, including victims of human trafficking. In fact, Hershey is currently the particular target of the International Labor Rights Forum campaign for fair trade in cocoa.
How “normal” is the Hershey deal? It seems to fall within the pretty shabby standard range for international students on J-1 visas (just one of the many visas through which the U.S. provides cheap guest workers to American employers). There are many global labor contractors vying to supply guest workers to U.S. employers on the various visas. In almost all cases, the often enormous fees paid to the contractor are borne entirely by the worker, not the employer—meaning they “pay to work” in violation of U.S. labor law (but that’s like pointing out that fighting is explicitly forbidden by the National Hockey League).
The J-1 covers several kinds of permission to work, including nanny labor, but the global “summer work and travel program,” run by the U.S. State Department under the cloying rhetoric of education and international friendship, is limited to persons who are enrolled in college in their home country. As with other forms of student labor, exploitative educational work experience, training/internship programs and the like, the J-1 has expanded explosively in the last decade, rising from around 20,000 in the mid-nineties to over 150,000 in recent years.
Even the “summer” part is misleading, since that means “summer” in the home country; the program actually supplies a year-round revolving pool of self-financing cheap workers to American employers. Employers actually receive tax breaks, though usually the real advantage is the highly compliant workforce—the Hershey revolt is, essentially, unheard of in a worker population that can be deported for complaining.
Most dishonest, however, is the rhetoric of “cultural exchange” and “education” associated with the program, which provide innocuous-sounding cover for the profiteering of skeevy labor contractors. Traditionally, the program appeals to American employers with dirty or unpleasant work with already-high employee turnover (Alaskan fish processing, housekeeping, dishwashing, laundry, table bussing, fast-food service, groundskeeping, warehouse and other general labor). Placing international students in these positions with a fixed employment term helps keep wages low; most of the students who have this “cultural exchange” end up feeling disillusioned. The reality of the experience is that there is no culture or education at all; the contractors acquire cheap workers and dump them in shabby housing near their employers (often collecting a second profit on extortionate rent), and that’s it. The “nonprofit” contractor in this case is tied to an international education and travel management group that has a web of revenue-producing education, exchange, and travel schemes, some specializing in English education for the hospitality industry.
Guest workers are vulnerable to bullying, extortion, human trafficking and wage theft. A 2010 Associated Press investigation made headlines with stories of international college students on J-1 visas forced to work in strip clubs and live 30 students to a 3-bedroom house. Interviewing 70 students from 16 countries, the report found most were disappointed and many were angry. A handful were angry at gangsterism, like the mobsters who pushed some women into stripping, or at Dickensian vileness, like the gift-shop owner who charged his employees room and board, but made them eat on the floor in his home.
Most of the students interviewed by AP, however, were not angry at these exceptional instances of maltreatment, but at the low wages, unpaid overtime, and the lack of leisure, educational and cultural opportunities for the working poor in the United States. Just like the single parents that they toiled alongside (such as those chronicled by Barbara Ehrenreich), they were enraged that they were forced into eating at soup kitchens or accepting charity while they were employed in the richest nation in the world.
In other words: the students who come on J-1 visas do get a cultural exchange, and an education, just not what they expected. They learned what it is like to be an American in the bottom quartile, or among the majority of American college students who can’t persist to a degree through the maze of debt, overwork, and underpayment that we bizarrely consider the “normal” lot of a student.
As I’ve written before, U.S. high schools and colleges are often deeply complicit in these sorts of arrangements, profiting directly from low-wage student labor and serving as a labor contractor, both directly and indirectly, to local employers. Usually with nary a detractor. Indeed, coverage of any labor arrangement with the word “education” attached to it, by any old excuse whatever, typically amounts to craven cheerleading.
Think I’m exaggerating? Read my 2008 account of the dropout-factory partnership between UPS, the University of Louisville, and the Teamsters that has put tens of thousands of Kentucky students in circumstances similar to the Hershey deal. Then use a search engine and see if you can find a single press report that is less than glowing about that sleazy deal. There are similar scams operated by shipping companies and campuses in every cargo hub in the country—has there been any improvement in even one?
Hey, Hershey’s workers: I’m sorry you got an education in the real America of working poverty. I hope you get a refund.
But beyond the propaganda and your individual struggle, what’s the lesson in this story?
It’s simple, really. First, we should stop treating students, international or domestic, like the working poor. Rather than exploit college students as cheap labor, an intelligent plan for the economy would, a la the G.I. Bill, pay students to stay out of the labor market.
