By Andy Battle
Dear Adjuncts, Part-timers and other Exploited Faculty:
I write to you because we are in a special time. Your union has just presented you with a contract that has the power to shape how you live and you will be asked to give your approval. The union will present you with the details of the agreement they have negotiated, but beyond the bare numbers will give you little context and few tools with which to evaluate whether this is truly in your interest. What little analysis you will hear will come from the officials who negotiated the contract. The fact is they are tired and demoralized and sincerely believe that we have no hope of doing better. They are afraid to strike because they know we are weak—the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby we refuse to prepare for a confrontation in any sense beyond the purely rhetorical. They have released the contract in the dead of summer, when they know the fewest number of people will be paying attention and there will be as few opportunities as possible for you to discuss it with the other people who will be affected by what they have decided on your behalf. Both management and the union leadership are counting on your isolation.
We are part-time faculty. We make up the majority of the people for whom this contract was negotiated. We have to ask what it does for us. The answer, if you look, is not much. The raises we will receive barely keep pace with inflation—the true measure of what the money will get you—and don’t even come close to matching the increase in what it has cost to live in this city since 2009. In that sense, management and the union leadership are asking you to accept a pay cut, with the threat of extended punishment should you say no. The other provisions ratify our subordinate status, despite the fact that we constitute an always-growing majority. The “signing bonus,” which would be unnecessary in a contract that promised actual relief, will be pro-rated for all except those who already make the most money. The promised workload reduction is intended only for the shrinking full-time minority and there is no indication that it will not be used to increase the pool of adjuncts working at what will continue to be poverty-level wages. The leadership even appears to have acquiesced to an opening salvo in the drive to eliminate tenure, in the form of 250 appointments for “full-time faculty on one-year contracts, without access to tenure.” Anyone who is wondering what such appointments look like can take a peek across the Hudson, where they already exist. Does anyone believe management intends to stop there?
In short, the contract is a bruiser and contains little substantive resistance to the forty-year assault on working people the PSC rightly bemoans. It’s not that there is nothing worth having in the contract. For people living hand-to-mouth, as we do, some money is obviously better than no money. The possibility of a three-year appointment is better than freaking out every four months that you may be thrown to the curb by your ostensible colleagues. But in the grand scheme of things, this is nibbling around the edges and plugging your ears in the hope that next contract, the problem might go away. But if you consider this contract in the broader trajectory of our working conditions, the signs for the future are not promising. Think about it—union leadership had to take extraordinary measures this time, in the form of a threatened strike, simply to secure a marginally-less humiliating settlement from management, and one that not only preserves but ratifies and widens the two-tier system and the gross violation of basic principle it represents. It makes you wonder what new dances we will be asked to perform next time to be allotted the privilege of another dose.
We have to ask ourselves whether we are willing to continue living like this. This round of negotiations has shown that any change in our situation is not going to come from above. We have three options. We can remain resigned and helpless, submitting to both the macro and micro humiliations shoveled onto part-time faculty each and every day. We can continue to believe in illusions—that someone who is not us will fix it, that the union has a plan, that the next contract will be different. Or we can face the situation soberly, reject the immediate short-term perspective and realize that the interests not just of ourselves as individuals, but of our students, our colleagues, and all New Yorkers who work for a living demand that we figure out how to say “no—it stops here”—and then figure out how to organize ourselves to make that “no” count.
Many worry, and rightly, about what will happen to us if we dare to say “no.” There is no question that I am asking us to consider a road that in the short term promises no small amount of uncertainty and, yes, pain. And if there are clear, pre-defined steps for going about a project as daunting as this, I have never been made privy to them. What I do know is that the first step is to say “no.” The rest follows and can only follow from the consequences of that refusal. I do believe that we, the rank-and-file, are capable of much more than what is asked of us by the leadership and maybe even a little more than we ourselves presently understand. I know because we are human beings and because we are teachers. If you’re one of those people who still gets a little nervous every time they have to enter the classroom, but still can’t wait to do it, I suspect you know what I mean.
So yes, I am calling for something more radical than what the union leadership is offering. I reject the idea that it’s crazy or unrealistic. What to me is unrealistic is the idea that by accepting a brutally concessionary contract such as this one we are opposing austerity in any meaningful way, which is what the PSC leadership rightfully exhorts us to do but, for reasons I do not understand, will not summon the imagination to address.
Sometimes I ask students what to them is the definition of “radical.” And I give them mine. I tell them that “radical” comes from the Latin word radix, meaning “root.” In other words, radical acts are ones that question and reshape fundamental principles. In order to confront the scale and nature of the attacks on our principles—the ones we live every day through our commitment to students—we need to contemplate radical acts. In our position, the radical becomes rational. The first act is to recognize that we cannot and say that we will not live like this any longer. The second is to organize ourselves to take advantage of the only power we have, which consists in numbers, commitment, and a higher vision. This contract asks us for none of that and as such is unworthy of the work we do. We have to insist on something better, and the first step is to say no.