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The Point: The Other Side of the Tracks


Today’s Point was written by Professor Joseph Ramsey, Senior Lecturer, English and American Studies.

Is there any other job besides professor where you can have the same degree, same experience, similar contributions to your field, and a comparable record of service as your full-fledged colleagues, and yet never be offered a chance to truly join their ranks?  Where, no matter how many classes you teach (or how well you teach them), no matter how many articles you publish (or what they say), you are forever confined to a separate, lower-paid, lower-prestige “track”? 

In higher ed it’s now considered “normal” for the majority of teaching faculty to be confined to the ranks of this “non-tenure track,” locked out of resources and respect reserved for the “tenure track.” But this language of “tracks,” upon reflection, borders on the absurd.

After all, isn't it one of the fundamental facts of train tracks in the world that they can and often do *cross* and *intersect*?  And yet, here in higher ed, crossing “tracks” is rare.  (Unless, that is, you’re willing to leave your current institution altogether and start over someplace else.)

Maybe it would help if we ceased speaking of “tracks” and shift instead to “tiers,” which at least has the virtue of being honest about the enduring hierarchies?

But changing language is not enough.  The material inequities demand redress, too.

Personally, the TT/NTT divide used to grate on me more for the insult than the injury. (To be an internationally recognized scholar in one’s field, and yet never be tapped to teach an upper-level course on that topic!)  But now, with a new toddler to care for at home, and landlords gouging rent, with student loan payments resuming, and childcare costs going through the roof, like many other NTTs, I’m feeling the financial hurt.  These days, I look at the roughly $1 MILLION DOLLAR estimated difference in career earnings between tenure-“track” faculty and  full-time tenure-excluded* faculty here at UMB…and this massive equity gap feels not just unfair, but increasingly intolerable and unsustainable. (See our FSU Contract here--Article 26 sets the salary levels by rank.)

I’m painfully aware that most NTT faculty in higher ed have it far worse than I do.  I speak here from a relatively secure full-time position here at UMB, as a Senior Lecturer on a continuing appointment, with twelve years of experience on this campus.  Thanks to our contracted raises, I can make ends meet—usually.  Meanwhile, most NTT faculty across the country, especially those categorized as “part-timers” or “adjuncts,” lack union protections and get paid a per course pittance (often without benefits).  Such super-exploited adjuncts make considerably less than full-time NTT at UMB.

Even here at UMB, as our union colleague Steve Striffler reminded us recently, our own “Associate Lecturers” struggle to survive on practically poverty wages (teaching as many as 8 courses per year for just over $40k)—only to be excluded from the 8% raise many of us are now finally celebrating.

Really, we have a multi-tier system at this point, not just a two-tier system—and each new tier creates a new division in our ranks.

So then, what is to be done?

Recent developments in the U.S. labor movement suggest a way forward.

Consider recent union victories at places like Rutgers University—but also outside of academia, where the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Teamsters both recently won BIG across-the board-contract gains, while taking on “The Big Three” automakers and UPS, respectively.  These unions won raises of 40% or even 140% (!) for the lowest paid workers (coupled with solid raises for all), while standing up to some of the most powerful corporations on earth.

These victories happened not only because these unions were willing to strike—and to build strike-readiness over a matter of months and years—though that was key.  The history of the labor movement makes it clear that a plausible threat of disruption remains essential to compelling intransigent employers to make meaningful concessions. 

But, just as crucially, these victories were made possible because workers united around demands that focused on raising up the pay, dignity, and equality of those stuck in the lowest job tiers (those often categorized as “temps” or “part-time”)—undermining the “divide and rule” strategy of management.   Most inspiringly, some unions succeeded in entirely eliminating the tiered work structures, transitioning all workers towards the same “track,” henceforth with equal rights and equal pay for equal work and experience. 

The tiering of work, as it turns out, is NOT unique to academia. It’s a widespread employer practice—and many other unions are struggling against it.  Yet sadly, the longevity of such divides in academia have led too many of us to accept these divisions as natural or inevitable, when they are anything but. 

Nor do they only harm the people stuck in those lower tiers.  They harm us all. They corrode worker morale and union solidarity, increase burnout, stoke resentments and misunderstandings, and create divisions in the workplace that harm our community while empowering the employer with new forms of “flexible” labor at their fingertips.

Against this management attempt to tier us apart, I propose that our FSU prioritize raising the floor for the lowest paid and least resourced among us, and that we use the contract battles ahead to close pay and workload gaps between the existing tiers, levelling up each tier with respect to the next, with the ultimate goal of more equal pay, privilege, recognition, and support for equal work across ranks.

Contractually in 2024, we could start small by bargaining for progressive raises, not flat percentage ones, so that those at the bottom (starting with our Associate Lecturers and lower-paid Lecturers) get the urgent relief they need, while making sure that everyone makes gains. (Sadly, the standard practice of flat percentage raises, in a union with large pay differentials, actually increases the inequities in our midst.) 

More fundamentally, we can start right now by changing how we think and talk.  We can dispense with the frankly absurd idea that the Point of Hire is a magical moment that must set the ontological "universe" in place for all time to come—separating “lower” and “higher” status beings forevermore, regardless of the work we actually end up doing.  Shedding such tiered fantasies, we might then get real about honoring and supporting (morally and materially) all the genuine and necessary labor that people do on this campus, for our students, our profession, and for the broader communities we serve. 

Make no mistake: Overcoming the tiered system will take a big collective effort—one that involves campus organizing, strategic bargaining, as well as pressuring the state legislature and federal government for additional funds.  But I believe our union and our public university will be stronger, healthier, and more just to the degree we take on this equity effort.  

I look forward to the day when we see the tiering system that divides us as a problem to be overcome, rather than a naturalized “fact” we must simply and passively accept. 

Joseph G. Ramsey, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in the English and American Studies departments, and Designated Faculty in the Honors College, and a member of the Lecturer Equity Caucus in the FSU. He is also the chair of the Contingency Task Force (CTF) for Higher Ed Labor United (HELU).