Second, while we’re at it, why don’t we stop treating the working poor this way?]]>
On March 22, a prominent group of education bloggers agreed to provide statements loosely organized on the theme of “why faculty like me support unions.” Unexpectedly Stanley Fish, a career-long opponent of faculty unionism, joined them. “I recently flipped,” he confessed,”and what flipped me, pure and simple, was Wisconsin.” In particular, it turns out, it was reading new Brainstorm colleague Naomi Schaefer’s Riley’s assault on faculty bargaining rights in that newspaper you find under your door in cheap motel rooms:
What Riley fears is that if colleges and universities were unionized, teachers with far out, discomforting ideas couldn’t be fired. It’s hard to imagine a better argument for unions (and also for tenure)…. Riley makes no bones about it. Letting the unions get a foothold “could . . . make the environment more left leaning.” The message is clear: keep those unions out so that we can more easily get rid of the lefties.
There are layers of irony in Fish’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but it’s hard to argue with his reasoning: one of the lessons of Wisconsin is that academic unionism is one of the few effective bulwarks against ideological cleansing.
Framed as a dialogue between Walter Benn Michaels and himself, the piece is particularly worth reading for Michaels’ withering replies to Riley’s psychic channeling of Ayn Rand. After circulating the usual unfounded canard of faculty laziness, Riley quotes the chief executive of SUNY Buffalo comparing unionization to “belonging to a herd.” In reply, Michaels observes that his own department is amidst a union card drive and ranked in the top 20 nationally:
It’s the hard-working ones who want the union most. Why? Because we think that the people who actually do the teaching and the research should have more of a say in how the teaching and the research gets done. [S]ince when does having a voice in what happens in your own workplace count as belonging to the herd? The president of Buffalo, despite the fact that Buffalo is itself unionized, apparently thinks that rugged individualism consists in shutting up and doing what management tells you to do.
As you’d expect from someone who describes his view as the product of a “flip,” Fish’s contributions to the dialogue lack nuance and context: it’s hard to imagine that Fish has suddenly discovered that most faculty are a lunch bucket crowd, some of whom qualified for food stamps on the wages he paid them while whacking down a monster salary as dean.
In Fish world, faculty unions used to wear a black hat; now they wear a white one, and his realization came about because of what he saw on tv: a dastardly governor twirling his mustaches and tieing a virginal faculty to the railroad tracks. Only the white-hatted union can save the innocent now!
The reality, as anyone who has actually spent any time in the academic labor movement can tell you, is very different: faculty unions have many flaws–and nearly all of them are the flaws of the membership themselves.
The lessons of Wisconsin and Ohio, at least in part, underscore just how seriously faculty and their unions have blundered–how we as a profession have been selfish, foolish, mean-spirited and short-sighted. All the ways, in short, that we haven’t been any better than Stanley Fish but rather, quite a bit like him, or at least striving to be like him, cheerfully shooting hoops and piloting his Jag down the freeway while the academy burned.
Our Unions Are Not Heroic (Because We Aren’t)
So why do I support faculty unions despite their many imperfections? You could say that I’m a critical supporter of American unions generally: they reflect our virtues–too often expressed at the eleventh hour–as well as our flaws. Our unions are often the final barrier against unsafe roads and hospitals, ersatz education and filth in our food. Unions represent all of us, not just those who pay dues into them. A democratic society cannot exist without vigorous democracy in the workplace.
On the other hand, union memberships have failed to live up to their own ideals for most of my adult life–thirty years now. Faced with the difficult challenges of a politically reactionary era–such as hostile regulation, outsourcing, forced volunteerism, and perma-temping–union memberships in every walk of American life have taken the path of least resistance, securing the benefits of older workers and selling out the young.
The members of education unions have been no exception. Faculty represented by the big education unions have turned a blind eye to the hyper-exploitation of student labor, the conversion of jobs to part-time and volunteer positions, the outsourcing of staff and the hostile regulation environment governing collective bargaining in private schools.
But blaming “unions” for the failings of their membership is like blaming the hammer for smashing your thumb. It’s not the hammer’s fault if it’s idle while you’re sitting in front of your television instead of helping mend your neighbor’s fence.
I support unionism the way a carpenter supports tool use. Unions can be misused or neglected by their members, but they’re indispensable to the job of democratizing and diversifying our workplaces, maintaining professional integrity and autonomy, and sustaining high standards in teaching and research.
