by Jarrod Shanahan
To mark the beginning of the PSC’s strike authorization vote, we invite perspectives on the vote, the contract, and the campaign ahead. This first piece comes from Jarrod Shanahan, a PhD candidate and teaching fellow in Environmental Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, a rank-and-file PSC member, and an editor of CUNYStruggle.org.
Before starting at CUNY as a graduate teaching fellow I worked on and off for over a decade as a residential furniture mover and truck driver. I saw firsthand the immense wealth of cities like Boston and New York juxtaposed with the poverty wages of myself and my coworkers, engaged though we were in backbreaking labor for endless hours in an industry that laughs at labor law. I felt quite viscerally our powerlessness against the dictatorial, often illegal management practices which characterize the average non-union “small business” so wrongfully hallowed in US folklore. I struggled with the difficulties of convincing my co-workers to take even the most preliminary steps towards collective action, as many quite rightfully feared retaliation, especially those without documents or with dependents at home, or else had negative experiences with the nepotism of unions like the Teamsters. And in one instance, when a handful of us organized a direct action campaign demanding higher wages and health benefits, we won some modest gains–only to be fired, under some bogus pretext, shortly thereafter. We needed a union, alright, because we wanted control over the work that we did, the power to fight for higher wages and benefits, the ability force agreements, and the strength to enforce them, until the next round of struggle.
My experience in small work crews in a heavily exploitative industry taught me that when we say “organized labor”, we can mean two different things:
On the one hand, there are workers brought together a common situation of exploitation, united by the spirit of cooperation the typical labor process demands, who support each other emotionally and often physically, understand their common interests to be opposed to those of the boss, and who in this spirit undertake little defiant actions all day, and sometimes, though not nearly often enough, big ones. In every industry, and no matter how minutely, workers always struggle for control of the conditions of their labor, if only on an individual basis like ignoring pointless rules, or else in small conspiracies to break rules together and do the job their own way (which is usually more efficient anyway), or else commit theft, get high on the job, and so forth. In moments of mass upheaval, these daily, ritual struggles for control over our work can bubble into a battle for control of the workplace, and then, to life outside of it.
On the other hand, there are legally sanctioned organizations that serve as a tool for asserting collective power against the boss, making demands, enforcing them, and taking action when they are not met. Historically this form was produced by the activity and associations of militant workers, but over time they came to take on a life of their own, becoming their own reason for being. These are unions, often simply called “organized labor”.
Historically, the latter form arose in service of the former. Workers fought for power over production and over their lives outside work, taking great risks, breaking the law (remember, laws against striking and other organizing didn’t begin with the Taylor Law), and fighting professional union busters, both private (Pinkertons, etc.) and public (the police). As a result many were fired, evicted, injured, or killed. This activity lay the foundation for what would become contemporary unionism, and this is a tradition of which the US working class should be proud. But today when people say “organized labor” and they mean the unaccountable, hopelessly bureaucratic, anti-democratic business unions, largely confined to negotiating over wages and benefits in cozy relations with management and with the capitalist state. These are massive, monied organizations that care more about their balance sheets and keeping good relations with bosses and politicians than about taking direct action on behalf of the workers they claim to represent. Contemporary unions are just as threatened by the specter of independent worker power as the bosses are. In fact it is directly in the interests of these unions to not fight very hard at all, to not risk their political connections, company stocks, or the possibility of steady revenue from dues collection and investments, even as contract after contract comes at a loss, and the kind of class-wide solidarity necessary to turn the tide is merely an empty slogan in the mouths of highly-paid labor politicians. Today this bureaucratic form, the trade union, is too often conflated with the workers’ struggle for control of the conditions of their lives, to such an extent that the preservation of this form at all costs has become much more important than whatever role it serves in meeting the needs of its members, to say nothing of building real worker power toward the transformation of society. Surely enough trade unions can be a vehicle for workers advancing their interests, but more often than not this function is a far second to the proliferation of unions for their own sake.
