In the coming weeks and months we’ll be hearing from the people of CUNY in their own words. Had a run-in with management? Feeling mad about the injustices of the two tier system? Are you a student struggling to balance life, work and school? We want to hear from you. Email submissions to email@example.com
This first post in our series of worker and student stories is written by a graduate student worker and adjunct at one of the CUNY campuses.
I had some spare time between classes yesterday and decided to visit my local HR department. Because of the on-again, off-again nature of adjunct work and possibly due to factors related to my own lifestyle, I can’t quite remember if I have been employed as an adjunct for six straight semesters and am therefore entitled to a step increase that has not shown up on my latest appointment letter. So I went to my HR office to ask them for a copy of my employment history with the school. I delivered my request to the receptionist, who looked at me like I had just landed from Mars and insisted to know why I would want such a thing. I told her I wanted it “just to have it” and eventually just “can I please have it”—it’s in the contract, after all. This was not the right answer. She said make sure you sign the register with your exact name and department and I was told to wait while she gathered reinforcements.
I then graduated to speaking with L, who informed me that asking for a copy of my employment history was really “a bit much” and scolded me for not keeping all my appointment letters dating back to 2010 (I resisted the urge to inform her that one of the reasons I don’t keep meticulous files is that CUNY wages have kept me essentially transient for several years). L began to describe their protocol for storing personnel files but then caught herself and told me “but you don’t need to know all that.” When I volunteered that I was mainly interested in the past six semesters, she caught on and informed me that Hunter only applies step increases at the beginning of the fall and summer semesters. In other words, if you are entitled to a step increase by virtue of having worked six straight semesters but your achievement occurs at the beginning of the spring semester, your raise will be withheld until the summer or the fall, whenever you happen to work next. I asked, “so in reality six means seven?” and she replied “Yes, sometimes.” I had not been aware of this creative math but later learned that it is in fact included in the contract. L then instructed me to work it out with my department’s administrator, who has now promised to provide me with this info at some point in the future. It almost seemed like L was glad to get me out of there!
Why are campus HR workers so thrown off by simple requests of this kind? Are there lessons for organizing from such an experience? As the reactions of my local HR officers indicate, even asking for your personnel file is an act of militancy in a workplace as cowed as ours. It sends a message that we part-timers have woken up and that some of us intend not to take this lying down. I went alone, but even better would be to go as a group. Get some friends together, find everything the school has on you, learn how they keep you poor and scared, then go out for pizza afterwards and celebrate the first of many victories. Because it’s small actions like this that build the trust and solidarity required to pull off larger ones. Not the kind of carefully orchestrated media spectacles of which our Albany-obsessed union leadership has proven itself so fond, but small, direct acts that connect us with our fellow workers, get us talking and learning, and build our capacities in a broad, democratic way. It was through hundreds of acts such as these that rank-and-file workers built the CIO unions of the 1930s and it is through creative—and totally legal!—actions such these that we can begin to build a culture of militancy in our own workplaces.
Here at CUNY Struggle we see ourselves as a coordinating body that connects students, workers, and those outside the university in common, militant struggle and opens a space for the kind of creative direct action that can really put a dent in our situation. If you know something is deeply wrong about the conditions in which you work but feel helpless and isolated, get in touch. We can connect you with militants on your campus who are willing to build solidarity from the bottom up. The same conditions that keep us in poverty are the ones that keep us isolated from our fellow workers and make us sitting ducks for the dismissive treatment and wanton firing for which our line of work has become famous. Once we realize that there is power in numbers and power in having each other’s back, we will have taken the first step towards building the university we want to see instead of the one they happen to be willing to give us.