Many PhD students at the Graduate Center are classified as “Graduate Assistant Bs” (GABs). After 3 years of teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY, GABs are compelled in their 5th year to work in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program. These “WAC fellows” are responsible for developing writing curricula for full-time faculty and tutoring undergraduate students. Their training consists of a few unpaid yet mandatory seminars; even Chemistry and Math students are required to teach writing, without any formal training or certification, despite a preponderance of CUNY students in need of remedial instruction in basic composition from trained professionals. Instead of real support, they get us.
This year, CUNY announced a brutal reorganization of the WAC program, enshrining a workload double for the same money, while also prohibiting Graduate Assistants from working additional jobs at CUNY. For the vast majority of CUNY graduate students, fellowships do not cover living expenses in NYC, and so it’s common to adjunct at CUNY alongside fellowship work. For international students in particular, whose visas prohibit them from working outside the CUNY system, this announcement was a disaster.
In response to the WAC Attack, rank-and-file activists at the Graduate Center took immediate action. When the dust settled, CUNY administrations had backed down. This victory is further proof of the timeless adage that collectively organized, confrontational, direct action gets the goods. The notion that polite “persuasion” of management by union bureaucrats behind closed doors represents some sort of “strategy” is delusional. And when this approach gets implemented by our own chapter leadership, it directly threatens our capacity to survive. Our victory sheds light on a clear path forward. Moreover, that we had to fight in the first place illuminates mistakes that we must not allow to be made again. Here’s how it went down.
A WAC strategy
In 2017, graduate student workers discovered that although GABs’ hours are capped at 7.5 a week under PSC-CUNY’s collective bargaining agreement, CUNY had been working WAC fellows for upwards of 15 hours a week. In one year alone, CUNY had stolen approximately $2 million dollars in wages from graduate student workers. Accordingly, students filed a wage theft grievance. What transpired after the grievance was filed remains a mystery. Even those of us deeply involved in the organizing have been misinformed and stonewalled by our chapter leadership, which includes many fellow graduate students. What remains clear is that the issue was severely mishandled by our so-called “representatives,” who in fact fail to represent us, as evidenced by GC Chapter Chair Luke Elliott-Negri’s refusal to even mention our chapter’s nearly unanimous passage of a “$7k or Strike” resolution when he spoke at our rally for a new contract earlier this semester.
For starters, many of the 200 student workers covered by the grievance who had the chance of winning back over $10k were not even notified by the union. When we asked Elliot-Negri why this had not been done, he responded that it would be difficult to reach so many people, despite regularly emailing the entire chapter with meandering prose and despite the chapter frequently emailing select cohorts of Graduate Assistants. And, to add insult to injury, PSC’s Central Leadership had abandoned the Graduate Center, telling our chapter that its legal team would not represent us in this grievance. Abandoned by Central Leadership and intent on keeping its membership in the dark, Elliot-Negri and his cohort met behind closed doors with management. With more faith in their own capacity to persuade our bosses than in the political potential of an organized rank-and-file, they decided – without consulting past, present, or future fellows, including those whose wages had been stolen – to sign away the right of workers to grieve this issue for years to come. In return, they received a promise that CUNY would work to lower the hours of WAC fellows from 15 to 7.5 a week. This band-aid lasted one academic year. Then, to the surprise of no adult human, CUNY reneged on its promise. Verbal agreements, as the old adage goes, are not worth the paper they’re printed on.
And so, sensing the weakness of their adversary, CUNY management undertook the WAC Attack. In October, the GC administration announced the reclassification of WAC fellows as “Graduate Assistant As” (GAAs), formally enshrining the workload to 15 hours a week, and prohibiting students from holding other employment in the CUNY system.
Then the rank-and-file fought back
On November 1, 2018, after weeks of confusing and ambiguous emails, the chapter leadership held a meeting to explain the changes and to do some damage control. They were met at the door with a flyer produced by CUNY Struggle telling the whole story. It concluded by stating, “Our only hope for winning back pay and restoring the rights of future WAC fellows is a democratic campaign against GC management. We need to throw the losing strategy of insider negotiations in the trash where it belongs. CUNY management’s cake walk is over. It’s time for us to take what’s ours.” The meeting was subsequently taken over by angry graduate students demanding to hear from “someone who didn’t fuck this up.” Sick of talk, we marched to the Chancellor’s office and confronted Connolly directly. After a long and tense afternoon, what began as a top-down union chapter Q&A was transformed into the first organizing meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee of Graduate Students to Stop the WAC Attack.
