I am writing this testimony to show how teleworking, while augmenting our teaching workload, also reduces our ability to fight; through the example of a struggle of temporary workers in France in which I took part. Of course these words do not represent the position of the Collectif des précaires du Mirail.
In Toulouse, temporary workers have been struggling for the improvement of their working conditions and salaries since January 2020 when the lockdown began. The Collective des précaires du Mirail1, which had been set up a couple of years ago, was the principal space for the organization of the struggle. It is an autonomous organization which is not affiliated with any union or institution. This collective brings together precarious, temporary, and fixed-term contract2 faculty in the university with other students. Neither the subcontractors nor the administrative personnel participate in this group, in which the demands were mainly focused around the current situation of temporary faculty.
We temporary faculty in French universities teach more that 50% of the classes in some of the degree and masters programs without a work contract. This segment of academic workers is growing growing in the universities. They are not employees of the university, but service providers. This allows the indirect externalization of the reproduction of the work force to occur without any unemployment rights even if they pay into the fund. Thus, temporary faculty can teach 192 hours of classes per year, the equivalent of a full service for a tenured professor, but will only get 6000 euros for the whole year, paid in two payments at the end of each semester in January and July when the university doesn’t pay them late—which it always it. Temporary faculty have been officially paid about 30 cents below the hourly minimum wage since January 20203.
During times when they are not employed, temporary faculty receive the Revenue de Solidarité Active (RSA), a welfare allocation of 500 euros per month, the salary from other jobs, or the unemployment payments from past jobs when possible. When we do not have the status of a Ph.D. student, we are required to demonstrate we work in a job other than the one of temporary faculty just to be able to apply which allows the university to avoid having to pay. This is why a lot of us have the status of “self-employed” so that we can justify our application for benefits even if we really aren’t “self-employed.”
These conditions create many difficulties for organizing the faculty, such as overcoming the hierarchy among faculty and the unstable employment which forces a lot of colleagues to do more and more free work in the fields of teaching and of research in the vain hope to reach the Holy Grail: a tenured position.
At the beginning of January, the Collectif des précaires du Mirail started to organize again attracting about 50 precarious colleagues to join. Although the objective is to “win,” The everyday situation is so bad that we don’t really know what we want to “win.” Rather, the strategy is to simply ensure the thousands of temporary university workers receive a fixed-term contract. This is not communism, but yet still unthinkable for the university whose budgetary pressures means that paying us a “normal” salary would cost too much. This demand is joined by the demands for free tuition and fees for the temporary faculty with a Ph.D., and receiving our pay on time. Small groups are organized in each department to try to improve our working conditions. Our goal is not only to improve our immediate situation. For some members of the collective, this organization can become the motor for the future fights. Our self-organization is intended to insure the independence of our workers group from the tenured faculty and student unions that have only known defeat4.
To this end, we can not separate our working conditions from the work in itself, our roles in the university, and from the role of the university in society. Alongside our fight, we need to talk about the production of knowledge in the service of the capitalist class, such as sociology which is a discipline that serves policing). These debates over the role of the university in capitalism demonstrate a qualitative growth of the commitment to the present fight here and now, without any illusion of alternatives or prescription for the future. Our analysis should be trapped in a defense of the public sector or the fight against the “commodification of knowledge.” Defining academic work as a way of making a living, and fighting to make it better allows us to momentarily break with the bourgeois ideology that fetishizes knowledge in capitalist society. While fighting against the concrete conditions of production and of transmission of knowledge in the university, we highlight what all production implies in capitalism: an exploitation of those who work.
Our fight has made many students realize that their working conditions have something in common with ours. The struggle has nothing to do with the representations of the sacrosanct temple of knowledge presented to students. This is not much, but it creates the right mindset to fight: to know where and with whom we are struggling in order to fight the incapacitating force that the ideology of the “scientific” performs in our workplace. It is fair to say this is a big mountain to climb. Since our struggle began in January, we no longer present ourselves as future researchers but as temporary workers in the university.
Through a fortunate chain of circumstances, or rather because of the capitalist offensive, we went on strike at the same time as the university cleaning workers.4 The coordination between our two groups of workers groups, the shared focus on demands for salary increases, and our decision to fight independently from any union representation, was truly a force in our respective struggles. In response to our shared actions and strikes, the university attempted to maintain the illusion of a university insulated from the world that produced it. While our mutual aid didn’t manage to concretely improve the working conditions and pay of our comrades it did help to prevent their situation from deteriorating even more. Our share struggle established a precedent we are not going to forget for continuing the struggle in the future.
In addition to various actions including strikes, occupations of the university, and protest marches inside campus buildings, the temporary faculty decided to refuse to issue grades to students. The grading strike provided the kind of leverage that was a decisive element in shifting the balance of power and making the university’s management yield to our demands. The refusal to issue grades blocks the functioning of the university as a machine that produces degrees, graduates, and certification. The tactic made the hair on the heads of many tenured faculty, the most loyal guard dogs of university management, stand on end. If the withholding of grades appears to be our most powerful weapon, it is also the one we don’t dare to use because of the extensive legal consequences. A grading strike is a weapon either placed on the sideline gathering dust or one to be whipped out and then stored away soon after it is used.