The current crises in Wisconsin and Ohio have many lessons for faculty in higher education and their unions. I’ll just put forward five for now:
1. Tenure must unite the faculty, not divide it. The single most corrosive faculty myth to emerge since 1970 is the ludicrous notion that tenure is a merit badge for faculty with research-intensive appointments. The biggest reason higher education unions are powerless is that we’ve allowed administrations to cast the overwhelming majority of faculty on teaching-intensive appointments out of the tenure system: “Oh, they’re not real professors, they teach in a less prestigious university/just undergraduates/in the lower division/community colleges.”
Compare this pathetic, near-total collapse of professional identity, much less of solidarity, to the response of police and fire unions in Wisconsin, who defied the governor to support other public employees not even in their own professions–even when he exempted their unions from the axe.
2. Maximize the movement, not the revenue. Organizing graduate students and nontenurable educators would have made perfect sense in terms of sustaining a labor movement in education. But education union staff operating unapologetically under “revenue maximizing” principles have been slow to invest in the movement’s future, scoffing at the paltry “return on investment” of organizing folks already so poorly paid. (Which explains the inroads made by UAW, AFSCME, and SEIU among the nontenurable.)
Ditto for private schools affected by Yeshiva: the big unions have made a few challenges to this decision–all in all, a weak and sleazy piece of judicial activism that only passed 5-4 because of swing voter Stevens, who apparently hadn’t yet had enough of what he later called “on the job training.”
Today, Ohio public-campus faculty are facing Senate Bill 5, a bitter plateful of the fruit of the major unions’ failure to confront Yeshiva. Having shrugged off the decision when it applied only to private campuses, the unions are in a far weaker position to contest the application of its principles to public faculty in any U.S. state–ginning up already not just in Ohio and Wisconsin, but Alaska, Florida, and beyond.
Things could have been very different. Addressing the hostile regulation environment of private campuses is similar to the situation of organizing in right-to-work states: it would have required much more effort and involved much smaller economic returns, but it would have paid off in solidarity, sustaining a broad-based union culture in the academy, which in turn could have led to a legislative solution… which would have prevented the present specter, of a domino effect, with “monkey see, monkey do” application in one state legislature after another.
3. “It’s a great job if you can afford it” and “I don’t do it for the money” are racist, sexist sentiments. I’ve written about this many times before. Even in Wisconsin and Ohio, the police unions are more diverse than the faculty unions–because the extreme wage discount unfairly segments the academic workforce by race, class and gender. Only a small number of persons, disproportionately white, can afford the extreme economic irrationality of most forms of higher education teaching appointments. Defending irrational compensation schemes on the grounds that persons who start out on third base economically are “doing what they love” is really defending a system that denies everyone else a fair shot at doing something they love. The struggle to make academic compensation fair is a struggle to enormously enlarge the academic talent pool: way too many black and brown intellectuals are working at the DMV, fighting wars, and walking a beat instead of teaching at the state university. Too many teaching positions are filled by persons who can afford to work for the status compensation of saying “I work at the U.,” rather than the most qualified.
Every time someone with wealth, parental or spousal backing, and/or high household income brays about how they’d do the job for free, they put another brick in the wall in front of those who don’t have those advantages.
4. There is no democracy without active, embodied participation. Emma Goldman shocked the feminists of her day by saying that they shouldn’t prioritize winning the vote, that voting can provide the satisfying feeling of political participation without the substance. The struggle in Wisconsin has made clear to faculty that our politics can never be just teaching and writing, but has to be made real with boots on the ground and bodies in the street. If every professor’s coffee-shop oration and blog comment were instead a knock on the door in the effort to recall the power-grabbing state senators, the battle would already be won.
5. Leadership comes from below. It’s hardly accidental that Walter Benn Michaels’ grad students unionized a decade before he did. The cutting edge of education unionism always has been, and remains, the working-class intellectualism of ordinary schoolteachers and parents. In the far less accomplished sector of higher ed, the best thinking can often be found among graduate students and nontenurable faculty, who represent nearly eighty percent of the teaching force.]]>
Not that most of you will care very much, but one of the best contenders for the thoroughbred Triple Crown will race this Saturday. The horse’s moniker, “Big Brown,” expresses the owner’s gratitude to shipping giant UPS for renewing a contract with his trucking company. For folks like him, for full-time Teamster drivers, and for the customers who want their online-ordered crap at their doors tomorrow, UPS represents a good deal. The company’s also received plenty of good ink for its “Earn and Learn” financial-aid packages for part-time student employees.