Over the next two weeks, more than 50 GC students engaged in direct actions to demand the GC administration reverse its changes to WAC assignments. These included two unsanctioned student-led delegations to Connolly’s office. Whereas chapter leadership had met in secret behind closed doors, the natural habitat of management professionals, we brought the rowdy rank-and-file to an open airing of grievances that doubled as a demonstration of our real power.
We also organized all current 4th-years to refuse to send in their WAC applications until our demands were met. We planned to occupy the Provost’s office in late November, to lead an international student picket outside the building, and to have every 4th-year student send a letter of dissent in lieu of a cover letter with their WAC applications. However, as we were preparing to roll out these actions, we learned that we had already won. On November 14, hours before the the Ad Hoc Committee planned to assemble, Connolly announced that the administration had backed down. Demands that the administration told us were “unreasonable” were suddenly on offer.
The first step
In this new framework, all graduate assistants working as WAC Fellows until 2022 will be classified as GABs. This means that future WAC Fellows will be permitted to work additional jobs in the CUNY system while holding a WAC position. This is a major victory, especially for international students. The new agreement also reduces the number of hours CUNY asks WAC Fellows to work from 15 hours per week to 10 hours per week. But this is only a start.
Next year, many CUNY graduate students will still not receive any funding at all. Those who do will still be overworked in their 5th year, in what we consider blatant disregard of our existing union contract language. CUNY has long manipulated the portion of our income designated as “stipends,” using it as carrot or stick, depending on the occasion. For us to acknowledge in this case that we are willing to exchange our labor time for the stipends would create a dangerous precedent, and such an error can only open the door to further attempts by the GC to compel us to work more without pay. These extra 2.5 hours per week that CUNY is asking us to work need to be refused.“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches,” argued Malcolm X, “and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”
More importantly, we must support the campaign for full and fair funding for graduate students, without which we will always be pitted against one another. And, most of all, CUNY students, most of whom have been failed by New York City’s public schools, deserve professional writing assistance from workers paid a living wage, not a motley crew of conscripts whose minds are elsewhere. Any serious movement against austerity at CUNY will have to address the needs of undergraduate students alongside the needs of CUNY workers.
Nonetheless, this was a victory – itself a rarity in the present political landscape, perhaps at CUNY most of all. And with it comes a number of lessons for moving forward, and shifting from defensive skirmishes to an offensive against austerity. This can only be possible with a strategy that finds common ground between the sundry strata of the CUNY workforce and the students whose very livelihoods depend on CUNY, and against whom we are pitted all too often by austerity.
The WAC Attack was the result of union incompetence and lack of transparency. Management only went on the offensive because it sensed weakness. If not for the rank-and-file at the Graduate Center, a year from now, hundreds of graduate students would be coping with a disastrous employment situation. Therefore the very members who were kept in the dark and deceived had to come through and save the GC’s chapter leadership from its own ineptitude. We have drawn three main takes from this experience.
- Our fight was successful only because dozens of graduate student workers engaged in this struggle. We won this with collectively organized direct action and by threatening to withhold our labor. Talks behind closed doors between management and union leaders not only failed, they actually made things worse.
- The fact that we won so quickly signals that we have not be demanding enough. If we continue to organize like this, we can win much more. We must recognize that this is the strategic orientation our union chapter needs to take moving forward.
- The number of people who got involved in the fight signals that members of our chapter are angry and want to take direct, confrontational action, including withholding our labor. Our chapter is not alone. In the past couple months seven campus union chapters have passed “7k or Strike” resolutions supporting a strike to win $7k per course for adjuncts in the coming contract. PSC’s Central Leadership openly doubts membership’s commitment and capacity to take confrontation action, including striking, and they delight in condescendingly admonishing the rank-and-file adjuncts who continue to build such campaigns. But our union membership is conveying through its words and deeds that a growing movement within our union is very hungry to fight for more.
It’s a new era. Join us!
7K or Strike!