Blogs > Cliopatria > Just in time jobs

Apr 18, 2004 3:35 pm

Just in time jobs

Interesting quote from an AP article by Adam Geller on slow job growth despite a recovering economy.

"What employers have really discovered is ... you can have just-in-time employment," says David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poors in New York."That's what this really is — I use the workers when I need them. I don't use the workers when I don't need them."

This also gets rid of pesky requirements like pensions, health care, and other such garbage.

Here it must be said that universities have been at the cutting edge. After all, this is the adjunct world. All you need to have full time are administrators and a small core of essential faculty (for now).

This poses lots of questions, but here are two. Can the United States have stable families and communities if a larger percentage of Americans cannot count on year-round jobs? What periods of history, if any, might provide a guide to the effects of this sort of economy?

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Michael C Tinkler - 4/20/2004

Are they particularly egregious, or are they actually rather close to the norm?

What makes seems egregious to me is the price difference between what the Ivies charge for classes taught by graduate students vs. the price the same students would pay to be taught by graduate students at, say, their local metropolitan state university.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/20/2004

No. Our blogs will just be thinly veiled advertisements for our consulting services, all of which will be delivered by telephone to prevent unauthorized redistribution (and threats of copyright infringement from the authors of the books from which we got our knowledge in the first place).

Adam Kotsko - 4/20/2004

Until the workers control the means of production, capital still holds all the cards -- even if that means intellectual capital.

Thankfully, blogging will probably solve all these problems. Professors will be able to get by on PayPal donations from virtual students across the globe.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/19/2004

There were certain "just in time" aspects of the NYC system (at least 15 years ago). Teachers weren't necessarily hired for the year. As student attendance dropped off, at the end of the fall semester, teachers were dismissed in mid-year to fend for themselves. This was achieved by keeping a fifth to a third on temporary certification, with no eligibility for tenure. This in turn was made possible by only having a Board of Examiners' permanent certification exam say, every seven years.

There was another "just in time" aspect. The contract called for a maximum of 34 students per class, unless you offered the only class in the subject and grade. But that 34 was a rolling enrollment figure. Half the funding came from the state, and was based on per student-day. So 45 were programmed into your class the first day, you filed a grievance, and by the time it came to a hearing, attendance had declined to 34, or even lower. And as new students suddenly decided to attend school, they were programmed into your class (along with previously attending students who decided to reappear). You filed another grievance, and as attendance fluctuated, students were programmed back and forth into different sections of the same class to make the 34 limit. You might have 50, 60, or even 70 kids come through your class in a semester, and to make the 34 limit, kids were continually dropped and re-added to your roster on a daily basis, as the spirit moved them to show up. Of course, it was expected that you would give make-up exams to any who showed up, at any time, so that typically you could have 60 final grade reports with a class that by contract could "only" have 34 students.

Now this was not the typical experience at the most socially advantaged schools, but it was at the other end of the spectrum, particularly in required courses at freshman and sophomore level. You might think this kind of insanity would be precluded by unions, or even common sense, but it wasn't, because the union never went to war over quality of education issues, only over pay, etc. -- and they wondered why they had no community support. Go figure.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/19/2004

I don't think "interesting" is the word I'd use. Hypocritical, perhaps. Universities like Yale and Columbia (and Harvard, absolutely) are among the most egregious offenders (and there are lots) when it comes to treating graduate students like employees, using them to buffer their star faculty against undergraduate contact (and work like grading) and as a "force multiplier" allowing them to give larger numbers of undergraduates the "benefit" of the star lectures. There's nothing inherently wrong with this system, except when you try to claim that there's some kind of "apprenticeship" or educational value to it: I've taught, and I've TA'd, and I've been on hiring committees, and I know how little TA work is like teaching.

It always works this way: the first strike is for the right to strike.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/19/2004

Oscar, I think you know that in some places there are efforts going on to organize adjuncts, as there are efforts to organize graduate students. Universities will resist such efforts and I imagine that anyone trying to organize adjuncts should be prepared to find her or his contract not renewed. It is interesting that at both Yale and Columbia historian/administrators have emerged as lead spokesmen in opposition to recognizing unions of adjuncts and/or graduate students.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/19/2004

But in these situations we are talking about regularly employed people trying to get more (whether in pay, benefits, or security). Their regular employment provides a certain structure through which they can act or at least organizae themselves.

Just in time employment destroys that basis for cooperation. What then?

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/19/2004

Schools fear unions except where, as in NYC, there is something like the Taylor Law, which lumps teachers in with police and firefighters as "essential personnel", and imposes two days' worth of fines for every day out. In that situation, the city has no incentive to negotiate -- and they didn't, for three years (three years without a contract!!), and then settled for peanuts (the leadership having made a backdoor deal with the Mayor).

Meanwhile, in Bergen County across the river in Jersey, which had no Taylor Law, the teachers' union was out for 5 days, demanding a 16% increase -- and settled for 14%!!!!

Unions not only don't make a damn difference when the legal environment is such as described above, they are a positive menace to the membership.

Jonathan Rees - 4/18/2004


I'll second what Jonathan writes, particularly with regard to the perils of negotiating alone. That's how you end up with a lot of part-time labor.

I'll also add that if unions don't make a difference in higher education, why do schools fear them so much? See, for example, Nathan Newman's post here:


Jonathan Dresner - 4/18/2004

I don't think that a short-term personal perspective on unions really captures their contribution. Yes, unions can be beat (just look at my new contract) but it's a lot harder to beat a union than it is to beat a couple of thousand individual workers (what would I have gotten negotiating alone?). Unions gather information and expertise to counter the information and expertise of the employers; they articulate norms which employers must respond to (even negatively). And fear of unions, or more radical reactions, has been one of the most powerful motivating factors in the favor of workers over the last two centuries.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/18/2004

Spare me the list: I'm pretty familiar with it. Japanese historians wrestled with and abandoned the term before I got to graduate school; I was just in time to read the obituaries.

There are other aspects of modern society which are starting to resemble early European feudalism, but not this. Contingent labor is a timeless phenomenon, but it is remarkable to see it extended to high-level positions which require specialized training and expertise.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/18/2004

Jonathan, The belief that unions are the appropriate answer to abuse of knowledge workers is one of the things that makes Jonathan Dresner's posts here about negotiations at the University of Hawaii particularly interesting. I can't recall that belonging to a union made a substantial difference in the quality of my life or my livelihood. I don't mean to sound reactionary about this because I'd probably be among the first on the picket line, but I just think there's too much evidence that management can get what it wants -- with or without a union -- if it is skillful enough.

Jonathan Rees - 4/18/2004

During the era of industrialization, workers with jobs were seldom assured 12 months of work. I have a chart from the Stanley Committee Hearings (a US House of Reps. Committee which investigated US Steel in 1911) on p. 89 of my book Managing the Mills. Only 20 percent of steelworkers got 12 months of work any given year. More than half received less than 9 months of work each year. This is typical of other industries at that time.

If companies continue to treat workers, especially knowledge workers, like disposable goods, the workers will eventually do something crazy like organize a union. If they aren't permitted to exercise that right, things may get ugly.

Jonathan Rees

Michael C Tinkler - 4/18/2004

If anyone uses the word "feudal" I'll hit 'em with a reading list.

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