The Academic Labour Movement: Lessons from the New School and Beyond

“At its best, one of the most creative activities is being involved in a struggle with other people, breaking out of our isolation, seeing our relations with others change, discovering new dimensions in our lives … it [is] a powerful collective experience”.

Silvia Federici, 1984

News broke on the very last day of 2022 that members of the New School’s part-time faculty (PTF) union – ACT-UAW 7902 – had voted to ratify a new five-year contract, following what some are calling the longest adjunct strike in American history (Hamberg, 2022). A ’tentative agreement’ was reached on December 10th, after almost a month of strike action where more than 1,600 PTF members had taken to the picket line. Their existing contract had expired, and there was no sign of a satisfactory renewal. The dispute was multifaceted, but primarily concerned poor pay, uncompensated labour time, general job security and health insurance coverage.

The agreement solidified a historic pay increase (the largest PTF at the New School have ever received), as well as an enhanced offer for paid family leave, improved terms for annualisation, compensation for labor performed outside of the classroom and improvements in health care access (Hamberg, 2022). Whilst there is much to be celebrated in these gains, for the New School community this was a month-long struggle marked with uncertainty, tension, and growing hostility. The disconnect between the university’s administration and its community of faculty and students was made painfully, publicly evident. Observers couldn’t help but call hypocrisy on an institution founded on radical values employing “corporate union-busting tactics … antithetical to [its] progressive heritage” (Hamberg, 2022).

Much can be gleaned from this contained episode: the state of higher education following a period of its incessant marketisation; the power of organised labour to rally against exploitation; the role higher education specifically can play in a wider workers’ movement. This blog post will attempt to place the New School’s recent ACT-UAW 7902 strike in its wider context, that of an (inter)national worker movement, both within the higher education sector and beyond. By doing this, I will elicit some of the unique contributions academics, other university workers and students themselves can offer such a movement.

Strike! at the New School

From the beginning, it was evident that the striking PTF had majority-support from both their full-time counterparts and the student body – the strength of this solidarity was consistently made clear on the picket line outside the New School’s University Centre. In an interview with Jacobin, Oliver Kellhammer (PTF at Parsons School of Design and member of ACT-UAW Local 7902) said the New School employed “‘professors of practice’,” attributing a large part of the PTF’s victory to a “proletarian mindset” amongst faculty (Muller, 2022). I think there is a lot of truth in this diagnosis. The New School is unquestionably a rare institution, one that encourages radical scholarly activity that disrupts the status quo and challenges oppressive power structures.

Over time, however, this emphasis has somewhat warped. Whilst the university’s founders set out to create an institution that was “[unshackled] intellectually by … financial interests,” critics now claim its current administration simply uses this history as a convenient marketing ploy (Bardia, et al., 2020). A clear dissonance has emerged between a profit-driven administration and a radical set of students and faculty, conditions which proved fertile for conflict. Ever has it been so that profit arises from worker exploitation and uncompensated labour time, a truth The New School is more than cognisant of.

The strike itself was marked with disheartening attempts from the administration to quell the PTF’s efforts. During mediated negotiations, there were attempts to circumvent the strike by hiring ‘temporary Progress Reviewers’ to grade students, highlighting the leverage striking faculty had at such a crucial point in the academic year. If this attempt was not enough, the administration announced at the beginning of December that they would “withhold pay and contributions to both insurance and retirement benefits for all striking employees”, full-time, part-time, or student (Hamberg, 2022).

This dramatic escalation was met with retaliation across the board, and a doubling down of efforts to hold the picket line: half of the university’s divisions demanded a retraction of the university’s hardline approach; a boycott was called on all events held at the university; unfair labour practice charges were filed by the university’s worker unions; numerous colleges within the university called votes-of-no-confidence in the administration; and hundreds of students occupied the University Centre. It’s difficult to know exactly which of these developments pressured the university into reaching its tentative agreement on December 10th. A combination of them all, to be sure, but a slow comprehension of the mounting reputational damage to The New School’s progressive ‘brand’ undoubtedly played a key role.

