Academic Organizing: The Rank and File Perspective

Singh brings the wisdom

On June 2nd, members of CUNY Struggle participated in a panel at this year’s Left Forum called “Rank-and-File Academic Organizing: Turning the Tide Against Austerity.” The panel, moderated by CUNY Struggle’s Jarrod Shanahan, featured rank-and-file organizers from New York City and beyond, including Sofya Aptekar (Faculty Staff Union, UMass-Boston), Camila Vergara (Graduate Workers of Columbia), Sonam Singh (Barnard Contingent Faculty) and Andy Battle (PSC-CUNY, CUNY Struggle).

All panelists spoke from a rank-and-file perspective. Camila Vergara offered an insider’s view of the recently-concluded Columbia strike, which she argued was weakened by several mistakes on the part of UAW Local 2110 leadership. Sofya Aptekar offered a perspective from the public university system in Massachusetts, where UMass-Boston faculty and students are fighting a remorseless austerity program much like the one we face at CUNY—and having to oppose a timid and small-minded union leadership to put themselves in a position to do it. Sonam Singh of the Barnard Contingent Faculty delivered insights from that union’s successful campaign, which has netted a $10,000 per course minimum for adjuncts in the final year of the present contract. Singh explained that the union would have gotten “nothing” without a credible strike threat and that any campaign not prepared to strike if it has to is ultimately “wasting its time.” Andy Battle of CUNY Struggle offered a primer on the history of the CUNY system, its immense democratic potential, the relentless campaign of disinvestment that has hurt the school and its students, and some of the obstacles to effective mobilization on the part of rank-and-file teachers, especially the odious Taylor Law, which seeks to cow New York State employees from deploying their power as workers in the form of a strike.

Audience discussion following the presentations was sharp and substantive. Attendees included university faculty from across the Northeast, undergraduate students from Barnard, and members of other city unions, including the United Federation of Teachers’ Movement of Rank and File Educators  caucus and rank and file members of the Organization of Staff Analysts. Topics of discussion included the relationship between tenure-track faculty and adjuncts, the question of broadening demands and linking up with other city and state workers, and the imperative to connect with students, our natural allies as partisans of a genuinely democratic university. Some audience members expressed frustration that it seems to be “the same damn story” with regard to rank-and-file caucuses and recalcitrant, ineffective union leaderships everywhere. One UFT member enjoined us to focus on our role as teachers—in other words people intimately involved with the lives of our students, in most cases young people struggling against the forces of poverty and alienation.

The panel was a great experience and as always we widened our connections and our perspectives. We will continue organizing and agitating, especially around the $7K or STRIKE resolutions that have succeeded at the Graduate Center and sit on the agenda at Hunter. The struggle continues!

One thought on “Academic Organizing: The Rank and File Perspective”

  1. It was a great forum, and when panelists mentioned being part of organizations/caucuses within their unions “for a democratic union,” I saw a lot of nods around the room. Are we ready for CUNY EDU (that is, CUNY Educators for a Democratic Union)?

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