by Jarrod Shanahan
On January 26th, organizers with CUNY Struggle attended a meeting of the PSC’s Delegate Assembly (DA) to speak out about the union’s pending endorsement of Bill de Blasio for mayor. Despite his left-talking posturing against Donald Trump, de Blasio has been a sweetheart of cutthroat developers like Bruce Ratner, who are aggressively making working class life impossible in New York City, and law and order police advocates like Bill Bratton, a pioneer of the “Broken Windows” policing tactic who this “liberal” mayor brought back from the Giuliani Administration to lead the NYPD. Broken Windows has terrorized hundreds of thousands of working class New Yorkers, including many students in the CUNY system, and predominantly people of color in neighborhoods facing gentrification thanks to de Blasio’s developer pals.
Like de Blasio, the PSC’s ruling clique, the New Caucus, has a long history of loudly adopting rhetorically righteous progressive positions on issues like the Iraq war, the Flint water crisis, and now anti-Trumpism, while quietly supporting regressive policies like a widening pay gap within its ranks, and promoting an internal union culture that spurns democratic participation in favor of secretive top-down leadership. The PSC’s reputation as a “progressive” union derives from the fact that the further an issue gets from the bottom line of the New Caucus’s cynical realpolitik, the more left-wing their rhetoric becomes.
In the case of de Blasio, the New Caucus (mistakenly) believes that currying favor with de Blasio early in the primary season will win special consideration from the mayor, and is therefore willing to lose a little face by supporting a politician who is no friend to New York’s working class. Perhaps the New Caucus recognizes a kinship with the middle-of-the-road neoliberal who has branded himself the last hope for New York’s progressives. This is the latest instance of a strategy that puts backroom deals with politicians ahead of building a grassroots political force. Though it is certainly a mistaken strategy, the decision to put the PSC’s fate in the hands of political elites like de Blasio also reflects the way the New Caucus itself functions with regards to its membership.
Earlier this month the PSC’s Executive Council voted to approve an early endorsement of de Blasio. The issue then went up for ratification in the DA, which did not stop the PSC’s secretive lobbying wing from donating money to de Blasio’s campaign before the DA even met. As we have written, the real decision-makers in the PSC could fit in a phone booth: Barbara Bowen, Steve London, and Michael Fabricant, leaders of the New Caucus, exercise top-down control, keeping even chapter chairs and their own paid staff in the dark except for when the time comes to execute their orders. DA meetings are run with a creative (and often inept) interpretation of Robert’s Rules, that ensures that while union members get a jealously measured 2 minutes at the mic, the filibustering chair, usually Bowen, speaks for most of the meeting, and always gets the last word, with unlimited time.
The ironic part is there is really no need for this kind of top-down control in the DA. PSC elections run on the principle of “slate voting”, meaning that established caucuses run entire tickets for every position in a PSC chapter, including the delegates who will attend the DA. There is only one functioning caucus in the PSC, the New Caucus, which dates back to the 1990s, with many of the same people still in power. With upwards of 21 slots to fill on a given campus slate, slate voting thoroughly stacks the deck against non-incumbents, who effectively run against entire tickets by themselves. Opposition slates are incredibly rare, and instead, individuals run symbolic campaigns against entire slates, but only win if the ruling slate has not filled the position for which they are running.
Unless a core of committed activists can assemble a large slate to contest the New Caucus leadership, which is very difficult for adjuncts especially, given how their employment situation and chapter affiliation is constantly changing, the New Caucus slate will be the victorious slate. So for you to get elected to the DA, whichever New Caucus member runs your chapter effectively selects you to run, you go on the slate, and the election is a formality. The cynicism and carelessness of this process is reflected in the very poor delegate attendance, with the average meeting failing to make quorum, and entire chapters (like the Graduate Center chapter) often having zero representatives in attendance.
When CS folks attended on Thursday, we did so as “guests”. Guests can only speak once every delegate has spoken as much as they want, in bite-sized 2 minute portions regulated by the chair, who can then speak for as long as they want after each remark, eating up the time allotted for a given discussion. Responses to the de Blasio endorsement were broken down by “yes” or “no”, each assigned to a microphone. The “yes” line formed quickly, with one respondent after another saying some variation of “Of course I’m a radical but that doesn’t really mean anything in the real world so just vote for whatever Democrat you can stand”. The “no” line was significantly shorter, and we got at the end of it, expecting to speak when it cleared out. Of course this was folly, and we had to wait until nearly every delegate in the “yes” line spoke, repeating the same thing over and over, chastising us for political naiveté while we stood there, unable to respond.