To attribute the PTF’s victory to the numerous missteps and miscalculations of the administration alone would overlook the tireless, organised efforts of ACT-UAW Local 7902. The commitment generated from within the union was impressive – accounts indicate that the ‘open bargaining’ process (made possible through online meeting platforms) was crucial in keeping engagement high. In addition, an action-oriented network of working groups was established early on, enabling PTF to get directly involved with strike efforts from the get-go. There was also the sheer number of union members. Almost 90% of faculty at The New School are part-time, and as Azure D. Osborne-Lee (PTF in the College of Performing Arts, and member of ACT-UAW Local 7902) said in an interview with Jacobin: “oppressive forces rely upon exhaustion” (Muller, 2022). Members of the PTF union could tap in and out of activities across the board, embedding consistency and stamina into the union’s efforts.

The New School as a ‘Neoliberal University’ in an (Inter)National Context

As indicated above, there is a lot that makes the New School’s experience here unique. However, we must consider our episode in its wider context, recognising where it sits in relation to other higher education worker movements across the globe. On our picket lines, there were powerful expressions of solidarity with both (i) graduate student workers in the University of California (UC) system and (ii) members of the University and College Union (UCU) in the UK. What unites these efforts is a struggle against the ‘neoliberal university.’

This concept that broadly encapsulates the marketisation and financialisation of higher education. Exposing the sector to the unbridled forces of market competition has unsurprisingly resulted in precarisation, deterioration of working conditions and the perpetuation of inequalities. To even access university in the first place, most students are forced to take on increasing amounts of private debt. Degrees themselves become “consumer products that … signal an individual’s worth” in the labour market. As the providers of such commodities, universities are subordinated to market forces, attempting to “supply the commodity in highest demand.” This ultimately risks seeing “further cuts to radical staff and departments across the world in favour of more market-friendly degrees” (Kesar and Kvangraven 2022).

Far from isolated, this trend has been global. In the last decade, countries such as South Africa and India have pursued agendas of higher education neoliberalisation. Such attempts have, to varying degrees of success, been met with backlash from students. A uniform neoliberalisation of higher education across the globe impedes, too, on the ability of institutions to decolonise and diversify their curriculums in an emancipatory fashion, and thus should be resisted. In sum, these developments represent a rift between the intrinsic motivation of academic labour and the extrinsic motivation of the university as a ‘service-provider business’. As Professor Sanjay Reddy identifies, the latter exploits the existence of the former, with direct consequences for academic workers. In an attempt to cut costs, academic labour is often actively outsourced, casualised, or reorganised.

Casualisation comprises one of the ‘Four Fights’ of the UCU (alongside low wages, excessive workloads, and inequitable pay gaps). In recent years, the UCU’s movement has become more explicitly intersectional, “addressing [the] pay gaps between different categories” of workers, with a focus on equality and discrimination. (Mills, 2019). Changes to the pension system motivated a wave of UCU strikes in 2018, and since then, the union has consistently been able to mobilise large portions of their members to take strike action. A record 150 universities participated in the latest wave of strikes, all of which points towards a notable contrast between the UK and the US academic labour movements: scale and sectoral strategy. The UCU has been able to coordinate multiple university shutdowns at a national level to maximise their leverage in negotiations. State-wide strikes in the US, like those seen with graduate student workers in the UC system, demonstrate the promise of wider, coordinated industrial action and will only serve to enhance academic workers’ positions further.

Disputes over healthcare access acts as another contrast between these movements. Access to healthcare services is not tied to employment in the UK as it so often is in the US. Sufficient access to healthcare under precarious part-time employment was a key dispute in the PTF’s negotiations with the New School. Whilst there were gains here to be sure, the university still found a way to significantly raise deductibles for PTF employees. Concessions here are something to celebrate regardless but crowded out gains on other important grievances, issues that the UCU movement in the UK potentially have more space to fight for. In his interview with Jacobin,Oliver Kellhammer said of the agreement “there were some losses … [including] grievability of issues like discrimination and harassment” (Muller, 2022).

The Role of Higher Education in the International Worker Movement

The broad, international academic labour movement should be viewed as a clear and unified battle against the ‘neoliberal university’ and, by extension, neoliberalism itself. As Henry Snow (2022) puts it, whilst “the specifics vary between institutions and disciplines, the broad characterization of academia in crisis applies across them.” A successful higher education worker movement requires collaboration both between institutions and within them. The more university workers united in struggle, the less capable the university is of dismissing their demands (Snow, 2022).

