by Sigmund Shen
This fantastic essay originally appeared in In These Times.
I recently attended a memorial service for James Haughton, an alumnus of the City University of New York (CUNY). As founder of a group called Harlem Fight Back, Haughton was a central figure in the fight against racist hiring in the construction industry. One of the eulogists spoke about the first time he joined a Harlem Fight Back “shaping” crew, walking onto a job site to demand work for people of color from the community. The contractor claimed not to be hiring and quickly offered the delegation a payoff of $35,000, in cash, to go away. Shaken, crew members went asking for guidance from Haughton, who said simply, “Don’t. Take. The Money.”
The 27,000 members of CUNY’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), should consider Haughton’s advice before voting to ratify our first contract in years. (Voting opened last month and is set to end Wednesday.)
We have been working under an expired contract, even as management hiked tuition in five of the last six years. Between 2009—2014, the cost of living in New York City rose 23 percent. As part of this year’s contract campaign, the PSC lobbied and organized protests and civil disobedience, coordinating with students and community groups. An escalation of public actions culminated in a strike authorization vote in May.
Weeks later, the PSC bargaining team accepted a contract offer from management, with retroactive raises adding up to a little more than 10 percent and a tray of one-time “signing bonuses.”
When the agents of the ruling class smile and offer you “X” amount of cash and promises, it’s easy to believe that this is a sign that you’ve won. It’s not. I’ll tell you what it is a sign of though. It’s a sign of how much they want you to go away. It’s a sign of how much they stand to rake in, monetarily, from their ability to make you go away. I guarantee they want nothing more than for us to take the money.
The union bargaining team says they fought hard, and that this contract is the best they could do. Like many of my brothers and sisters, I take their word at face value, without second-guessing. But do you want to know what else I take at face value? The “yes” vote to authorize a strike.
The vote happened despite the Taylor Law, which covers municipal workers and would criminalize us the moment an actual strike began. Every union member would be docked two days of pay for every day or part thereof that he or she takes part in a collective job action, with union leaders imprisoned and the union itself losing its right to collect “fair share” fees. In the face of this law, 92 percent of voting PSC members still opted to authorize a strike.
Given that law, not to mention the two-tiered system of our full-time and adjunct members, the vote was a remarkable statement of courage and unity. It was also a measure of the immense anger at management, some of which could redirect to the union if we are perceived as too eager to settle.
Am I saying I want to go on strike? Not exactly. But the other side wants that to happen less than we do. Much less.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cashed a campaign donation from libertarians Charles and David Koch. Given the Kochs’ neoliberal, technocratic, pro-privatization agenda, CUNY workers must not ignore the implications of the state’s attack on public higher education. But neither should we underestimate the power we have built to fight back.
It’s the right time for the national labor movement to try a new thing (or ten!) and a strike by us would inspire others. Think of the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on a one-day strike on April 1; the Verizon workers, who faced down a telecommunications giant; the Transport Workers Union, which a decade after taking on the Taylor Law, stood up and endorsed Bernie Sanders on the eve of the big New York primary. For that matter, think of the PSC who pulled off a 92 percent “yes” vote on strike authorization.
We’ve had other victories too. In the last two years of our contract campaign, the state and the university administration have threatened to cut $485 million from our budget, merge us with the State University of New York, raise tuition again and limit peaceful protests by students and staff alike. At the LaGuardia campus where I work, the administration even tried to intimidate students for uniting with faculty. Every single one of these threats was withdrawn in the face of our organizing.
At a meeting with PSC delegates, our president Barbara Bowen assured us that although she recommended passage, if members voted the contract down, she was ready to work on an alternative. I have no doubt that Bowen and the leadership would answer such a call. Despite our flaws and contradictions, there is no other municipal union in NYC I trust more to be able to mount a serious challenge to the Taylor Law by organizing an effective strike.
Do Cuomo and CUNY Chancellor James Milliken really care if we strike? Of course they do! Can we really get more? Of course we can, people!
The trouble is that time is not on our side. Every moment that our 92 percent vote is not being turned into actual strike preparation, the power and solidarity we have built fades. Like bright Arctic ice melting to dark water that absorbs more sunlight instead of reflecting it, when power and solidarity melt away, cynicism floods in.
After seven years without contractual raises, many hope to ratify this contract and resume the larger struggle another day in another way. Others point out that the settlement’s uniform, across-the-board raises would widen the pay gap between full-time and adjunct faculty, enabling the administration to further expand the pool of vulnerable cheap labor on which the exploitation of all workers and the erosion of academic freedom depend. A settlement would also cut short one of the most militant contract campaign our union has ever waged, leaving students isolated and more vulnerable to another tuition hike.
On March 24, I joined a group of CUNY students and staff at the governor’s office. Demanding a fair contract for the PSC, we lay down on the sidewalk and were promptly arrested. Sitting in jail, I was haunted by the story of CUNY student Kalief Browder, who waited on Rikers Island for three years with no trial and later took his own life. Like he was, my students are being charged some five times the tuition I paid at Queens College in 1989. Like he did, they sit in overcrowded classrooms, with overworked faculty and staff. If we vote this contract down, and prepare to strike in the fall, CUNY will think twice before trying to raise tuition again. So, why take the money and run now?
Let’s keep standing by our students and keep fighting for a contract that, like this university itself, is a product of a historic and unfinished struggle. By voting no on this contract ratification, let’s begin to honor our 92 percent vote of “yes.”