It is far too facile to say that the sad state of trade unionism in the US is due to subjective betrayal by individual union leaders, though pro-capitalist nationalists from Reuther on down haven’t made things any better. Surely enough, it bears repeating that unions were created by workers who risked their necks, broke the law, built broad ties to communities and sometimes (though not nearly often enough!) across racial and gender divides, and generally understood their interests as antithetical to the bosses. But since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which explicitly aimed to incorporate organized labor into the capitalist state and and codify ruling class control of working conditions, the US trade union has been structurally built to be averse to risk, obsessed with (and dependent on) legality, fractioned off from the vast majority of the working class (especially communities served by public sector unions), often making more money off capital investments than dues, and otherwise dependent on the political favor of politicians and bosses, with whom union leaders work to prevent strikes, crush independent worker initiatives, and keep the status quo functioning smoothly amidst an ever worsening quality of life for the working class. Hemmed in on all sides by legalism and structural dependence on the goodwill of the bosses and politicians, unions are intrinsically resistant to even the best organized reform campaign. This is not a subjective failure of individual reformers, but tells us about the structural contemporary role unions play in capitalist democracy. These are limitations which we would hit like bedrock even if we labor radicals ran our own slate to oust the do-nothing bums and get our comrades in the leadership, which incidentally, is usually how the do-nothing bums got their start.
In the heyday of US industrialism, on the heels of the NLRA, unions like the UAW ceded control over the process of production in exchange for raises and benefits tethered to productivity increases. In 1950 Fortune magazine wrote of the so-called Treaty of Detroit: “GM may have paid a billion for peace, but it got a bargain.” When industrial unions ceded control of the workplace in exchange for a skim of the extra profits that exponential increases in productivity would yield, this productivity deal surely offered a kind of short-term gain for a privileged sector of the US working class. But even at the time it worked to the detriment not only of workers’ health and safety amidst backbreaking speedups, but to the detriment of the future of these very jobs, which were increasingly eliminated by increased output, or otherwise automated out of existence, as unions relegated to merely haggling over wages and benefits powerlessly looked on. Far from fighting institutions of the working class, US unions have become capitalist institutions par excellence, as they can only meaningfully function by safeguarding and deepening the continued exploitation of workers, their perennial dependence on the boss, and an everlasting disempowerment in their daily work.
As today, when industrial workers asserted their desire for control of the workplace through wildcat strikes, as autoworkers did throughout WWII in response to the detestable no-strike pledge, the unions did everything in their power to shut them down, or else had to come out afterward and claim that they organized it. By the very letter of the NLRA, the very legitimacy of the unions in the eyes of the boss is to control workers, channel their frustrations into grievances and other largely fruitless outlets, and otherwise prevent independent activity. For a while this meant prosperity for an increasingly shrinking number of workers. But soon even the mightiest unions at key choke points in capital circulation found themselves on the defensive. Once you cede control over working conditions, it seems, you no longer have much of a say in anything except for bickering over scraps from the boss’s table. Though originating in private sector production, this model has become a precedent nowhere challenged, and would serve as the basis for public sector unions to come, which in New York are hopelessly bound up with the Taylor Law prohibiting most militancy outside of legalistic bargaining. In this process, despite endless projects of union reform, caucus building, or other forms of entryism by every conceivable political tendency and sect, US unionism has been gradually managing its own demise, along with the predictable degradation of working conditions for membership. Yet these plans for radically transforming capitalist unions are again and again reheated and served up as fresh, as if the stubbornness to never change one’s political analysis based on observable facts is a mark of dedication to the struggle. And if this brief treatment of industrial unionism doesn’t seem relevant to the situation at CUNY, just ask an adjunct what the power to bargain for pitiful wage increases means when you no longer have any say in how work is organized, how the workforce is stratified, whose labor is devalued, and whose is simply no longer needed.
