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The Point: No Tiers This Holiday Season


Greetings, Colleagues:

Can we talk about breakfast cereal?

I’m sure many of you, like me, having been following news about the Kellogg workers’ strike with great interest and concern.  As members of a robust union it is good for all of us to have at least a general sense of what is going on the wider labor landscape—and demonstrating solidarity when and where we can.  (I write this as news of the tentative agreement forged by the St. Vincent nurses—a strike with direct relevance to many of our members—is just breaking.)  If you have a few extra minutes over the holiday, I’d also urge you to read this fantastic piece, which explains clearly why traditional industrial unions like the UAW have become so active in organizing graduate workers—it’s a helpful reminder of how interconnected we all are.

One fascinating thing about the Kellogg strike is the workers’ continued refusal to accept a “two-tier” system: what this boils down to is management offering some increases in wages and benefits for current workers but blocking access to those gains for future hires—thus creating, as Alex Press explains, a future permanent lower tier of workers.  (Meanwhile Kellogg has been trying to hire scabs to replace striking workers, a move that has been hilariously gummed up by successful efforts to crash the corporation’s application site.) 

Tiered labor systems are aimed at weakening union power: that is a feature and not a bug of such arrangements.   As one union leader said to Press, “Why would any worker in the future why want to be part of a union that sold them out and allows them to work the rest of their lives with no insurance and no benefits once they retire?” 

Probably some of you have guessed where I’m headed next.  The question of tiered labor system has plenty of relevance for all of us at UMB as our stalwart FSU comrade Joe Ramsey explained in a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of years ago. In the past few years, the most pernicious development on our campus, in this respect, is the way administration has purposefully worked to expand and institutionalize the Associate Lecturer category—which was never intended to be used in this broad way. What this does, in essence, is create (within the already dramatically-tiered TT/NTT formation) a permanent tier within the NTT workforce.  In fact, if not actually by design, this system is meant to block NTT colleagues from promotion. 

On the current landscape, I am also thinking of our brave colleagues in Nursing on the Scholarship of Practice track many of whom are hired on a 12-month calendar year basis.  I have spoken with Nursing colleagues who report that they have been working 10-hour days, 6-7 days a week, risking their own health and that of their families.  And yet administration still has not agreed to a simple proposal that would limit the expansion of these 12-month positions, thereby allowing our colleagues the opportunity—just for instance—to take vacation days or do scholarship. 

And speaking of tiers: as you know, the administration at UMB has been trying to get the FSU to accept a cruel proposal that would uncap the number of hours our librarian members work each week—as if these librarians are not already stretched to the limit as things are.  I keep scratching my head over this position. I mean going after librarians is not just morally wrong, it is bad optics to boot.  Faculty members love librarians! We love librarians more than we love starting a new research project before really getting that far with the current one! I have some hope that our Chancellor will display some moral leadership on the librarian front. After all he comes to us from a position at UCLA where he oversaw graduate programs in education and information studies and he co-wrote a book in 2001—Children of Immigration—which includes a beautiful passage about the transformative power of libraries for migrant families.

Let me end on a strongly positive note, that also has to do with academic tiers.  I’m sure you all saw the news that our amazing Non-Tenure Track colleagues, Professors Tony Van Der Meer and Keith Jones, were granted the Chancellors’ Distinguished Service Award for all they have done advocating for “new ways of thinking and doing in relation to racial and social justice and health equity” on campus and beyond.  I want to add my voice to the swelling chorus congratulating Tony and Keith and want to also remind you that both of these colleagues have also been donating a huge amount of time, expertise, and energy to collective bargaining—Tony as a member of our core bargaining team and Keith as a stalwart member of the expanded bargaining caucus.  The campus-shaping efforts made by our award-winning colleagues serve as a stark reminder that NTT faculty are contributing a huge amount to UMB with their service—and with their scholarship and creative work as well!

As our intrepid colleagues from Columbia to California (see here and here) remind us, working conditions—for graduate workers, lecturers, and everybody on campus—are learning conditions for our students.  This is why we must struggle against the punishingly tiered workforce that our administration seems to favor and to fight for labor justice on campus.

Since we have been thinking about “tears,” however you spell it, here is my very favorite sad Christmas song: I hope your holiday is restful and healthy and full of laughs.

This is your union! Let us know at how you think we should work to fight against the inequity of a tiered workplace.


Jeff Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee