Slow-burning movements; graduate workers’ organisations in the face of adjunctification.


The Adjunct Movement has not been as loud as the Quebec CLASSE movement. Most of the people involved are in their mid 20’s and early 30’s – certainly not as youthful and militant as the Chilean Pingüinos[1]. There haven’t been mass demonstrations and occupations. But they have managed to build something profound; organising against some of the most embedded and most advanced neoliberalism. Their successes, as well as their limitations, are not just fascinating but also provide useful lessons for any of us wanting to fight marketisation in education.


Who are adjuncts?


The term refers to graduates, mostly but not exclusively studying for PhD’s, who teach, mark and research either to fund their work or because it is a requirement of their programme and who don’t hold any permanent contract. Many universities grant fee waivers to these students on the basis of them fulfilling this work. However, even with fee waivers, many adjuncts live on less than minimum wage. This is despite, or rather because, higher education is now run more on adjunct labour than full-time labour.

This situation is emblematic of the transformation of US Higher Education. One of the key motors of that, over the last few decades, has been the proliferation of private, for-profit, colleges recruiting ever-greater proportions of students. This isn’t just the Ivy league or the top 10 – its institutions like the University of Phoenix – a behemoth corporation that operates mainly over the internet with quick and vocational courses. I want to look in more detail at the transformation of the education system below but for the purposes of understanding what adjunctification is lets just start with this image. Whilst on one hand universities like Phoenix have opened up a new market, they’ve also begun infringing on the territory of state universities, often dragging them further into the whirlpool of competition and market values.


Adjunctification as a key motor of neoliberal universities.


Adjunctification is a tendency that slots very neatly into the overall tendencies towards commodification and marketisation. In keeping with the experience of neoliberalism worldwide, the line between public and private has become increasingly undermined, overwhelmingly in favour of the private. For teaching, it means not only an undermining of academic quality and freedom but of actual academic labour capacity. Getting senior students to teach fresh students provides a means of cutting staffing costs. Keeping those senior students in a permanent and vicious cycle of adjunct-ness ensures that they work to the greatest efficiency. Most crucially they have a shelf-life – and the rotation of stock is a fundamental part of keeping labour costs low.


The dereliction of working rights is just one reason to oppose the process of adjunctification. By forcing researchers to grovel for scraps of funding it pushes them towards corporate sponsors – inevitably making it harder for those researching knowledge with a low profit margin to maintain academic freedom.


In many US Higher Education institutions adjuncts can’t get representation from the local lecturers’ union[2]. Even if they do have the right to get involved in the union, the pressure of time and finances usually undermines their ability to. Rushing from one campus to another, juggling different jobs, makes it incredibly hard to be around enough to build the kind of profile necessary to get elected to the unions, or consistently raise issues relevant to adjuncts.


However, in spite of these conditions, adjuncts across the US have found ways of organising around their grievances.  What they’re doing is exciting, audacious trade unionism thats comes face-to-face with one of the key motors of marketisation. Whilst the history of graduate organisation stretches back into the late 60’s its been a deeply uneven process and its only just in the last few years started to ripen.


These cherry-picked examples are to show what’s been possible in the last decade


GEO at Illinois State


Faced with continual attacks on their conditions, adjuncts at Illinois State (Urbana-Champaign) set up their own union, the Graduate Employee’s Organisation, and in November 2009 struck for tuition fee waivers – effectively fair pay – and won. Last November management tried to take the waivers back and refused to go into negotiations[3]. As a result the GEO voted to form a strike committee. Without even needing to strike they got the administration to agree to keep the waivers. The GEO has existed in different forms since the early 1980s, but became a fighting organisation in the early 2000s in response to the administration’s attempt to deny them legal representation. They combined union organisation with political agitation; not just going through the motions for bargaining and strike action but also occupying management offices when negotiations bottlenecked and building campaigns with active participation from students and local workers.