This same story has played out, with important nuances outside the present scope, in every unionized industry in the US. In the CUNY system, the organization in question is my union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which is currently drumming up support for a “strike authorization” vote, as workers have gone without a contract for over five years, and the current offers from CUNY are insulting. Surely, the PSC does some good things. A majority of these come in the form of rhetorical support for a myriad of social justice issues. At the last Delegates Assembly I attended, the leadership took a break from shouting down an adjunct organizer with half-truths to offer a heartfelt resolution supporting victims of the Flint water crisis. But in all seriousness, it is quite a relief to not worry about being quite suddenly deprived of work without cause, as was the case in my past non-union jobs, just as it’s comforting to work with a regularly negotiated contract (though the PSC hasn’t managed to bargain for one in the last five years). The PSC claims to have made strides in health care for adjuncts, which only matters if adjuncts are granted meaningful job security, which has yet to materialize. But if we take them at their word, they really do try, even if this mostly means using union dues to send glossy junk mail to Albany (and in the process, I suppose, supporting the faltering printing industry). In any case, my experience on both sides of the divide tells me that it’s better to be in a union than not in one, and none of what is said here is meant to take away from that.
However, none of this changes the fact that the PSC is a top-down bureaucracy more invested in maintaining its posh Financial District digs than taking the risk of opening its infrastructure to meaningful democratic participation. The two-tiered labor system at CUNY, by which full-time faculty are paid exponentially more for teaching than contingent faculty, is one of the greatest injustices in the CUNY system. Not only does the PSC not aim to mitigate this in its contract negotiations, which argue for flat percentage raises that will effectively widen the gulf between the tiers, but the union actually replicates and reinforces the two-tier system within its very structure, granting disproportionate representation to full-timers, and ever pushing adjuncts’ demands toward the vanishing point of the eternal “next time”. The leadership is completely unaccountable for its most important decisions, including countless strategic and tactics questions surrounding the portended strike, which will be a massive risk for members who partake in it, as well as the direct action campaign which has preceded it, in which rank-and-filers were asked to willfully get arrested by the notorious NYPD. Instead of any kind of input in these campaigns, we rank-and-filers get marching orders to show up at stage-managed protests from representatives who seem to themselves have been simply given marching orders. Key decisions are simply unveiled, even to representative bodies like the Delegates Assembly. And this is not a large union, by NYC public sector standards. It seems like the number of people actually making these decisions could be counted on one hand, which is a bitter pill to swallow alongside all the feel-good social justice rhetoric.
For those of us not completely put off by this ostensible hypocrisy, it is increasingly difficult for the class conscious rank-and-filer to explain to their colleagues and classmates why exactly they should sign a card and join, nevermind support a strike pledge that only further empowers the leadership to act unilaterally on our behalf. To this effect, President Bowen reminded the hundreds gathered at Cooper Union last Fall, where I had dragged many of my classmates, that they don’t even need our authorization to call a strike, and touted this move as a sign of internal democracy. The pages of the Clarion are splashed with high-quality propaganda celebrating the leaders and the wonderful PR accomplishments like symbolic mass arrests (by all accounts, coordinated in advance with the NYPD), and the leadership insists on preposterous statements like “We got ‘em running scared!”, but nobody but the most zealous seems to buy the “social justice union” image. While the lack of class consciousness among the self-imagined (though ever-downwardly mobile) “middle class” in the US is a grave problem not to be understated, I can’t help but ascribe some profundity to CUNY workers, eligible for the PSC and already paying a fee, who decide the union is simply not worth the time it takes to sign a card. But that answer is simply too easy, envy though I sometimes may those who are at peace with it, including many radical professors whose names will not appear alongside mine on the strike authorization pledge.
To apathetic PSC members who couldn’t care less about authorizing a strike, and to those eligible for membership who can’t even be bothered to sign a card, and even to the radicals who have no stake in struggles at their own workplace, I say: if the strike authorization campaign is simply a vote of confidence for the PSC, then I’m with you, count me out. But that can’t be how we understand this vote. When we debate a strike authorization, the only thing that really matters is the power that it offers for real organized labor, the masses of CUNY workers and the students we serve. We must place the highest premium on the power to take control of our working conditions as a means to advance the struggle against austerity, the power to take risks, to break the law, to build solidarity across the city, and ultimately, to go on the offensive against the ruling class’s status quo in New York City and beyond. We must build the power to seize control of the conditions of our daily lives, inside and outside the workplace, in the spirit of those who fought, suffered, and died so we could have unions at all. Right now that struggle can be waged in part through the mechanisms of the PSC, while we struggle within it to make the leadership accountable to its most exploited members. But this does not mean making the PSC and the contract campaign the horizon of our political aspirations, quite the contrary. It means dealing realistically with the struggle where it is, while we push toward where it needs to be.