Two CS organizers said our pieces in our allotted time. One emphasized the senselessness of giving a candidate we want to move to the left an early endorsement, and better yet, suggested that the PSC ought to break with its ineffective lobbying strategy altogether and focus on building power. Another organizer spoke to the members’ betrayal of solidarity with working class students of color, who we expect to care about our contract struggles, when we can’t take a stand against Broken Windows, arguing that the PSC can’t have its cake and eat it too when it comes to building with students politically mobilized around Broken Windows, and simultaneously currying favor with slimey Democrats who promote this racist policy. To the surprise of nobody, the DA voted overwhelmingly to support de Blasio, privileging delusions of substantive support from Democratic demagogues over solidarity with the most exploited and oppressed people in our university system.
To the loyal CS reader, our participation in this spectacle may seem like the sort of self-aggrandizing “speaking truth to power” exercise we have long criticized in university politics: speak righteously, receive a pat on the head, feel good, change nothing, move on. But there is a strategic dimension to opposing this endorsement, and publicizing the conditions under which it was rammed through.
This endorsement signals three interrelated problems with the PSC that must be rectified before an effective CUNY movement can proceed, and they must be named at every opportunity. The first is the thoroughly undemocratic nature of the PSC, which is maintained by the New Caucus, a ruling clique rotten beyond repair. The second is the union’s reliance on the Democratic Party, which has been laughing its way to the bank with union support from nearly every sector for almost a hundred years, with nothing to show for it on our end but a gradual wearing down of union power that has brought us to the brink of total annihilation. The third is how these combine to inhibit a movement-based strategy.
First and foremost, the New Caucus needs to go. The New Caucus came to power at the end of the last century, arguing for the need to put adjuncts at the center of the union. They have failed. Instead, they have reproduced the very stifling hierarchy, and full-timers-first mentality that their leaders vocally opposed in the 1990s. They don’t just fail to make things better, they make things worse by standing in the way. We must build a culture of contestation capable of challenging them in meetings, toward challenging them in elections. Even the most rudimentary form of union democracy is impossible in the current order. It’s time for them to go.
This is an issue which can unite folks like CUNY Struggle, who believe that a union apparatus ought to serve the creation of an independent mass movement, and those who simply believe that unions should be more democratic. Past projects of this kind which have focused on emphasizing every conceivable difference of ideology have proven to be failures. We need a new approach, with open minds, and a little humility with regards to not knowing all the answers all the time in advance. To this effect, CUNY Struggle is beginning a challenge to the New Caucus slate at the Graduate Center, whose abysmal attendance record at the DA speaks for itself. We look forward to a spirited campaign, and to inspiring other campuses to challenge their ruling cliques. We say: Out with the New!
On the second, it is positively essential to break with the Democratic Party and its subsidiaries like the Working Families Party. Democrat like de Blasio are positioning themselves as the only alternative to Trump, and we’ll be bullied into getting behind the same neoliberal war hawks who got us into this mess in the first place, with Trump as the bogeyman to scare anyone who strays to the left of neo-liberals like Cory Booker. We’ve already heard cries in the PSC that we need to unify against Trump, and so forth. This amounts to essentially: Let’s unify with the people who got us into this mess, foreclosing left alternatives in the name of “there is no alternative” neoliberalism. If Clinton’s defeat isn’t the occasion to break with this trend, we don’t know what is. Democrats will blame Russian hackers, secret sex tapes, and probably space aliens if it means they don’t have to face the fact their party is a failure. We don’t need to co-sign this failure anymore. If they ever had anything to give us, and that’s a topic up for debate, that time is over.
Finally, and most inexcusably, the New Caucus has failed to support a meaningful movement-based strategy at CUNY. This does not mean the New Caucus has not heaped rhetorical support on free tuition, free speech, free candy, and all the rest. It means that they have failed to act in accordance with the principles of movement building. Many student workers at the Graduate Center don’t even know they’re in a union. Most CUNY students have no idea about the labor conditions in the system, never mind how they connect to learning conditions, until they’re being told to stand out of Cuomo’s office, hold a glossy prefab sign, and chant an approved chant, in a NYPD built cage, surrounded by the cops who brutalize them back in their neighborhoods (while clueless PSC members heap thanks on the cops and gush “They’re on our side!”), and fed corny sloganeering speeches.
Virtually no issue animates students in the CUNY system as does Broken Windows. And the New Caucus responds to this by endorsing its primary enabler. This disconnect is not a matter of scant resources, or a failure of political imagination. This is by design. The New Caucus is adept at one thing and one thing only: holding on to whatever dwindling power it has, and making sure no independent alternatives arise. We say CUNY’s only hope is a vibrant, independent movement. And anyone not willing to dedicate it resources and whatever power it has to support this needs to get out of the way.
The PSC is facing an existential threat, and its annihilation will only make conditions at CUNY worse. Loyalists to the New Caucus will argue that it is an external threat, against which we must all stand together. But how did we get to a position of such powerlessness? It is a failure of meaningful union democracy, a failure of substantive movement building, and a failure to stake out a position of power independent from the Democrats. In times of crisis it is even more imperative to challenge the utter failure of the New Caucus, and this very well might be our last chance.