Ground Operations

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tags: adjuncts, academic labor

Josh Carmony has worked in the airline industry for 24 years and is a proud member of the Transport Workers Union. He will graduate with an Associate's Degree in June and accepted an offer to the Honors College at Portland State University, where he plans to complete a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Public Affairs with a minor in Law and Legal Studies. Law school is his pipe dream.


I recently took a class on the Vietnam War because I feared my favorite professor was at risk of losing her job. At the time I enrolled, the decision seemed a little bonkers, and I suppose I had good reason to question whether I was thinking straight. I was in quarantine at home over Christmas break after contracting COVID-19, likely the result of being a front-line worker. There I was in my pajamas, feeling congested and exhausted, obsessing over the list of available class options for the Winter Term and the depressing enrollment numbers at my college. I had watched the numbers for months and wondered to myself how the internal discussions among administrators and faculty were shaking out. Were classes being cut? Were professors being laid off?

History classes are electives for me—a luxury, really—that I take because I want to better understand the context of the world in which we live. My major is Urban and Public Affairs, and it’s chock-full of political science and public administration-type classes. I could earn my degree without ever taking a single history course. What would that make me, though? How can a person be involved in developing public policy and changing communities for the better without a solid understanding of how American society was shaped? I decided to devote a big chunk of my sophomore year to studying U.S. history, and out of sheer good fortune, I was guided by a professor—Dr. M., an Americanist with a PhD in History—who became something of a (virtual) mentor to me. But a class on Vietnam? That seemed like a stretch.

Yet I couldn’t shake what I was looking at on my computer screen that day in December. One of the most impactful and inspiring professors at my college was on the verge of unemployment, with seven students and a three-credit course on Vietnam separating her from delivering food for Grub Hub. *Click* Make that eight students. If I couldn’t be the one to give Dr. M. a shot at tenure, the least I could do is vote for her with my tuition.

I had already completed my freshman year when I first learned what an adjunct was. During one of our class Zooms involving the labor movement, I mentioned to Dr. M. that I work in ground operations for a major airline and that union membership and collective bargaining allow hundreds of thousands of airline workers—many of whom are considered “unskilled”—to have dignified pay and benefits.  Dr. M. disclosed that she is also a union member, but that she works under a different set of rules than professors who have tenure. She explained that she is a part-time employee contracted to teach a limited number of classes at the college. She also mentioned having at least one other teaching job. Initially, I took all of this to mean that she was a new professor who was getting her foot in the door, but that she would eventually be given a fair opportunity to become a full-time instructor at one of the schools.

However, something about the conversation nagged at me. Dr. M.’s references to being “part time” and “contract” were familiar. I have peers in the airline industry who work as contract workers, employed by third-party vendors or as part-time employees with their own sets of work rules. It’s complete and total fuckery. Contract workers have almost no job security, and their salaries are far behind (in some cases only half) the salaries of full-time union workers at major carriers. Part-time workers often don’t fare much better. At my company, part-timers are the first to be furloughed, regardless of seniority. Their hours can be dropped to as few as 16 hours per week, and the options for family health insurance coverage are outrageously unaffordable.

Read entire article at Contingent

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