Reflections on the first CUNY-Wide Popular Assembly

Last Saturday, over 100 people turned out for the first of what we hope are many CUNY-Wide Popular Assemblies. At this day-long event people from across CUNY, including students, faculty, staff and community members, came together to discuss our common problems and imagine a way out.

The assembly was an experiment. We convened it because we believe that the scale and complexity of the issues we face demand a mass movement that not only transcends conventional boundaries—between undergraduate and graduate students, between those students and their faculty mentors, between full-time faculty and their exploited adjunct colleagues, between all these groups and the staff whose work makes the university possible—but enjoys broad support from those formally outside the university, namely the broader working classes of New York whom the university can and should serve. Our vision for the assembly reflected the beliefs expressed in the document with which we introduced this website, “Toward a Renewed CUNY Movement”:

The ad hoc coalition CUNY Struggle believes that the only way forward is a rejuvenated, independent, CUNY-wide mass movement, built on transparency and real material solidarity, and rooted in common demands. We believe that the form of this movement and its pathway forward do not come to us readymade, but must be built by cooperation and experimentation. And we are not starting from scratch — the makings of a vibrant CUNY movement already exist, in so many fragments. The work facing us today is to bridge these struggles, strengthening them in their particularity, while building the power of a unified fighting force through cultivating new connections and building trust.

Our assembly was a first step to try and put these ideas into action. To that end, we structured the event around three principles:

  1. How can we make connections across various sectors of CUNY?
  2. Are there common goals/demands/principles around which we can unite and agree to struggle?
  3. What actions can we take to achieve our goals?

To address the first of these, after a brief introduction and tour through the history of radical struggles at CUNY, we broke into small groups of diverse composition—undergrads, grad students, full- and part-time faculty, Higher Education Officers (HEOs), and others—to enumerate and discuss our respective problems. Apart from the glaring ones—constantly increasing tuition, faculty and staff working without contracts, poverty-level wages for the adjunct teaching majority—we learned about each other’s experiences with deliberate understaffing, bullying by supervisors, harassment from police on campus, and dissatisfaction with the notion that CUNY exists only to “create good workers,” as one undergraduate put it. In doing so, we began to understand the way in which these issues are connected—the way, for example, that low wages for teaching intersect with increasing class sizes, the elimination of remedial courses, and overburdened staff to create an environment where it becomes near-impossible to give any student the attention he or she deserves.

20160312_120600
CUNY has so many problems we could only fit half of them in this frame

After breaking for lunch, financed in part by a generous contribution from the Adjunct Project, we reconvened to hear from each group and to discuss how we might boil down our various contributions into a set of common demands. In a somewhat chaotic process, fueled in part by our relative unpreparedness in how exactly to translate on the fly the concerns of hundreds into a concise set of principles, we managed to come up with a list that we feel captures the most pressing concerns that we, meaning all of us, face at the moment. While we plan to develop a process by which members of the CUNY community can help us refine these demands into a more concise and elegant set of common principles, for the sake of transparency we offer the list here in its rough, unexpurgated glory:

  1. Fair contracts for all CUNY employees
  2. An end to the two-tiered system of labor for CUNY faculty
  3. Free tuition, open admissions, and the elimination of all student debt
  4. Democratic control over faculty selection and curriculum
  5. No retaliation for job actions and abolition of the New York State Taylor Law
  6. Stipends for undergraduate and graduate students as well as services that include daycare
  7. Abolition of the undemocratic Board of Trustees
  8. Financial transparency—what money is being spent and why?
  9. Democratic control over investments made by CUNY
  10. A $15 minimum wage across the CUNY system
  11. Support for the New York DREAM Act
  12. Demilitarization of CUNY—expulsion of campus police, ICE agents, and ROTC
  13. Guaranteed free speech on CUNY campuses
  14. Free services provided by CUNY to the public in NYC
  15. Adequate staffing across the CUNY system
  16. An end to the two-tiered educational system whereby the CUNY system is divided into “senior” and community colleges
Each of these demands was approved by majority vote. Put together, they amount to a program for a radically restructured and genuinely democratic university, one that responds to the felt needs of the students, faculty, and workers who actually run it. At the end of this post, we will provide ways you can plug in and help to both further shape these demands and, of course, to fight for them.

The final portion of our day was spent discussing what sort of actions we might take to realize the ambitious but necessary goals we have set for ourselves. Attendees proposed ideas focused variously around building the size of our movement, reaching out to new and broader constituencies, and beginning to exert pressure on the university administration as well as city and state governments in service of our demands. A central question remains—what kind of organization will be adequate to the scale and complexity of the problems we face? Those of us who initially launched the CUNY Struggle idea maintain, as an incontrovertible belief, that the present fragmentation of struggle at CUNY is a fatal obstacle to even the most modest of our demands. For us, experience has shown that fighting in isolation ensures defeat. The Professional Staff Congress, for example, has shown its inability, despite hard work and the best of intentions, to secure anything above poverty-level wages for the part-time teachers who make up the largest portion of its bargaining unit. Student groups who enjoy the services of the best and most committed organizers have not managed as yet to make significant dents in the ever-ballooning tuition and persistent gentrification of the university. Up until now faculty have fought for faculty issues and students have fought for student issues. This cannot continue. Unless we realize that student issues are faculty issues, that faculty issues are staff issues, that staff issues are student issues—in short, that everyone’s issues are everyone else’s issues—we are sunk. With our assembly we have offered what we hope is a first step towards breaking these old rules and establishing our own.

Despite the immensity of these questions, a nascent organizational structure has begun to emerge out of the connections forged at the popular assembly. Dozens of attendees took it upon themselves to find those affiliated with their respective campuses and meet to discuss how to reach out, build support, and take action on the myriad campuses that make up the CUNY system. Thus far the most active group is located at Hunter College but we encourage people from all offices and campuses to get in touch and we will connect you with a liaison for your campus and/or provide assistance in getting a campus-based organization going. We have a group mailing list as well where you can keep up with what’s going on, float your own ideas, and connect with others who are ready to fight for what we need. To get in touch with a liaison or get on the mailing list, e-mail us at cunystruggleinfo@gmail.com. You can follow us on Facebook as well. Right now we are divided, but united we can win.

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