The Struggle For Fair Labor Practices in Architecture Will Start in the Classroom

May 15, 2018 by Marianela D'Aprile, Common Edge

Last month hundreds of scholars gathered in St. Paul, MN. for the annual conference of the Society of Architecture Historians (SAH). I was there as a speaker, on a roundtable organized by The Architecture Lobby, titled “Labor Issues in Academia.” The roundtable was on a Friday afternoon, at the same time as four others, during lunch, that crucial moment when, at every academic conference, attention starts waning and everyone dips out for coffee or a nap before the afternoon paper sessions.

We expected maybe thirty people to show up, at best, if we got lucky. More than seventy packed into the room. “The biggest SAH crowd in all of history!” I texted a friend. Probably an exaggeration, but still, the crowd was impressive. We’d set the chairs up in a circle, so that the discussion would flow in a collaborative way, contrasting the usual academic conference set-up: expert at the front of the room, sparsely populated front row, dim lights, powerpoint. As people flowed in, we had to expand the circle three times, which, if nothing else, certainly made everyone feel like the room was overflowing.

The size of the crowd was surprising, though it shouldn’t have been. The issue of how academic work works is pressing: we’re seeing teachers on strike across the country, graduate students on strike in New York and Illinois, and an increasing number of organized adjunct faculty demanding that their unions be recognized and given the right to collectively bargain with management to improve the conditions of their labor. Because, as the common phrase goes, educators’ working conditions are their students’ learning conditions.

A large number of the people who attended the panel were adjunct faculty, with some tenured professors sprinkled in, along with a handful of graduate students. A few were in unions, and a few others were from para-academic or para-architectural institutions. Most of them weren’t activists. They weren’t drawn to the panel because of a moral or ethical commitment to the cause of labor justice, but because it’s an issue that directly affects their lives. The crowd made it clear that labor issues within the academy are so pervasive that they can no longer be ignored, not even by architects, who are notoriously aloof and sometimes like to pretend that they are above or beyond it all.

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