Standing by the Working Man by Debra Erickson

Early in March, the American Academy of Religion sent an email to its 10,000-plus members expressing concern over an unresolved labor dispute at one of the six hotels where its upcoming annual meeting will be held

By Debra Erickson|April 7, 2011

Early in March, the American Academy of Religion sent an email to its 10,000-plus members expressing concern over an unresolved labor dispute at one of the six hotels where its upcoming annual meeting will be held. It announced that, on urging from union representatives, it will shift some events to other locations. The email described this move as a compromise that helps the AAR avoid the financial penalties associated with cancellation while still demonstrating consideration for the hotel workers’ situation.

The email also announced the organization’s broader response: it will sponsor conference sessions at the 2011 annual meeting examining historic and contemporary relationships between religious and labor movements, and it will develop a policy for responding to similar labor issues prior to the 2012 meeting in Chicago, site of a hotel workers’ strike said to be the longest strike in American history. It asserts: “we hope to enable our Academy to do what it does best—listen, evaluate, critique, reformulate, and learn, by organizing critical and constructive conversations on religion and labor.”

Issues of religion and labor, however, hit much closer to home than a once-a-year hotel gathering. Recent events in Wisconsin and other states have lifted discussion of academic labor off the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and into the general debate. Unfortunately for those in the trenches, the debate has centered around reducing the power of academic unions, which represent varying classes of college-level teachers: tenured and tenure-track; full-time but non-tenure track (such as visiting professors, lecturers, and instructors); adjunct faculty, who are generally paid on a per-course basis; and graduate student teachers and teaching assistants whose teaching is often bound up with financial aid or other program requirements.

Yet contingent faculty—all those off the tenure track—make up approximately 70% of instructors in American higher education. Of those who hold terminal degrees, adjuncts are often worst off: pay generally hovers around $2,000-$3,000 per course, although some large, wealthy institutions may pay as much as $7,000, and some smaller or public schools pay even less.

In order to make ends meet, most adjuncts teach at multiple institutions. They earn no benefits, have no job security, and often lack access to other perks that full-time academic employment can bring: eligibility for promotion; an institutional home (avoiding the dreaded “independent scholar” label); budgets for books, conference fees and travel, and professional organization memberships; the ability to sponsor events and conferences; uninterrupted library privileges; a voice in university and departmental affairs; and even office space and supplies. All of this affects their ability to teach, mentor, and research.

Adjunct positions are disposable, not temp-to-hire; but precisely for that reason, their numbers are increasing: some foresee the day when tenured faculty are primarily administrators for departments consisting entirely of adjuncts.

These working conditions are behind the ongoing drive for contingent faculty unionization, both among those with terminal degrees and among graduate-student teachers. In 1997, a number of scholarly organizations formed the Coalition on the Academic Workforce to address “deteriorating faculty working conditions and their effect on college and university students in the United States” (the AAR is a member); several other groups also advocate on behalf of the non-tenured. Yet the forty-year trend towards reliance upon contingent labor continues unabated, in good economic times and bad.

Surely, then, labor issues within their own ranks should be the primary focus of the policymaking efforts of the AAR. As it is, the myth of academic meritocracy—including the promise of decently-paid, full-time jobs to all deserving Ph.D.’s—continues to thrive, despite extensive documentation to the contrary. This means, in turn, that after devoting five, ten, even fifteen years or longer to the study of religion, a pursuit they both believe and are told is critical to understanding the contemporary world, even graduates of top schools realize too late how little chance they have of earning a decent livelihood and making a contribution to their chosen field. They are powerless and stuck, exploited by the ones who hold the keys to their professional future.

The AAR’s March 4 email affirmed the organization’s “respect for the rights, dignity, and worth of all people.” Ten days later, a second email was sent, reporting that the annual meeting hotel’s management and union had agreed on a new contract, conveniently dissolving that particular ethical dilemma. The other, broader, more entrenched labor problem within the academy itself—and in religious studies—remains. Will the AAR stand up for them?



Sarah Schulte, “Congress Hotel Strike Marks 7th Anniversary,” ABC7 News, June 14, 2010. 

Deanna Isaacs, “Labor Unrest at Columbia College, Northeastern: Adjuncts, unions at local schools fight for contract, job security,” Chicago Reader, March 3, 2011.

Stanely Fish, “We’re All Badgers Now,” Opinionator, The New York Times, March 21, 2011. 

Roark Atkinson, “Adjunct Faculty: A Buyer’s Market,” published by the Organization of American Historians, describes working conditions for contingent faculty that have persisted for well over a decade.

Coalition on the Academic Workforce:

See also the American Association of University Professors’ many resources on contingent faculty:

For an example of a university bucking the adjunct trend, see: Scott Jaschik, “Exception to the Rule,” Inside Higher Ed, December 2, 2008. 


Debra Erickson holds a Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Chicago Divinity School. She teaches, writes, and works in Chicago.