The continuous recurrence of attacks from administration is just one reason for the GEO to attempt to build networks wider than the campus. Hence, since 2008, they’ve been part of convening a national coalition the Association of Graduate Employee Locals. The success of this model is, justifiably, open to criticism – it certainly hasn’t been able to confront the trends that lie behind the administration’s actions. But it is clearly effective in its locale; a testament to the democracy and politics of the organisation.

CUNY Contingents Unite


The City University of New York (CUNY) is the second largest education system in the US, with over half a million students. Whilst their promotional video proudly trumpets their tenure of Rhode Scholars and new full-time academics[4] there is little mention of the fact that the majority of the academic functions of the university – teaching, marking and research – are done by adjuncts. Even with waivers adjuncts, or contingents in CUNY terms, earn several thousand dollars less than what is required to live in and around New York City. Whilst the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the CUNY trade union, maintains a relatively active and dense membership, representation for contingents is inadequate[5]. Moreover the PSC’s response to budget cuts from the State Governor’s office has been mainly through piecemeal stunts and lobbying in conjunction with the New York Public Interest Research Group[6]. Students and contingents have been the ones organising protests and campaigns, when they’ve actually happened.


Contingents, frustrated with the PSC leadership’s failure to act against cuts that squeeze part-time and uncontracted workers harder, begun the CUNY Contingents Unite campaign in 2008. One part of what they have been doing is pressuring PSC to act. In 2012 they turned up en masse to the PSC congress in orange t-shirts demanding representation and heckling speakers who sidelined the contingent issue[7]. But they haven’t attempted to set themselves up as a separate union. The political basis of the organisation is demonstrated in their founding statement[8] which stresses its resentment, not towards those workers who receive higher pay through tenure, but to the two-tiered system that makes it impossible to get tenure for those who don’t already have it!


How has US education got this way?


I mentioned above that it was a necessary simplification to see marketisation as a problem creeping over from private to public universities. Marc Bousquet emphasises that it is, to an extent, a simplification to see the trends of marketisation and ‘managed education’ as a result of for-profit universities infringing on the traditional public universities[9]. It is true, but only in the sense that it hardens up tendencies that have been taking place on a far more fundamental level in public universities for decades. Its helpful to contextualise the development of marketisation within the wider global trends towards neoliberalisation.


Neoliberalism, the class project intended to restore capital profitability in the wake of the 1973 OPEC crash, had at its heart what Susan George described as;


“The idea that the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions; the idea that the State should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy, or that corporations should be given total freedom, that trade unions should be curbed and citizens given less rather than more social protection[10].”

Combined with a reaction to growing union membership and militancy, public institutions slowly adopted, through the 1970s and 1980s managerial and neoliberal mantras[11]. Faced with budget cuts they were driven, encouraged (though often willingly) towards adulating and mimicking the behaviour of the private sector. As well as producing an entirely new and bloated layer of middle management such a shift required a reconstruction of the workforce. Tenure-track lecturers had been part of the move towards unionisation in the public sector, albeit after inspiration from firefighters and teachers[12], and administrations looked for means to undermine the solidarity that bound them. One means was the development of liberal ‘institutional missions’, which gave the university a more progressive vibe. Often adopting the language of Foucault, side by side with the economic ‘common sense’ of Milton Friedman, university administrations could begin to incorporate more senior academics within the structures of management, getting them to put aside solidarity with other staff members and replace it with paternalistic ersatz responsibility[13]. The other side of this was to radically re-structure teaching. Over the last thirty years graduates have gone from doing less than 1/4th of teaching to doing over 3/4ths[14]. This is then combined with an attempt to reduce the number of tenure-track positions available, creating an ever-growing rift between permanent and contingent staff.


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s graduates were told, in accordance with what were known as the Bowen predictions, that academic careers were open for people if they were simply to complete their PhD. What transpired is that PhD completers became the waste, rather than the product, of the system and were being used by ‘permanent’ management to create an ever-reproducing pool of ‘temporary and contingent’ teaching staff[15].


