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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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NPR's Adjunct Workforce

Some interesting parallels between NPR's temps and higher ed contingent faculty. 

December 11, 2018
 
 

As reported at the Washington Post, between 20 and 22 percent of the workers in the National Public Radio newsroom are classified as “temporary.” 

The “temps” are not told how long their assignments will last, do not know their salaries, who they are reporting to, or even what position they hold. Feedback from supervisors is rare and they  are “routinely overlooked in NPR’s recruiting efforts.”

These temps “do almost every important job in the newsroom.”

They pitch, assign, edit, report, produce, book guests, write the questions for the guests, essentially anything and everything a salaried staffer would do. They may be “temporary” for years, and when one contract is up, they must scramble for another. Some of the have been it at so long they are called “permatemps.” They can be fired without cause and work on every NPR program, including the flagship Morning Edition and All Things Considered broadcasts.

The temps see each other as competition for the relatively rare and extremely limited number of permanent positions.

As I read the story, I couldn’t help but think how familiar it all sounded. Just like higher education institutions, NPR relies on a contingent, adjunct workforce.

Like adjunct faculty, the NPR temps are part of what I believe we should call the “precariat,” which I define as people who do identical labor to others in the same organization, but experience reduced salary, security, and opportunity for advancement.

The “precariat,” as I define it, is distinct from regular old underpaid laborers. In a way, K-12 teaching has turned into a profession of the precariat, except that there is no really well-paid group within the larger whole. The solution to this problem is to simply pay teachers more.[1]

The precariat is something a little different, an underclass inside a larger entity that appears to be a permanent part of the institutional functioning, despite being nominally “temporary.”

There’s some interesting parallels between academia and NPR that perhaps tell us something about the conditions under which the precariat may arise, as well as the consequences of establishing a long term precariat inside an industry.

Both NPR and higher ed institutions are nominally not-for-profit, while also commanding significant budgets and employing a large number of people. NPR has revenues of in excess of $200 million, which for comparison’s sake is about the annual budget for College of Charleston. 

Both NPR and public higher ed are publicly funded, but truly “public” money – federal grants for NPR, state appropriations for public higher ed – is a small part of the bottom line, less than 1% for NPR, and often less than 10% for public higher ed institutions. 

They are theoretical public goods that are actually funded through a combination of private giving and individual contributions – donations in the case of NPR, and tuition for higher ed.

The labor structure and salaries show significant parallels between NPR and higher education as well.

In both cases there is a class of worker just above the precariat, a kind of middle class – professors in higher ed, production people at NPR – who do the vast majority of the  day-to-day labor, and in turn receive decent, but not extravagant salaries. According to Glassdoor, the average NPR producer salary is around $68k, not so dissimilar from that of a humanities professor at an average public institution. 

Both entities also have some workers who have duties similar to the average laborer, but receive significantly higher salaries, often because they bring some sort of cache or perceived special talent to the organization. Consider the on-air NPR hosts (with salaries in the $300k range) the equivalent of higher ed’s superstar professors.

And then at the top is an administrative structure outside the day-to-day labor which may be paid salaries more like private industries. According to the most recent data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 100 chief executives of public higher ed institutions make over $500,000 a year. 

Below them all is the precariat. As a unionized shop the NPR temps must be paid a minimum of $21.63 an hour (about $45,000 a year), superior to what most adjunct faculty make, but significantly below their peers make for doing largely identical labor.

The emotional toll on the NPR precariat should sound familiar to higher ed contingent faculty: feeling unprepared for assignments, and experiencing “a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, given that NPR maintains a large pool of temps who can easily replace them.”

The consequences of these structures are similar as well. Temps are not empowered to speak up against harassment or injustice. Michael Oreskes, the former news director of NPR was forced to resign following credible charges of sexual harassment. Imagine if you are a temp, and you need the job and something similar happens. Adjunct faculty have no academic freedom rights, no stake or say in faculty governance.

You may work, but you are not to participate, and certainly should not make waves.

More and more familiar. What is it that makes these conditions so conducive to the rise of a precariat class?

Some theories:

That both NPR and public higher ed are simultaneously not-for-profit while being responsible for large sums of money seems not coincidental. They are, in theory, mission-driven organizations, but they more often act like profit-driven corporations.

For many of the laborers, the “mission” of the organization is perceived as noble, so they (mostly willingly) make sacrifices to advance the mission, but this sacrifice is not equally shared. The mission is used as an excuse for the existence of the precariat. We can’t just cancel freshman comp, so we’ll hire adjuncts, even though we’ll only pay them $2500 a class.

This exploitation is easier for the middle class laborers to brush off as they also feel somehow underappreciated and undercompensated and their jobs seem to be getting worse. How many times have I raised issues of the treatment of adjuncts to be told that most tenured faculty don’t have it great either?

These people are not wrong. This is how insidious these structures are. The middle class laborers are trained to believe that they are replaceable. Tenure is supposed to offer protection in higher education, but years of austerity have left many faculty in a permanent defensive crouch, worried about the next administrative stroke which will make their lives worse.

And it can get worse. The existence of the precariat below is a constant reminder of this fact.

What can be done? In the case of NPR, union representation seems to be helping. An attempt to take away all benefits for temps was beaten back in negotiations last year, and under some apparent pressure, NPR converted 26 jobs that had been held by temps for more than year to permanent positions.

In the case of public higher ed, it’s obviously more complicated.

For me, I keep going back the idea of “mission.”

How much longer will we tolerate so many being sacrificed for the mission?

How much longer do we allow the quality of the mission to be sacrificed because of the treatment of the precariat?

And at what point do the middle class act on behalf of the precariat?

When do they recognize that valuing the labor of the permanent underclass is actually a stand in favor of the mission, and their own worth as well? 

 

[1]A starting point may be to reduce the teacher “wage penalty” (the amount teachers make relative to others of similar education and experience) from 18.7% as it is today back down to the 1.8% it was in 1994. 

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