By all accounts the PSC leadership is scared out of its wits of breaking the Taylor Law, which imposes draconian sanctions on striking public sector unions and their workers. Such a grave decision must give even hardened labor activists pause. But it is unlikely this law will ever be repealed in the halls of legislature, or the courts, despite how offensive it is to the sensibilities of most working class people. The ruling class in New York is too strong, and too invested in the campaign of austerity which wrests control from the working class and keeps us ever on the defensive. Instead, the Taylor Law must be defeated in the streets, by public sector workers and the people they serve standing together. With or without the blessing of the legalistic PSC infrastructure, we must break the law which keeps New York public sector workers from exercising their collective power against the bosses, in a time of such a grave ruling class onslaught. And doing so will require doing away with the definition of “organized labor” as the bureaucrats who push us into metal pens to exercise our free speech, while they conspire with the NYPD and other agents of the ruling class to keep things under control. We must reclaim the spirit of true organized labor—bold, daring, independent even of our would-be leaders, hostile to our enemies, and standing firm with each other and the communities we serve. And in this spirit, the organizations we fight through must be only a means to advance the struggle, never the end itself.
I am voting yes on the strike authorization vote because no matter how limited, it represents a baby step toward the kind of militancy we need to stem the tide of austerity, and to begin to go on the offensive against the New York ruling class. The sheer fact that a public sector union, especially one as timid as the PSC, is putting the possibility of contesting the Taylor Law on the table, is worthy of support, and we must hold the union’s feet to the fire to not simply hold a vote to authorize a strike, but to organize for, call, and go out on an actual strike (as opposed to the one strike that’s being whispered about). But at the same time, we must not confuse this rhetorical gesture of a strike authorization, which ultimately cedes the power to call a strike to a handful of unaccountable individuals at the highest echelons of the union leadership, with the kind of real organizing we must be doing, outside the official structures of the union, to take control of our work, and the rest of our lives. To this effect we must organize ourselves in preparation for strikes and other direct actions, which must be undertaken with or without the blessing of the PSC.
Many observers, myself included, have speculated that this authorization vote is a cynical ploy by union leadership, to be used as a bargaining chip toward a contract that is less-terrible than what is currently on the table. Given how secretive and anti-democratic the leadership is, we cannot know for sure, though enough President Bowen did state plainly enough at a mass meeting last Fall: “The best way to not have a strike is to prepare for one.” But in the spirit of charity let us give Bowen’s inner circle the benefit of the doubt, that they would not be so cynical as to lie like this, to raise the hopes of NYC public sector workers that a meaningful challenge to the law that keeps us in chains could be on the way when in reality their organization offers no hope at all. Further, let us concede that the PSC may be willing to learn from the mistake of its long-time insularity and unaccountability, which has resulted in the current isolation from the majority of its members, to say nothing of the broader NYC working class, and to make itself truly democratic. The PSC may be able to to stand with its most exploited members, and to build meaningful material ties of lived solidarity with the exploited and oppressed communities that are feeling the brunt of austerity the hardest. In any case, this is the only way a strike campaign would work, and right now the PSC is reaping the fruit of their isolation from broader class issues, in the form of a lack of campus and community support. But even if this were to change, what could the PSC do?