Adjunct organisation is hardly new…


Graduates have been organised since the 1960s, when the wave of unionisation I spoke of earlier began. At the University of California, for example, graduate employees affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers in the 1970s but failed to win contracts for at least 25 years[16]. The GEO at Illinois Urbana-Champaign also has a history of actions dating back 30 years, in different organisations[17]. It wasn’t really in the 1990s that the battle for recognition began. With different cases in different states, much of the struggle was, for a long time, over graduates’ legal definition. The landmark case came in 2000, between the National Labor Relations Board and NYU and Brown U[18], when graduates finally won the legal right to be recognised as workers, not just as students with added responsibilities. However, the Bush era that followed saw a set of attacks on workers’ rights, and administrations were once again on the re-offensive. Since then therefore, graduates have often found that their campaigns need to be overtly political.


The most visible attempt to build a unified national collaboration can be seen in the ‘Adjunct Project’[19] – not a union but an online resource and toolkit, detailing graduates’ experience of exploitation and organisation against it. Whilst it looks impressive, its funding coming in large from the Chronicle for Higher Education, it seems at odds with the political colour and vibrancy of the organisations and their campaigns.


Given Wisconsin’s notoriety as the beating heart of American trade unionism, it shouldn’t be surprising that adjunct organisation has been taking place there since the 1960s; the Teaching Assistants’ Association. Since the 1990s, and a historic tuition waiver win in 1997, the union has been built on the right to collective bargaining. As the crisis has intensified, their interests have begun to converge with campaigns against cuts to state budgets[20]. TAA members were at the centre of the movement around Madison in 2011 against Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to remove trade union rights[21]. This was in part due to the fact that attacks on collective bargaining would have made it far harder for them to retain faculty, but also due to the political strength of their unionisation. They led the occupation of the State Capitol in Madison, and organised coaches of GEO’s from Illinois State to join them.


Several graduate organisations, as a result of finding difficulty getting representation in the local chapter of their AFT or equivalent union, have found other unions willing to take on their affiliation. For example, graduates at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh PA, joined the United Steel Workers and won the union over to bargain for their rights against university management[22].


            Whilst these experiences are inspiring rejoinders against the apparent lack of struggle on US campuses, are they any use in building strategies for graduates who teach at British universities? Admittedly there are concrete differences between the US and the UK education systems. The US system is clearly more heterogenous, especially with the wider and more pronounced division between state and private universities. The far greater variety between institutions and funding systems, due in part to the federated state system, appears to have mitigated against one national organisation for tenured academics, let alone adjuncts. That heterogeneity means that its, theoretically, far harder for graduates to represent themselves collectively on a national level. In the UK on the other hand, postgrads who teach (often called Graduate Teaching Assistants, GTAs) have the right to join the UCU (national HE and FE academic staff union), even if they haven’t done so in massive numbers. However, unlike in the US, adjunctification has not been the primary means of driving down staffing costs in the UK; the attacks on pensions will continue to have the greatest effect for the near future[23]. Crucially, US postgrads take upwards of 6 years to complete a PhD, whereas their British counterparts are increasingly pushed towards 3-year completions. The NUS has calculated that there are approximately 100,000 postgraduate research students in the UK[24], though the extent of this number who are teaching and working as GTAs remains unclear. In addition there are many Visiting Tutors (VTs) who are not students but who face the same problems. Certainly it is far smaller proportion of overall teaching staff than in the US. Hence, being smaller in number and having a shorter time at university, British GTAs have less objective basis for organisation. In spite of the differences though both systems are clearly subject to increasingly totalising tendencies of marketisation and commodification even if the US has experienced them at a far greater velocity,