From March 2nd to March 6th, we temporary faculty went on strike for a whole week.5 The struggle was expected to continue with strikes, withholding grades, and refusing to proctor exams until we obtain fix-term contracts. Unfortunately, the pandemic more or less disrupted our plans. When the shutdown of the universities was announced, the only option we had left was the risky tactic of withholding grades. While we had explicitly refused to teach class online, we had to continue to work digitally in order to continue getting fully paid. While we questioned whether to keep working online at the beginning of the lockdown, our restlessly served to force us to obey. The general conditions of the pandemic indisputably weakened our determination to continue the strike.
Telework allowed us to stay in daily contact with fellow organizers in our departments. At the end of March, the fateful day grades were due was approaching after being postponed several times before the lockdown. In several different departments most of the tenured professors put pressure on their temporary colleagues participating in the grading strike through phone calls, video calls, and emails. Their efforts proved successful in the absence of comrade to provide reassurance and counter the pressure of zealous tenured professors. Many of us returned to the previous conditions of atomization, each an individual behind one’s own screen. Within the short time frame of about three days we saw our strategy collapse under the weight of pressure by the university president for us to issue grades under the sacred union that we are all in this together under the the uncertainty of the pandemic. Under such moral and economic pressure, our now virtually organized group saw its struggle collapse one by one, department by department. We collectively ended up resigning ourselves to issue grades while insisting on the university president committing to meet our demands. The vortex of victory was closed. Despite the sad outcome, the earlier phase of the real non-digital fight demonstrating the depth of our collective force against the limitations we faced. Ultimately, it was not the pandemic that defeated us but the capitalist organization of digital work, the political bloc of the sacred union, and powerful tenured professors that broke the struggle.
While capitalism fights the pandemic it carries out the fight within the structures of its own contradictions. The result is the deterioration of the proletarian’s working and living conditions. We are the ones who are going to suffer the consequences of capitalism’ solution of the pandemic. From the perspective of precarious university workers, this observation must make us think about our future actions and strategy and the composition of the struggle. Maintaining the autonomy of our organization is a first step, but in order to go further we will need to be clear about our position regarding the university in capitalism which is organized around self-exploitation and gives authority and administrative power to the tenured professors. Because not all the members of the collective made this step towards the critique of the organization of the university and its values weakened our power. If we mimic the university’s moral economy in forecasting our struggles, we end up validating the power of tenured professors who are the first ones to suggest we let go whenever some crumbs are dropped our way so that the machine can work again. To do so is to give up and reproduce the institution that exploits us. With the development of digital telework, this kind of confusion proved to be fatal.
Our discussed whether we succinctly understood what was going on at the university and whether needed to take time at the start of the next academic year to think and plan what we could do and about the inevitable restructuring of French higher education and research. We need to plan how to resist the role of digital technology in degrading our working conditions, our salary, and our ability to fight – as we bitterly experienced it this semester. As we reflect on this, we invite feedback and an exchange with comrades who are working in similar sectors in others countries where the digital offensive is more advanced.
1 https://precairesdumirail.noblogs.org/ (in French)
2 These contracts can be an Attaché Temporaire d’Enseignement et de Recherche (ATER or temporary faculty or research assistants) which is a 1 year contract for recently graduated Ph.D.s or Ph.D. students finalizing their thesis, or a Contrat Doctoral Unique (CDU or doctoral contract) which is a three year contract for students who are just beginning their Ph.D. research.
2 According to the governmental decree about the hourly equivalences for the university lecturer and researchers, one hour of tutorial corresponds to 4.2 hours of actual work. This means that, for the tutorials, the temporary teacher’s hourly gross salary is 9.85 euros (41.41/4.2). Yet, the gross minimum wage today is 10.15 euros.
3 We had evidence of that during a big day of action in French higher education on March 5th. The union force of professors and students was so weak that they asked, just after a poorly attended general assembly, to join our workers assembly to organize this important day of actions against the Loi de Programmation Pluriannuelle de la Recherche (LPPR), a new law that restructures the university and peels away a little more of the illusion that the university is somehow apart from the law of the market. In France, precarious workers are on the frontline of the struggle. Despite their invitation, it was out of the question for us to serve as cannon fodder for the unions in their fight against only the LPPR. Although organizing was set up at the urban, regional, and national levels, pressure was maintained at the local level on the university rather than merely on the ministries.
4 https://precairesdumirail.noblogs.org/2020/02/12/du-menage-a-lenseignement-la-precarite-comme-systeme-a-luniversite/ (in French)
5 We already went on strike two days during the previous month.