PROFILE | Joe Berry

Meet Joe Berry. If you don’t know his work, you should. 

Author of the book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education, Berry has worked for decades in multiple states as both a part-time instructor and an organizer of part-time, contingent academic instructors. Recently retired from teaching Labor Studies, he continues to pour his time and energy into the struggle for the rights of the most vulnerable instructors in higher education.

“The issues of inequality, unemployment, and precarious employment,” Berry explains, “all of which part-time faculty, by our existence, exemplify in higher education” are the very issues at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent movement.

“This is a moment when the labor movement can be revitalized and redefine itself as once again representing the entire working class and not just the small percentage who are represented by unions.” 

Even among college faculty, Berry points out, only 25 percent are organized — and only 20 percent of part-time faculty have the  benefits of union membership. But he termed that representation “a great base to build upon” compared to most contingent workers. 

Berry says now is the time to activate a much higher percentage of faculty members. “Who are these people?” he asks. “Our colleagues who teach contingently, without tenure or unions, in the world of for-profit higher education.”

The number of instructors who teach at for-profit post-secondary education ranges from 100,000 to 200,000 — by some estimates up to a million. Many teach in public and private colleges and universities too. “These are our people,” Berry exudes. “We’re the ones who can organize them. We hold the knowledge to change higher education and to respond to the challenge of for-profit higher education.”

Berry believes for-profit higher education exists because of underfunding at public colleges. With the community colleges facing extreme budget and program cuts, “the for-profits stepped in with the promise of quick and convenient buying of a degree.” The for-profits have become competition for the community colleges and other affordable public colleges and universities unable to fulfill their missions of providing students the high-quality vocational and liberal arts educations necessary for active citizenship.

“As long as that option exists,” Berry urges, “we can’t just respond by decrying it from the outside. We in public higher education can’t have high standards while there’s a tar pit of low standards for teaching, compensation, education, and financial ethics sitting right there in our same sector — any more than we can survive as a public sector labor movement while organized labor in the private sector languishes. The most valuable contribution we can make is to rebuild the private sector labor movement.” 

The casualization of academic labor, Berry says, is caused by the same forces that passed NAFTA and furthered corporate globalization. “The 1 percent on the global scale want to turn educational services into a tradable commodity and move public work for the common good into the private sector for individual gain.” 

Berry sees the international Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (see left) and the New Faculty Majority as important organizing hubs. “It’s much easier now to find commonalities around the world. If we can speak truthfully about these commonalities, we will have a tremendous strategic advantage,” Berry concludes. “The existence of the Occupy movement and the potential power of the contingent faculty movement could help reconfigure the labor movement in very real ways. We need to get on the train.”

COCAL: Leading the international battle for equity 

Joe Berry’s dedication to organizing contingent faculty extends to his participation in the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, an integrated network of North American activists that he refers to as “one of the most important achievements of contingent organizing since the mid-1990s.” 

COCAL is tri-national because Canada and Mexico are experiencing the same trends in higher education as the United States. The casualization of faculty and the inroads made by private for-profit corporations threaten labor and education standards in all three nations. 

The coalition is one of the reasons, according to Berry, that the three national higher education unions — the AFT, the NEA, and AAUP — have developed long-term strategies regarding part-time and contingent labor. “COCAL personifies the reality of labor struggle,” Berry explains. “It is agriculture, not plumbing. You don’t just turn a faucet to get results…you have to nurture the seeds and the roots. We are the grassroots.”

The 10th meeting of the coalition, COCAL X Conference, will take place at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, on August 10-12. The conference is open to all contingent academic workers.