Marketisation in the UK began seriously under the Thatcher regime in the 1980s, though it would be wrong to say that she pursued it with anywhere near the same vigour as she attacked miners and printers. That said, whilst shying away from a direct attack on grants and the public nature of the university, Thatcher and ministers like Keith Joseph[25] did engage in repeated ideological attacks on student unions, left-wing and anti-oppression academics, as another insidious part of the ‘enemy within’. More crucially she successfully introduced a raft of neoliberal management directives against which academics were reluctant to resist, most importantly the Research Assessment Exercise which required academics to pile ever-increasing amounts of their time and effort (or that of their postgrads) into activity that made the institution more competitive and themselves more efficient and easy to manage[26]. Similarly, it was Major who, whilst being unable to successfully marketise education, set up the Student Loans Company and pass the 1994 Education act in order to amputate the campaigning power of students’ unions. However it was Blair and Brown who introduced tuition fees, with successive increases. Whilst their expansion of the education system was soaked in progressive rhetoric, the meritocratic assumptions that underlay the policy was demonstrative of the fact that, at its heart, the move was an attempt to expand the skilled workforce for the benefit of British capital, with little or no increase in funding and an opening up of the sector for private ‘investment’.


Its as if the last 30 years in the UK have been a process of laying the foundation for marketisation, dropping the gravel and pouring the cement. As that has hardened up, the most recent draft of reforms come as a cast iron plate dropped on top; a manoeuvre to prevent any form of resistance or reversal growing up through the cracks.


            However, whilst these tendencies reflect the American experience it is not yet the case that GTAs fulfil the role of a huge, casualised and hyper-exploited workforce as they do in the US. And, as mentioned above, the biggest attack on wages has been on pensions. However, this attack shares some of the qualities of adjunctification in the sense that it is younger, and more casualised, education workers who are hardest hit. So whilst adjunctification does not yet operate in the same way as it does in the US, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, nor that it won’t ripen as an issue.


Not without a fight…


Since 2010 the greatest resistance to marketisation has come from movements visibly lead by Undergraduates and FE students, though postgraduates have clearly been present. In the wake of those heady days the movement has struggled to regain momentum. The logic of marketisation means that changes take place in an uneven manner; so the response to them takes place not through street movements but on campus. The fantastic movement at Sussex[27], and the solidarity demonstrations that it attracted has shown that these local struggles can have a potentially invigorating effect on the rest of the country. The alternative strategy coming from the national union is to wait for 2015 and get Labour elected in order that they might, by sheer munificence, grant us…graduate tax[28]. The only real choice for those interested in education, for liberation, for all, is the former strategy. Build local struggles, where possible, into a generalised fightback that forces, not pleads, governments into concessions. In that sense being able to see the potential in any point of friction is vital.


In this context it seems more than likely that GTAs will be at the sharp end of funding cut-backs and will experience progressively higher degrees of exploitation[29] as departments try and squeeze a few more National Student Survey percentage points out of their staff. GTAs already suffer relatively high rates of exploitation, low pay and casualised conditions. However there are a number of objective barriers that appear to mitigate against the possibility of building a ‘graduate movement’ on the same scale as the US, most notably the far shorter period spent studying for PhDs. There is a clear need to challenge casualisation and marketisation but are the US graduate modes of organising worth replicating in the UK? Are they adequate for the challenge? In short: the methods are good but they aren’t, in themselves, good enough. The building of unions and graduate organisations now has to be placed within the context of crisis and austerity. Can these organisations confront an accelerated and steroided phalanx of attacks?


The key lesson, arguably, from the US adjunct movement is not a particular tactic in itself – whether joining the dockworkers’ or setting up alternative unions – but the strategic principle behind those tactics. Networking and organising large numbers of graduate workers, united around specific grievances on a political basis and winning solidarity and unity with other groups on campus. In many places in the US simply gaining recognition has been a audacious and political task. In the UK we have the advantage of being able to utilise, in comparison, the openness of the UCU, through what are on many campuses called anti-casualisation committees. In addition Student Unions can be tools that we can use to accelerate the process of organisation and raise the politics of the campaigns in a more overt way than the UCU can perhaps get away with. Additionally we have the collective memory of a national education street movement, which was more recent and overt than anything in the US over the last decade. The idea of solidarity across groups, and of opposition to marketisation arguably still pervades as a result of this powerful reference point, even if the high point has passed. Therefore threading solidarity with graduate workers through any new developments of these movements could potentially provide the basis for a far more serious challenge to marketisation.



