Response to Penny Lewis

By Andy Battle

Penny Lewis, a candidate for delegate on the incumbent New Caucus and Fusion Independents (NCFI) slate in the ongoing Graduate Center chapter elections, has penned a piece in which she claims to rebut a series of “lies and half-truths” being circulated about her group’s record and vision. Unfortunately this piece obfuscates more than it reveals. The main thrust of Lewis’s piece is an attempt to distance NCFI from the increasingly-unpopular New Caucus, the group that has controlled the union for the last seventeen years—a period during which funding for CUNY has plummeted, tuition has gone up, conditions have worsened, and the university has in large part replaced ordinary tenured faculty with outrageously low-paid and ultra-vulnerable teachers it calls adjuncts. To foster the impression of independence, Lewis spends a lot of time trying to explain how her group actually doesn’t agree on a lot of crucial issues, but still manages to generate something called a “unity slate.” It is hard to know what to make of these undefined terms and abstract claims, but attention to concrete examples of the NCFI approach in action reveal there is considerably less to this argument than meets the eye.

This vaunted diversity, for instance, counted for very little when it came to closing ranks and advocating that members accept the latest New Caucus contract, which yet again pushed flat-rate raises that expand the yawning gap between a shrinking, privileged minority and a growing sea of highly-exploited contingent workers. Ironically, the dissenting voices in their leadership found an outlet only on the independent CUNY Struggle website. In other words, when it came time to confront an issue with actual stakes, i.e. getting in line behind the central leadership or taking a risk and bucking the trend, the diversity NCFI brags about vanished rather quickly. CUNY Struggle, on the other hand, mounted and led a spirited public campaign against this brutal and unimaginative agreement that sought to hold the leadership accountable for its short-sighted approach—and succeeded in doing so, as responses to our campaign in The Chief and in the pages of Jacobin indicate. We believe that we have played a significant role in fostering not only the kind of spirited democratic culture that is a necessary feature of any successful workers’ organization, but a clear and growing consensus in the PSC that the plight of adjuncts is the central issue facing all faculty today. President Bowen’s recent e-mail, like a lot of the rhetoric NCFI debuted at the recent debate, sounds a lot like what was being published on the CUNY Struggle website over a year ago. But if had been up to the NCFI leadership, that pressure would not exist, since they fear alienating their patrons.

Another difference between the two slates is reflected in their endorsements. It is telling that those who have formally endorsed the CUNY Struggle caucus—including Sonam Singh, a key player in the recently-concluded Barnard struggle that won $10,000 a course for adjuncts—are connected to the grassroots and identified with the most contemporary trends in fighting for academic workers, whereas those who endorse NCFI are professors perched at the absolute highest tier of academic labor at CUNY, who make between eight and ten times what I do as an adjunct, and as far as I can tell are uninvolved in union politics or the academic labor movement at large in any sense beyond the rhetorical. This says a lot about the priorities of the respective caucuses. Overall, to my mind what CUNY Struggle willingly sacrifices in networking and name recognition we more than make up for with connections to the grassroots, straightforward integrity, and willingness to address head-on the basic issues confronting the growing sea of contingent workers in academia, including the scandalous lack of concern evinced by many tenure-track faculty for their colleagues who now teach a majority of the classes at CUNY.

Finally, I was dismayed by Lewis’s characterization of wanting to force a debate about the strategic direction of the union and to remodel it as a workers’ organization committed to direct democracy and direct action as a meaningless “protest vote.” Her characterization of heartfelt and principled political disagreements as “personal attacks” serves to trivialize and stifle the kind of critical approach and demand for accountability our union needs more than ever right now, particularly as we come out of yet another failed attempt on the part of the leadership to influence the budget-making process in Albany through persuasion and moral appeals. CUNY Struggle members have worked for two years now—on a purely volunteer, activist basis, without pay, course releases, or any of the other perks that accrue to those who choose to work within official union channels—to spread our vision of a militant, democratic union run by its members, even as it has made us unpopular with those who prefer that a membership they consider naive and unsavvy not rock the boat. Having embarked on this course and refused to stray from it, we are accustomed at this point to the smug condescension of the congenital insider. But this is not a season for insiders. It is distinctly possible we are nearing a crisis point in American society, in the basic sense of that word—when old paradigms no longer work, are overthrown, and get replaced with something else. The New Caucus has had seventeen years to vindicate its fundamentally cautious, insiders’ approach to bargaining, and during that time, conditions at CUNY and the welfare of its faculty and staff have plummeted. The labor movement as a whole is on its last legs, and without a fundamental reorientation of the kind that CUNY Struggle has consistently advocated, those legs are going to collapse for good. Little tweaks here and there are not going amount to much in the face of the assault we face.

The main issue in this election is whether the fundamental reorientation we need can be accomplished under the aegis of a New Caucus that has thus far resisted it at every opportunity. The current Graduate Center chapter leadership half-perceives this, as reflected in their tortured slate name—a timid attempt at asserting the kind of independence CUNY Struggle has always enjoyed. At Hunter College, where I teach, the New Caucus is engaged in a similar rebranding process, trying to have their cake and eat it too with a hybrid “Hunter Organizes/New Caucus” idea whose meaning remains unstated and unclear. It is not a coincidence that the two chapters where you find the present, unelected leadership suddenly running to the left are precisely the ones where CUNY Struggle members are now mounting formal challenges. In the end, though, there is only one group in the present elections that has from the beginning seen the problem clearly, pointed it out even when it has made them persona non grata in official union circles, and now offers a concrete program to enact the kind of radical transformation in the way we operate that alone offers us a chance to stand up to the assaults on workers and students we face. That group is CUNY Struggle and we humbly but excitedly ask for your support and participation in making this project a reality.

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