When we published The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It earlier this year, author David Weil was a professor at the Boston University School of Management. This spring, though, Weil was sworn in as Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the United States Department of Labor, tasked with making sure that people are paid fairly and in accordance with the law.
As Weil told the Boston Globe, that mission is significantly more challenging now than it was just a few decades back. “The difficulty is the workplace has changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” he said, and ensuring compliance with U.S. wage laws “has become a more and more complicated thing to accomplish.” The sweeping changes of these past 20 years—extensive reliance on franchising, subcontracting, and global supply chains—are the very focus of The Fissured Workplace, and so Weil’s appointment offers him the immediate opportunity to enact the systemic improvements he proposes in the book.
Fast food workers, custodians, and manual laborers may come to mind when considering the declining wages, eroding benefits, and unhealthy workplaces of today’s economy, but one of the workforces whose composition has changed most dramatically over the past several decades is the teaching staff of our colleges and universities. Anyone in contact with American higher education is aware of the ever-growing reliance on contingent labor, with adjunct professors now making up more than 70 percent of all college and university instructors. So, while “professor” remains an august position in the general public imagination, a significant majority of them have no health care, retirement plans, or benefits, and earn an average income of $25,000 a year.
Now a growing group of adjunct faculty and their supporters are calling on David Weil to investigate higher education’s labor practices. Since being posted on July 11, their Change.org petition has received nearly 6,000 signatures and has been the subject of attention from PBS, USA Today, Inside Higher Ed, and more. “In light of your recent appointment to the Wage and Hour Division and your policy change of targeting investigations toward industries and sectors rather than just addressing individual complaints,” they explain, “we the undersigned are writing to urge you to open an investigation into the labor practices of our colleges and universities in the employment of contingent faculty, including adjunct instructors and full-time contract faculty outside the tenure-track.”