Coincidentally, the chapter of HTUW that usually gets the most attention from non-academic readers is the one questioning whether involvement with the company really has been a good deal for the tens of thousands of students it claims to have “aided” over the past decade.
Most startling for many readers are the details of the meretricious financial aid scheme at its Louisville Worldport hub. Recruited from Appalachia, urban Louisville and Cincinnati, and the profoundly depressed rural Kentucky counties where blood and animal excrement from giant hog butcheries and chicken plants befoul the waterways, students flock to the UPS program on the promise of “education benefits” that few persist to receive.
The worst job–performed by thousands of struggling students–is a physically demanding, high-stress job sorting heavy packages on a fast conveyor at the airport hub. Every student must work after midnight five nights a week–every Monday through Friday) but on a split shift, working just a few hours (until 3 or 4 am) at unprecendentedly low pay, taking home about $25 a shift. The Teamsters play a role in this scheme–they’ve bargained this low pay for the students and part-timers while preserving the generous pay and benefits of the full-time labor aristocrats represented by the drivers: driving for Big Brown is still one of the good blue-collar jobs. (This is similar to the strategy of many faculty unions, who bargain great deals for the minority tenurable caste while neglecting the contingent majority.)
Few of the students in this program were succesfully taking even one class a term when I spoke to its director. While UPS refuses to make meaningful persistence data available, the most generous interpretation of the numbers suggests a persistence to degree while involved in the program of around 12%.
In its ruthless quest for super-cheap labor, the university has fastened on new ways of exploiting an old favorite: the student worker. We are all familiar with the figure of a student working a minimum-wage job as “financial aid.” On many campuses, student workers outnumber faculty, staff, and other workers combined.
Undergraduates work for their degree-granting institution as painters, maids, janitors, cooks, groundskeepers, truck loaders, daycare staff, teaching assistants, computer technicians, coaches, security guards, and administrative assistants, typically for wages at or near the national or local minimums. For a significant fraction of these students, on-campus jobs are just one element of their efforts to fund their degrees, which increasingly involve unsustainable debt loads and additional off-campus employment.
Nearly twenty million students are enrolled in postsecondary institutions. Eighty percent work to finance their educations, averaging 30 hours a week.
I first started thinking about this issue at the University of Louisville, where I first received tenure. I arrived in 1998, shortly after the university began a much-ballyhooed “partnership” with United Parcel Service (UPS), the city of Louisville, and other local colleges. The partnership’s sole function is to entice students to sign contracts committing them to provide cheap labor in exchange for education benefits. This arrangement alone has provided UPS with more than ten thousand ultra-low-cost student workers since 1997, the same year that the Teamsters launched a crippling strike against the carrier. Currently there are six thousand undergraduates working at the UPS Louisville hub, with plans to hire thousands more. About three thousand work a midnight shift that ends at UPS’s convenience—typically 3 or 4 a.m., later during peak shipping seasons.
Between 1997 and 2003, UPS hired undergraduates to staff more than half of its one hundred and thirty thousand part-time positions. Students are currently the majority of all part-timers, though only some receive education benefits. By restricting the education benefits of its “Earn and Learn” programs to students willing to work undesirable hours, UPS has over the past decade recruited approximately fifty thousand part-time workers to its least desirable shifts without raising pay. The largest benefits are reserved for students who think they can handle working after midnight every night of the school week.
The consequences of night work are well documented, and the available evidence suggests markedly negative effects for the Louisville students. Every instructor to whom I spoke reported excessive fatigue and absenteeism (due to both fatigue and an extraordinarily high injury rate). Students participating in the UPS program showed substantial failure to persist academically. In a desperate attempt to stem this tide, faculty scheduled UPS-only sections between 5 and 11 p.m. both on campus and at the hub. They even began a ritual of 3 a.m. advising, sending as many as a dozen faculty out to the airport before dawn in order to catch the exhausted students coming off the sort. Since nearly all of the faculty involved taught and served on committees five days a week, these efforts resulted in a bizarre twenty-four-hour cycle of work for themselves.
The UPS partnership appears to have increased rather than decreased the economic distress of participants. According to the company’s own fact sheet, student workers giving up five nights’ sleep will typically be paid for just fifteen to twenty hours a week. Since the wage ranges from just $8.50 to $9.50, this can mean net pay below $100 a week, and averaging a little over $120. The rate of pay bears emphasizing: because the students must report five nights a week and are commonly let go after just three hours, their take-home pay for sleep deprivation and physically hazardous toil will generally be less than $25 per shift. In fact, most UPS part-timers earn little more than $6,000 in a year, and most have at least one other job.