The NUS’ own survey into GTA conditions shows that less than 10% would go to their Student Union when concerned about their conditions and less than 12% would go to their trade union rep[30]. In part this reflects the woeful inadequacy of both student and trade union leaderships to confront austerity and show audaciousness over local grievances. The hegemonic politics of the NUS in 2013 is best summed up as a committment to ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘partnership’ with university management, reflecting all of the worst corporatist conclusions the trade union movement has made over the last 20 years. Corporatism in a period like this is suicidal. The postgraduate report is at least a break with this mainstream, largely due to the role played by anti-capitalists and socialists in the postgraduate committee and NUS more widely.


They argue for different approaches at different universities, but primarily ‘ensuring that whatever structures and processes are in place, they are ultimately transparent and fair’[31], Acknowledging the ‘important role of trade unions, particularly UCU’ they suggest that ‘one possibility would be to create a graduate teaching committee with representatives from UCU, students union and graduate teaching reps’[32]. What this reflects is that there is a possibility to organise, but it has to come from multiple angles. We can place demands on the union and SU leadership, focussing on their failure to act, encouraging them to open up spaces where postgrads and casualised workers can organise around grievances. At the same time we have to combine this with us making ‘facts on the ground’, networking with GTAs to ensure that the need for those spaces to be opened up is materially evident.


What the American experience shows, as well as the Postgraduate report, is that we may have to apply a political attitude to our attempts at challenging marketisation through GTA organisation. That doesn’t mean we evacuate the organisations, like UCU or the SU, that we already have, but that we look at the possibilities of working through and beyond them, of opening spaces from above for casusalised sections of the workforce to organise, but also ensuring that those spaces allow those workers self-organisation. 


In a period when the free education movement appears temporarily fragmented and demoralised, our ability as a movement to strengthen the representation and political organisation of graduates who teach could potentially be crucial in determining the social weight of the forces who oppose marketisation. Of course the organisation of graduates alone will not stop a process that is embedded in a far larger onslaught, but it can at least provide additional flashpoints around which to organise as well as unveiling contradictions which, in being drawn out, begin to undermine and negate the ideological phantoms conjured up to justify the neoliberalisation of education.





Anon, ‘About CUNY Contingents Unite’, Last updated 12 September 2008, accessible at:


Anon, ‘About the occupation – ongoing since Thursday 7 February 2013’, accessible at


Anon, ‘About this Project’, accessible at


Anon, ‘History’, last updated on 27 November 2012, accessible at


Anon, ‘Key Information: Branch briefing –  the impact on YOU’, Accessible at:


Anon, ‘TAA History: The First Forty Years…And Beyond’, Accessible at:


Bousquet, Marc, ‘Grad Employees Spearhead Wisconsin Occupation’, March 1st, 2011, Accessible at:


Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, New York, NYU Press; 2008


Burrett, Robin and Wenstone, Rachel, Postgraduates who teach’, NUS Pamphlet, 2013, p7 Accessible at:


Callinicos, Alex, Universities in a Neoliberal Age, London, Bookmarks; 2006


Cech, Jeff, ‘NLRB Announces Landslide Victory for the Adjunct Faculty Association at Duquesne University’, September 20th, 2012, accessible at:


CUNYMedia, ‘CUNY Value’, 14 November 2012, video accessible at:!



