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Social Text 18.2 (2000) 1-31

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The Mental Labor Problem

Andrew Ross

In the winter months of 1998-99, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) succeeded in organizing, and securing a contract for, the part-time Jazz Program faculty in the Mannes College of Music at the New School University. Among the seventy adjunct teachers represented by the union were some venerable musicians from the world of jazz, including Chico Hamilton, leader of the famous quintet, and seasoned virtuosos, like Benny Powell and Jimmy Owens, who have played with the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. 1 Hired from year to year, often for chronically low compensation, and without any benefits or pension plan, these faculty looked to the oldest of the craft unions in the arts (founded in 1896) to muster support from community leaders and elected public officials and to win recognition from their employer through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The day the musicians' contract was signed, the New School also offered pensions and benefits to three thousand other nonunion adjunct faculty. While this offer was clearly aimed at forestalling any further unionization, it also exemplified the old labor maxim that "justice for one is justice for all."

This campaign, named Justice for Jazz Artists (with its echo of the Service Employees International Union's legendary Justice for Janitors campaign of the early 1990s), may have been a microscopic landmark on the busy landscape of academic labor, but its significance radiates in many directions. In the AFM's first bid to represent musicians as teachers, the local ran what its chief organizer described to me as a "real, large-scale corporate campaign" by using the arena of public opinion. His comment conveyed pride in the newfound strength of the organizing department, which was only three years old and therefore dated from the 1996 election of the Sweeney-Trumka-Chavez-Thompson directorate of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). In the course of the campaign, organizers appealed to the public perception that jazz greats had been denied their due desserts, historically and to this day.

Among all arts workers, jazz musicians arguably have the most visible profile as artists whose work has been most lionized by all classes of audience, and whose personal compensation has been most blatantly discounted. Indeed, the contract helped to remedy the local's own long [End Page 1] neglect of jazz musicians in New York City. The New School's own credibility, as an institution with a progressive pedigree, most recently soiled by headline-making student protests over the paltry minority representation on its faculty, was put to the test by this bargaining unit of primarily African American musicians. The seasoned profile of these working teachers also refuted the more typical image of underpaid adjunct faculty as fresh-faced Ph.D's facing the first, albeit prolonged, obstacles to their professional ambitions for secure employment. Most striking of all, the campaign yoked together artists and academics in ways that gave rise to some friction over whether a musicians or a teachers union ought to be representing the adjuncts.

While sectors of the performing arts have been unionized for several decades, and faculty sectors of the academy since the 1960s, both professions have been resistant, historically, to industrial-style organization, retaining a craft culture of flexible bargaining, each in its own distinctive ways. However disparate their solo career traditions, the artisan-jazzman here shares the same position and predicament as the professional academic whose labor has been degraded and deprofessionalized in recent years. What are the economic circumstances that have accelerated this degradation? As this essay seeks to argue, artistic and academic traditions extol sacrificial concepts of mental or cultural labor that are increasingly vital to newly important sectors of the knowledge industries. No longer on the margins of society, in Bohemia or the Ivory Tower, they are providing a rationale for the latest model of labor exploitation in core sectors of the new industrial order, and pioneering the workplace of tomorrow.

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pp. 1-31
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Archived 2005
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