Injustices suffered within higher education unsurprisingly have parallels in other sectors, reflecting a broader set of economic and social trends affecting workers everywhere. The UCU has made a concerted effort to “[tie] the issues affecting higher-education workers together with the broader processes of austerity and neoliberalisation in British society” (Mills, 2019). For a chance at achieving real, systemic changes, worker struggles within higher education should be reframed as “part and parcel of the fight for broader economic justice” (Snow, 2022). This can particularly be said of the UK, a country experiencing a surge of industrial action from rail, postal, university and government workers. Even the Royal College of Nursing (the largest nursing union in the world) historically voted to strike for the first time ever. Mick Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Workers, spoke at a UCU picket line late last year: “there’s a lot in common in all these debates,” he said, “we have been … casualised at work. People are starting to wake up to this super-exploitation and the callousness of employers and that is good for everyone, if we resist it” (Williams, 2022). Such intra-sector solidarity should be more prevalent[1].

It can also be said of the struggle in the US. The strike in the UC system has revealed the importance of “the least compensated and most vulnerable academic employees” to higher education. Such employees are expected to cope with excessive, uncompensated workloads, an injustice that only becomes more acute during times of high inflation. Despite their crucial importance to the functioning of the university system, graduate student workers in the UC system are scarcely paid enough to afford housing near their place of work. When the starting salary of a UC dean is eight times that of a teaching assistant, resistance feels all the more justified (Vann, 2022). This disparity is far from unique to higher education or the US, reflecting “the continuity between repressive policies in higher education and those outside of it” (Mills, 2019).

Within all of this, academics are uniquely placed to contribute to this wider, societal worker movement. They can coordinate collective action across multiple institutions and steer discourse and knowledge creation for social good. If universities transitioned towards worker-owned cooperative governance systems, this would remove the exploitative power of a managerial class within the sector. This sentiment was front and centre in The New School’s radical origins, which envisioned a co-operative community of scholars handling all institutional policy decisions. Now, in 2023, a resurgence in demand for such structures can be seen in ‘One New School’s’ Founding Statement: “we also demand full financial transparency and the activation of a participatory process for the administration of the school.”[2] It is in this respect that higher education can champion radical alternatives to entrenched hierarchical systems. Looking into the longer-term, too, we must not overlook the importance of students themselves being exposed to labour organising, and should envision higher education as a supportive site for progressive prospective organisers to build skills and confidence before transferring their experiences to other key labour sectors. The impressive wave of undergraduate student worker unionisations across the US currently provides cause for optimistic hope.

The contained experience at the New School should serve as a radical display of worker struggle, solidarity, and success. Critical scholarly activity, the type practiced at The New School, is needed now more than ever: work that challenges the status quo rather than protects it, and channels theory into praxis, something tangible. This needs to be nurtured, encouraged, and championed if we are to achieve a fairer and more just future for all.


Bardia, Aman, Srishti Yadav, Kalpa Rajapaksha, and Akhil Sg. 2020. The New School Is in Crisis. Accessed January 2023.

Hamberg, Miles. 2022. ‘We Were Stronger Than They Were Cruel’: How Part-Time Faculty Won Their Strike At The New School. Accessed December 2022.

Kesar, Surbhi, and Ingrid Kvangraven. 2022. Galileo and Neoliberal Academia: A Critical Assessment of UK Higher Education. March 9. Accessed March 2023.

Mills, Dana. 2019. We’re Striking to Save Britain’s Universities. Accessed December 2022.

Muller, Charlie. 2022. How the New School’s Striking Faculty Forced Concessions From Their Administration. Accessed January 2023.

Pickard, Jim. 2023. UK union leaders criticise strikes bill as ‘reprehensible’. Accessed January 2023.

Snow, Henry. 2022. To Save American Universities, We Need to Go On Strike. Accessed December 2022.

Vann, Michael G. 2022. The University of California Strike Is Approaching Crunch Time. Accessed December 2022.

Williams, Tom. 2022. Employers trying to make workers poorer, Lynch tells UCU strikers. Accessed January 2023.


[1] This will become increasingly important given the UK government’s latest attempts to curtail union power through anti-strike legislation which, if passed, would “impose minimum service levels on most of the public sector during strikes” and “’punish’ workers who had demanded decent pay and working conditions” (Pickard, 2023).

[2] ‘One New School’ was founded on December 12th following the occupation of the University Centre and a vote of no confidence in the university’s administration.

Robert Noble is an MA student in the Department of Economics at the New School for Social Research. He was present at The New School’s 2022 PTF strike and the UCU’s 2018 strike, when studying for his undergraduate degree in Economics at the University of Manchester.

Photos: Matthew Spiegelman.

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