As the slogan goes, “CUNY needs a raise”. But that’s just one small part of the problems facing CUNY. Any serious CUNY movement willing to move beyond demanding raises and benefits for its staff will have to meaningfully address the structural racism built into this institution since its founding. The racial stratification of the CUNY system has been met with heroic resistance throughout the university system’s history, but survives to this day, yet it continues to define the racialized attack on students of color and working class New Yorkers under the banner of austerity, cuts to services, tuition hikes, and so forth. The same is true of the racialized policing that increasingly makes life for black and brown CUNY students no safe haven from the racialized policing they face outside, and makes campus organizing in the community college system subject to paranoid suspicion and an endless web of draconian rules. A union bargaining for better contracts can do nothing to ameliorate this, and in fact by supporting the two-tier system can effectively perpetuate the creation of underclasses in the CUNY system. Further, substantive wage increases, even pay parity for adjuncts and the end of the two-tier system, would not change the deplorable working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students, with auditorium sized lectures packed with hundreds of students passing for “classes”, and graduate students forced to teach subjects they may know little about as a condition of their funding. And none of this would begin to address the university system’s crumbling infrastructure, both academic, in terms of slashed and downsized departments and library resources, and physical, in terms of buildings that appear to be falling apart. The list goes on and on, of issues central to life and work in the CUNY system that are beyond the purview of bargaining over wages and benefits for some workers.
Accordingly, I do not reproach the PSC for not being able to address these issues. To the contrary, I believe these issues, and nearly all issues of working and learning conditions in the CUNY system are either objectively outside the PSC’s control. I recognize that in the union’s plentiful rhetoric, these problems are acknowledged and a high premium is put on their resolution, but that it is simply not within their power. When we raise tuition to Bowen and others, we hear the common refrain: “tuition is outside the purview of the contract”. I wholeheartedly agree. Most things are outside the purview of what the PSC can accomplish, assuming it can even accomplish a contract that doesn’t insult its membership, as many predict will happen sometime this summer. The kind of overhaul necessary to transform the PSC into a fighting organization capable of taking on issues outside the strictures of bargaining for wages and benefits, and no longer bound by legalism, or allegiance to the politicians and the bosses would require nothing short of tearing it down and building a new organization from scratch. This is an undertaking which, given the opposition the PSC and other unions are willing to wage against reforms of any kind, would be (if even possible) remarkably more difficult than building our own fighting force from the ground up. This naked fact leaves it up to us to build a movement capable of fighting for working class power at CUNY and beyond.
There are a handful of radical leftist tendencies represented in the CUNY system, usually under the banner of a proper name from a different time and place. The innovative and forward-thinking minds whose names have become associated with schools of political thought assessed the novelty and particularity of their concrete situation and theorized action accordingly. They did not simply accept axioms uncritically from past struggles, or addresses their praxis to the questions of yesterday. They were bold enough to ask new questions, to consider the old answers suspect, and without this courage their names would be unknown to us. To my mind it is the role of the CUNY Struggle project to provide space for bold thinking, and to help facilitate the necessary action it implies. CUNY Struggle represents not a prefigurative form which will serve as the vehicle for a mass struggle, as none such vehicle currently exists, and forms adequate to future mass struggles, which will largely emerge from the progress of the struggles themselves, are largely unknown to us at present. Instead, this project represents the dire need for experimentation with new forms of association, new organizational tactics and strategies, and perhaps most importantly, a new political imaginary freed from the dead weight of the past. We cannot allow the exigencies of defensive struggles (the only kind that unions seem to wage) down out the need for building toward offensive ones, anymore than we can take the conventional wisdom from struggles of yesteryear as answers to the questions we face today.
To this effect, earlier this semester we held a popular assembly, to bring disparate stratas of the CUNY system together and brainstorm a list of demands that could undergird a renewed CUNY movement. We have hosted open forums, made CUNYStruggle.org a resource for discussion and debate, and will continue to build a culture of debate rooted in mutual respect, with an eye to the movement ahead. These are tiny steps. Other organizers doing different projects differently are not our competition. What is needed right now is a diversity of bold initiatives willing to break with the failed strategies of the past and embrace the particularities structuring the present moment. And while the PSC may sometimes be a vehicle to advance this struggle, supporting a union, even while working within it on a mission of reform, cannot be a substitute for building a movement capable of doing what unions cannot. While we struggle within the PSC and unions like it to make them more responsive to our needs, we must build our capacities to fight outside of them, freed from the baggage which comes with their intrinsic, structural dependence on capitalist democracy, a dependence which evermore seems like a relic from a far gone time.