An Overwhelming Yes on Strike Authorization—What Now?

The strike authorization vote is in and the result is an overwhelming yes. Moreover, participation was significant, with over 10,000—around half the membership—registering a vote. The leadership has got what it wants—now what do they intend to do with it?

One possibility is that the leadership has ruled out striking and plans to use the vote purely as a bargaining chip to pressure the state to come up with a better economic offer. If this is the case, it would indicate that the leadership remains unwilling to transcend the status quo but finds itself compelled to use increasingly dramatic measures simply to maintain the present rate of decline in our working conditions. The other is that they have not made up their minds and remain open to the idea of a strike.

13118868_10156868310095594_437814942962033573_nIf the latter, no one knows what the magic number is that will cause Barbara Bowen & Co. to throw up their hands and resort to what in our view is the only tactic that can secure even the bread-and-butter goals of this ostensibly social-justice union—labor’s most powerful weapon, a strike. In the PSC press release and Bowen’s e-mail message to members, Bowen refers simply to a “decent economic offer” without providing specifics. The only thing we know for certain is that the union has rejected CUNY’s insulting pay-cut offer of last November. Moreover, we don’t know which of the 35 demands ratified way back in 2010 the bargaining team is pushing hard on and which are expendable, given that the union, in Bowen’s words, “remains absolutely committed to achieving an acceptable contract through the negotiating process.”

The elephant in the room remains the original sin at the heart of the PSC—the baked-in divide between full and part-time faculty that management has used as a wedge to injure both groups for decades. As we pointed out in March, hopelessly opaque phraseology like “equity salary increases for adjuncts” provides little clue as to whether the leadership intends to take the risks necessary to put an end to humiliating adjunct pay at CUNY, or whether it will again sell out the majority of members to protect the privileges of a full-time minority. It is worth noting in this regard that while the UAW local representing contingent faculty at Barnard College is demanding $15,000 a course in its ongoing negotiations, adjuncts at CUNY remain mired at a starting salary of below $3,000 in a legendarily expensive city where the cost of living has risen 23% since the last contract was signed. We should know—we are the adjuncts on food stamps to whom Bowen refers in her periodic sallies onto the city’s op-ed pages.

So which will it be—another several years of nibbling (literally, if you’re an adjunct) or a strike that mobilizes our membership, gives us a prayer of a decent contract, and signals to the goons who run this state that we will no longer put up with the slow violence they so casually enact on us and the students we cherish?

One thing to look for in the coming months is whether the PSC leadership takes steps to put some meat on this threat in the form of a strike fund or other concrete preparation. The energetic organizing that occurred in the lead-up to the authorization vote was a bittersweet reminder of what the union could have been doing all along—building the kind of rank-and-file engagement that might have prevented a slide as precipitous as one we have endured. As it is, the leadership is stuck lamenting that things have gotten so bad but insisting that they have done everything that could have been tried—a tacit admission that they are incapable of imagining an alternative to the status quo plus a crumb or two. But now they have 10,000 proud and loyal workers who have signaled their willingness to take the kind of militant—and risky—step that can put us in a position to substantively fulfill our commitment to our students, to ourselves, and to the broader working class of the city. The leadership must not squander this opportunity.

But it is the position of CUNY Struggle that we cannot rely on the PSC leadership, or the infrastructure of any union or student government organization, to build the kind of mass movement necessary to turn the defensive battle against austerity at CUNY into an offense against the NYC ruling class. This glaring fact applies to the present PSC contract, as well as to the struggles which lay beyond, no matter the conditions of its resolution. We welcome this gesture by the rank-and-file of the PSC, that a vast majority of active members are willing to move beyond begging for scraps from Albany, and is willing to undertake a radical and illegal campaign to break the Taylor Law.

To do so effectively will require building durable ties of affinity, solidarity, and trust between the different stratas of the CUNY system, which the PSC is wonderful at in its rhetoric, but has failed in practice. This means making demands not just for the material benefit of ourselves and others in our position. It means building a movement capable of lining up behind the demands of CUNY’s most exploited and oppressed students and workers, not as “allies”, but as comrades in common struggle.

Today the people have spoken, demanding a rejuvenated CUNY movement. And it is our task to help ensure that this is only the beginning.

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