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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Academia and ‘The New Yorker,’ Some Unsurprising Similarities

Two liberal institutions that have created a labor underclass in order to keep chugging along.

January 31, 2021

Recently the members of the New Yorker Union undertook a 24-hour work stoppage in response to what they believe is a failure of management at the magazine (and parent company Condé Nast) to bargain in good faith.

The New Yorker union represents the laborers who are charged with literally producing the magazine -- copy editors, fact checkers, editorial assistants and the like. Without them the New Yorker magazine and website would not exist.

One of the sticking points is the request for a “wage floor” of $45,000 per year, a sum that does not go particularly far in a city where the average rent across all boroughs for a one-bedroom apartment is over $3,000 per month.[1]

It is not a sustainable situation, and yet legions of people would do whatever it takes to get the opportunity.

I can’t be the only one who is reminded of academia. Much of the online commentary about the stoppage noted that because of the low wages, jobs like being an editorial assistant at The New Yorker are only possible for those who do not need to work for the money. This results in a self-replicating elite; those who can afford to have low-paying positions by receiving family subsidies stand a chance to rise to ultimately decent-paying ones of reasonable security and high cultural capital.

Something similar is at work in academia. Prior to the pandemic, to even be in the game for a tenure-track position, one had to be willing to spend years in unsustainable positions while taking an annual swing at the promised land. Now, the promised land barely exists anymore, which is terrible, but also is perhaps a definitive sign that some shift in collective thinking can at last be achieved, having been necessary for the entirety of my own career.

Pretty much since I started in this space I’ve been trying to put forward the idea that faculty are not knowledge workers, but laborers, and that the labor they do that has value is -- for the overwhelming majority -- teaching.

Thinking further about the parallels between academia and The New Yorker, similar to an institution’s tenured faculty, the staff writers who are the more recognizable -- the literal (cartoon icon) faces of the publication -- are a necessary ingredient to the publication’s nearly 100-year run, and without those talents, the magazine could not be what it is, but the same is true of those unionized editorial workers.

Academia’s solution to the problem has been to treat adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty as fungible. As long as there is a warm body who can reasonably stand in so those credit hours can be awarded, it’s all good. Because there is a surplus of qualified people and talent, the vast majority of the time, institutions are getting much more than a warm body and in fact are taking advantage of highly motivated, extremely dedicated folks who are hoping against hope for the ladder above to appear.

Similarly, while The New Yorker is the crème de la crème of publications, and its unionized staff must be outstanding, they are not, strictly, irreplaceable. I’m sure there is already frequent turnover given that the jobs do not pay a sustainable wage for living in New York City.

The amount of talent I have seen drain out of the academic institutions because the work available to these talented people was not suited to a life of reasonable economic security is staggering. Something similar has been happening in journalism.

These are two areas -- education and the free press -- we claim to be vital to a healthy republic, and yet there is very little evidence in terms of concrete actions and resources to suggest this claim is true.

I was heartened by a difference between what I experience inside academia and what is happening at The New Yorker. Many of the staff writers posted on social media in support of the unionized workers, including using the specific word “colleagues” to refer to them.

Perhaps I am reading too much into a word, but it strikes me as meaningful. In my time as contingent faculty, I was almost always treated politely, even kindly by tenured faculty, but there always appeared to be a chasm between me and them considering me a “colleague.” This is the academy’s doing, in my opinion.

These episodes are the kinds of things that cause me to chuckle about charges that liberals and liberalism dominate the culture. There’s no doubt that the employees of The New Yorker and the faculty who populate higher education are overwhelmingly liberal in their voting patterns.

But these attitudes mean very little in the context of the structure of the institutions. Academia has consciously created an immiserated class of worker to protect the privilege of an elect group, kind of like serfdom, I guess. The management at The New Yorker and Condé Nast are fighting unionization with all the fervor of the robber barons of yore. Thankfully the tools they can use have been limited by the law. We’re not going to see head-cracking Pinkertons dispatched to the Queens two-bedroom being shared by four New York publishing editorial workers.

I’m rooting for the New Yorker staffers. I don’t have much power to aid them except for my Twitter feed, this blog and a willingness to cancel my subscription, but maybe if enough people pay attention, some good will result.

And maybe we can reflect on what bad end is coming for all institutions when we allow our labor to be devalued and disrespected by the system.


[1] The very cheapest average rents in any borough is still over $2,000 for a one-bedroom. The recommended maximum allowance toward housing is 30 percent of gross income. An average one-bedroom apartment in NYC would cost someone 80 percent of their income at a $45,000 salary.

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