The comments here were first shared during the Canadian Historical Association’s second of three panels responding to the “Precarious Historical Instructors’ Manifesto” entitled, “Precarious Historians, Trade Unions, and the Neoliberal University.” Along with Godefroy Desrosiers-Lauzon, Peter McInnis, Christine Gauthier, Catherine Larochelle, and Janis Thiessen, Jeremy Milloy discussed his insights on precarious academic work and working-class organizing. What follows is an edited version of his comments.
by Jeremy Milloy
When I was invited by Steven High to speak today, I was unsure what perspective I’m supposed to speak from. As Nancy Janovicek mentioned, I am a longtime precarious historian and instructor. I am also a union member. I’m a historian of work capitalism and public health. I’m also a longtime organizer, who now works full-time on climate justice issues in addition to maintaining my historical practice. There are a lot of different ways that I could come at this.
I thought it would be best for me to try and contribute insights from all of these perspectives, so I have seven things that I want to share about precarious academic work.
First of all, I am a scholar of violence in the workplace. The violence of contingent academic labour is not as spectacular, fast, or noticeable as some of the workplace murders and assaults that I write about in my own historical work. But the contingency, uncertainty, low pay, visibility, and other factors that contingent academic workers endure is nonetheless a real and slow violence in our lives.
It is also a malignant factor doing long-term harm to our institutions and all staff, all faculty, and all students within those institutions.
Number two: This is not a supply problem. This is not a demand problem. This cannot be solved by training us better or training us differently. I have spent over a decade as a contingent academic worker and there has always been great demand for my work. There was not, however, the ability or will to pay me or to employ me on a full-time and stable basis.
This is not a supply problem or a demand problem. This is a power problem. This is an exploitation problem. And that means this is fundamentally a class problem.
Number three: As we can already tell from some of the previous speakers, workplace and union situations across Canada are varied. There are obviously people on the panel who understand these things at a far higher level than I do, so I will not comment on specific associations, unions, or formations. What is not unique, however, is that across academic workplaces throughout Canada, we have a two-, three-, or more-tier workplace structure inside departments and inside many unions.
I have studied these types of workplaces my entire academic career in sit-down and fast-food restaurants as well as the auto industry. From years of studying these industries, I have learned that one cannot count on the more privileged member of a workplace to be dependable allies to the least privileged members.
In restaurant work, waitress strikes are often broken when the employer goes to the chef to keep the restaurant running. When I researched auto work, I interviewed General Gordon Baker Jr. General Baker was a legendary Detroit organizer who led the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and later the insurgent League of Revolutionary Black Workers. I asked him, “When you were at Chrysler plants doing DRUM actions—when you were doing walkouts, when you’re doing leafleting—did the white workers support you?” He said, “Generally, no; it was rare.” I said, “Well, how did you feel about that? Were you frustrated?” He smiled, and said, “Everybody has their own challenges, their own struggles, their own things on their plate. We could not expect other people who weren’t directly affected by those issues to jump out for us. We knew basically that we had to do it ourselves.”
That’s not to say—and I’m addressing contingent people specifically here—that tenure-stream permanent professors cannot be our friends or cannot be our allies. But we cannot depend on them. That a tenured historian on our panel today—whose scholarship and work on these issues I deeply respect and appreciate—chose to spend so much time addressing precarious instructors in terms of what we should do differently in terms of our organizing, rather than directly engaging the terms of our demands—speaks to the fact that this two-tier structure exists within our organizations and within our practice. That’s fine. That is just the reality of the situation.
It is thus important to remember that—number four—contingent workers must lead. We must do our own work. That’s fundamental. I agree with the broader calls for unity and the observation that academic workplace organizing has to connect with other people and build alliances. I really liked Dr. McInnis’ discussion of what has happened at Carleton because I think that’s an effective mode of organizing. But at the first and last instance, I really want to underline that contingent workers must do this for ourselves.
With that, I wanted to raise another historical phenomenon of minority unionism. These are the forms of unionism that do not require a collective bargaining agreement. They are not limited to one workplace, one university, or one employer. A worker needs recourse, representation, and solidarity whether she is teaching at the Université de Moncton, the University of British Columbia, or Trent University.
Minority unionism—also called solidarity unionism—was pioneered by the Industrial Workers of the World. It is being used today by the Alphabet Workers Union that is organizing across the world at Google. There are specific opportunities and advantages in Canadian labour law as well as particular idiosyncrasies that may make it more difficult to use this type of model. But overall, this is a model that recognizes a contingent academic worker wherever they go; they belong to a wider group of contingent academic workers across Canada. This is one way to build our solidarity, capacity, and visibility.
There are already people doing great organizing work among precarious instructors, like Godefroy Desrosiers-Lauzon and Catherine Murton Stoehr. Thank you for your activism.
This brings us to number five, which draws on my current job with the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent DePaul: Organizing still works.
We saw it with the rise of the Bernie Sanders campaign as well as with Black Lives Matter and with #MeToo and Time’s Up that continue to successfully organize across North America. I see it locally every day in the work that I do with other activists in Kingston to advance environmental justice, address inequality, and advance racial justice and decolonization. It works. Which may make my sixth point seem a little strange.
It is directed specifically at contingent people: I think it’s time for us to give up hope.
Most graduate students and contingent faculty I’ve worked with have all had our eyes open going into the academy. We knew what the working conditions were generally like. We knew the odds of achieving full-time employment were unlikely. But we still carry hope: that it’s going to be different for us, that things will get better, that administrators will take care of us, that we will be the one picked to get that tenure track job.
These hopes keep us in chains.
One of the best people writing about hope and hopelessness is the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön. In her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, she says:
In Tibetan there’s an interesting word: ye tang che. The ye part means “totally, completely,” and the rest of it means “exhausted.” … We might say, “totally fed up.” It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope—that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be—we will never relax with where we are or who we are.
I say this to embrace hopelessness, but not to encourage despair. I encourage all of us contingent people to be truly at home with the precarity and difficulty of the situation that we find ourselves in. If we do this, we can begin to release the expectations and comparisons that can make us miserable. We can relax into where we are at right now and ask, What can I do from this starting point to take care of myself? What can I do to help myself and others get the things we need for a good working life?
Number Seven: We all love what we do deeply. I have never met anybody who is contingent faculty or a graduate student who didn’t love teaching, who didn’t love study, who didn’t love writing, who didn’t love scholarship—Okay. Maybe not loving writing—But they love everything else.
This love is taken from us by our institutions, employers, and administrators. It’s used to exploit us every time we do extra work or support the students we teach or mark papers properly even though we’re not paid enough to do it, or get a course outline just right even though we’ve only been given a week.
We do all of this knowing that we’re never going to get rehired in this job again. This is Marx’s theory of alienated labor to perfection. Our very investment into our work is used to facilitate our further exploitation.
We need to love what we do less. We must remember—as labour journalist Sarah Jaffe says in her new book—that work will never love us back.
To do the work that contingent historians need to do to—to advance ourselves, to get better working conditions, to address the exploitation and injustices that we face—we must love ourselves more than we love our work.
And we must love each other more than we love our work.
Jeremy Milloy is a historian of work, violence, substance use, and capitalism. He primarily works outside of the academy as a climate justice organizer. He is the author of Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Violence at Work in the North American Auto Industry and, with Joan Sangster, co-edited The Violence of Work: New Essays in Canada-US Labour History. Currently, he is writing a history of substance abuse and recovery in the American workplace under contract with the University of Michigan Press. If you would like to discuss workplace issues, organizing, history, or the care and feeding of miniature dachshunds, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997), 49.