Joseph, Keith, ‘Speech at Edgbaston (“our human stock is threatened”), October 19th, 1974, accessible at


Moody, Kim, Towards an International Social Movement Unionism, 1997


NUS National Campaigns, ‘Come clean on Student Funding – Elections 2015’, accessible at


NUS Postgraduate Campaign, ‘Engaging Postgraduates Students Guide’, last updated on 18th July 2011, Available at:


Reyes Rodriguez, Damian and Werst, Daniel, ‘GEO prepares for a strike’, Socialist Worker (USA,) November 26, 2012,


Singsen, Doug ‘CUNY Adjuncts Deserve Better’, Socialist Worker (USA),  November 19, 2010


The Real News, ‘Student Movement Rocks Chile’, video accessible at

[1] The Real News, ‘Student Movement Rocks Chile’, video accessible at


[2] ‘Unlike unions at most universities in the U.S., the PSC represents many different categories of academic workers’, Singsen, Doug ‘CUNY Adjuncts Deserve Better’, Socialist Worker (USA),  November 19, 2010

[3] Reyes Rodriguez, Damian and Werst, Daniel, ‘GEO prepares for a strike’, Socialist Worker (USA,) November 26, 2012,

[4] CUNYMedia, ‘CUNY Value’, 14 November 2012, video accessible at:!

[5] ‘CUNY Adjuncts Deserve Better’, Socialist Worker (USA),  November 19, 2010

[6] ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Anon, ‘About CUNY Contingents Unite’, Last updated 12 September 2008, accessible at:

[9] Bousquet, Marc,  How the University Works, New York, NYU Press; 2008, p8

[10]  However it is worth stating that all neoliberal projects have remained contradictory to their very core; requiring an expansion of state power and expenditure in order to fight to restore profitability on behalf of capital.

[11] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p12

[12] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p18

[13] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p13

[14] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p2

[15] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p20

[16] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p33

[17] Anon, ‘History’, last updated on 27 November 2012, accessible at

[18] Bousquet, Marc, How the University Works, p38

[19] Anon, ‘About this Project’, accessible at

[20] Anon , ‘TAA History: The First Forty Years…And Beyond’, Accessible at:

[21] Bousquet, Marc, ‘Grad Employees Spearhead Wisconsin Occupation’, March 1st, 2011, Accessible at:

[22] Cech, Jeff, ‘NLRB Announces Landslide Victory for the Adjunct Faculty Association at Duquesne University’, September 20th, 2012, accessible at:

[23] Anon, ‘Key Information: Branch briefing –  the impact on YOU’, Accessible at:

[24] NUS Postgraduate Campaign, ‘Engaging Postgraduates Students Guide’, last updated on 18th July 2011, Available at:

[25] ‘The decline is spreading. We know that some universities have been constrained to lower their standards for entrants from comprehensives, discriminating against more the talented [sic] because they come from grammar or independent schools. We see how the demand for absolute equality turns into the new inequality. In the universities, which should be sanctuaries for the pursuit of truth, the bully-boys of the left have bean giving us a foretaste of what leftwing dictatorship would endeavour to achieve, actively cheered on by the casuistry of some members of the university staffs, cuckoos in our democratic nest, and by the pusillanimity of others, by the apathy of many and, I must add, by moral cowardice in public life’ Keith Joseph, Speech at Edgbaston (“our human stock is threatened”), October 19th, 1974, accessible at:

[26] Callinicos, Alex, Universities in a Neoliberal Age, London, Bookmarks; 2006, p18

[27] Anon, ‘About the occupation – ongoing since Thursday 7 February 2013’, accessible at

[28] NUS National Campaigns, ‘Come clean on Student Funding – Elections 2015’, accessible at

[29] [29] ‘Almost one in three postgraduate teachers did not receive a contract…The average postgraduate teacher will work almost twice the hours they are paid for…almost one in three postgraduates who teach earn below minimum wage in real terms.’ Burrett, Robin and Wenstone, Rachel, Postgraduates who teach’, NUS Pamphlet, 2013, p7

[30]Burrett and Wenstone, Postgraduates who Teach, pp22-23


[31] Burrett and Wenstone, Postgraduates who Teach, p27

[32] Burrett and Wenstone, Postgraduates who Teach, p28


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