NOW What?

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I love those studies where we actually get to see how people spend their time through their days. I recently saw a set of logbooks from an adjunct faculty member that included five hours of e-mail in the course of an eleven-hour workday. And that’s no surprise: the work of a college is increasingly coordinative, and coordination happens via e-mail. Students expect to have more or less immediate contact with faculty any time, so more e-mail.

Getting one’s own work done is now the afterthought. Even having the luxury of deciding what one’s own work IS, once thought to be one of the perks of academic life, is often unavailable. We’re dragged from one external event to another.

Here’s yesterday for me. I got an e-mail from a client asking for a quick turnaround on some pieces of data, because one of her department chairs hadn’t bothered to ask for it when HE first got the notification three or four months back, and now it was due to be on the college’s website for their disciplinary accreditor. So I took a break, did that data run, got the info back to my client. Then I stayed in that data set, since it was open, and used parts of it to complete a chapter of the larger project I’ve been working on for that school.

Then I got a call from the town clerk, informing me that there’d been a dog bite in town. I was the selectboard member who happened to be home, lucky me. So I talked with the person who’d been bitten, encouraged her to have her injury medically examined just in case, and set an appointment to talk to the dog’s owner today. (Plus I’ll need to verify that the dog is licensed and that its vaccinations are updated.)

Today, I need to get back to work on the manuscript, but I also have the dog owner, plus prep for tonight’s selectboard meeting, where we’ll be discussing a petition we’ve just received asking the voters to rescind a new ordinance that they’d just approved in March. More work to organize that, plus the cost of a special election.

And in all of this, I recognize how lucky I am to be an independent employee. I have way more control over my time than I ever did working for a college directly. As an administrator, I was paid to be interrupted, to perpetually attend to the brushfires of organizational life. One of my colleagues, a faculty member who relies on the summers to do her research, complained that her department chair sent endless coordinative e-mails every summer, work she was expected to respond to and participate in even though it wasn’t within her contract. We all do a lot of work that’s “off the books,” work that our employers benefit from at our expense.

Organized labor has a longstanding strategy for dealing with this. It’s called “work to rule,” and is nothing more than an insistence on staying within the contractual bounds of one’s job. If your shift starts at 8:00, you’re at the line at 7:59, not at 7:45. If your job pays you for a five-day week, you don’t answer e-mail on the weekend. You don’t carry the company smartphone, you don’t volunteer for another committee, you make sure that you follow every safety regulation even when it slows the work. It’s a form of theater, helping management see that they get a LOT of work that’s outside the contract.

Now that higher ed has shifted so strongly to twelve-month positions, and almost everybody is salaried, it’s increasingly easy for management to add more and more into every worker’s portfolio, and expect that you’ll somehow or another get it all done. A lot of what we think of as “increased productivity” is just the expectation of longer hours for the same wage.

Here’s a song by labor musician John Warner. Keep it in mind the next time you open your e-mail on Sunday.

Come all you workers and hear what I say,
They’re trying to plunder the eight-hour day,
Won by our forbears in a bloody campaign,
So rise up and be in the struggle again.

So stand up united, let no one betray
Our right and our children’s – the eight-hour day.

Individual contracts were made for the fool,
If business divides us then business can rule,
If we let the government back what they say,
It’s a twelve-hour shift and no penalty pay.

This system they’re making’s a ticket to hell,
Working weekends and Christmas and New Year as well,
No time for the needs of our children and wives,
If we let productivity measure our lives.

It’s a user-pay’s system as I have heard tell,
They’re using us hard, so they’d better pay well,
Business and government walk hand in fist
And it’s only in union we can resist.

So come all you workers and fight this abuse,
Let overtime hours be our right to choose,
Fight to regain a fair penalty pay,
And grip like a bulldog the eight-hour day.