UPS presents a triple threat to students’ prospects for academic persistence: sleep deprivation and family-unfriendly scheduling, low compensation resulting in secondary and tertiary part-time employment, and a high injury rate. UPS refuses to provide meaningful persistence figures for the more than fifty thousand students it has “aided” over the past decade. But of the ten thousand at the Louisville hub, it could account for little more than three hundred bachelor’s or associate’s degrees earned. The most generous interpretation of the few statistics made available suggests persistence to degree of about 12 percent.
According to one analyst, in 1964, all of the expenses associated with a public university education, including food, clothing and housing could be had by working a minimum wage job an average of 22 hours a week throughout the year. (This might mean working 15 hours a week while studying and 40 hours a week summers.) Today, the same expenses in a low wage job require 55 hours a week 52 weeks a year.
At a private university, those figures in 1964 were 36 minimum wage hours/week, relatively manageable for a married couple or a family of modest means, and still quite manageable for a single person working the lowest possible wage 20 hours a week during the school year and some overtime on the vacations. Today, it would cost 136 hours per week 52 weeks a year to “work your way through” a private university.
Now each year of private education amounts to the annual after-tax earnings of nearly four lowest-wage workers working overtime.
Employing misleading accounting that separates budgets for building, fixed capital expenses, sports programs and the like from “instructional unit” budgets, higher education administration often suggests that faculty wages are the cause of rising tuition, rather than irresponsible investment in technology, failed commercial ventures, lavish new buildings, corporate welfare, and so on. The plain fact is that many college administrations are on fixed-capital spending sprees with dollars squeezed from cheap faculty and student labor: over the past thirty years, the price of student and faculty labor has been driven downward massively at exactly the same time costs have soared.
For the eighty percent of students trying to work their way through, higher education and its promise of a future is increasingly a form of indenture, involving some combination of debt, overwork, and underinsurance. It means the pervasive shortchanging of health, family obligations, and ironically, the curtailment even of learning and self-culture. More and more students are reaching the limits of endurance with the work that they do while enrolled. One major consequence of this shift of the costs of education away from society to students, including especially the costs of education as direct training for the workforce, is a regime of indebtedness, producing what Randy Martin describes as docile financialized subjectivities by way of what Jeff Williams has dubbed “the pedagogy of debt.” The horizon of the work regime fully contains the possibilities of student ambition and activity, including the conception of the future.]]>
All across the planet, but especially where the U.S. model is explicitly being instituted, the massive shift of education costs to those with the least resources has increased exploitation in the service economy for nearly all students. The production of sex workers is facilitated by the same forces that produce cheap student labor in food service, child care, internships, etc. Increasingly these exploitative arrangements are presented as “financial aid,” with the eager cooperation of governments and administration.
The real question isn’t, “Why are students becoming sex workers?” We know the answer to that. The question is: “When are we going to stop pimping our youth to loan vendors and low-wage employers?”]]>
Per shift, they earn about what administrators spend on a sushi lunch. Most drop out, and many get injured. Only a fraction persist to degree. In some terms, because of the obligation to pay back tuition remission if they quit this horrendous job “early,” more students were working off their “education benefits” without actually taking any classes than were enrolled.
This chapter is suitable to be assigned to undergraduates. Ask your students about their working lives. You may be shocked by what they endure.
Thanks to Inside Higher Ed for a thoughtful story on the book and a kind mention in Scott McLemee’s always bracing column, Intellectual Affairs. (Special kudos to McLemee who was just elected to the board of the National Book Critics Circle.) PS–if you ordered the book in the past three weeks and have been waiting: NYU has just assured me that it ships today!]]>
I first starting thinking about this at the University of Louisville, where I first received tenure. I arrived in 1998, shortly after the university began a much-ballyhooed “partnership” with UPS and other local institutions of higher ed. By reserving the education benefits of its “Earn and Learn” programs to workers willing to work undesirable hours, UPS has over the past decade recruited approximately 50,000 part-time workers to its least desirable shifts without raising the pay (in fact, while pushing them to work harder for continually lower pay against inflation). The largest benefit promises are reserved for students who think they can handle working after midnight every night of the school week.
UPS refuses to provide meaningful persistence figures for the more than 50,000 students it has “aided” over the past decade. But of the 10,000 students it has “aided” at the Louisville hub, it could account for little more than 300 degrees earned, including both bachelor’s and associates’ degrees.