After months of intensive organizing in classrooms, faculty offices, adjunct cubbies, and hallways at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, an overflowing, standing-room-only PSC chapter meeting on April 15th, 2019 adopted a “$7K or Strike” motion without amendments, 62–48–4. In doing so, John Jay becomes the eleventh CUNY chapter to pass a $7KOS resolution. The feeling in the room was electric. Members across job titles expressed our commitment to standing up for each other, and to building the capacity to press our non-negotiable demand to make adjunct working conditions livable. Students, alumni, PSC workers from other units, and community members all joined to show their support, swelling the meeting to well over 150 people, who spilled out into the halls and strained to hear the proceedings inside.
Though many previous $7KOS votes earned nearly unprecedented attendence for their respective chapters, recently the political opponents of $7KOS began arguing that the bottom-up democracy of chapter votes were illegitimate unless they reached a quorum of 10% of chapter membership. As every PSC organizer knows, this rate of participation is seldom reached even in the elections that carried these union politicians into office, in addition to being practically unheard of at the campus chapters, and rare even at the Delegate Assembly. Moreover, the same people trying to brush off $7KOS resolutions across the City never questioned the legitimacy of any other chapter-level resolutions that have passed at the usually sparsely-attended chapter meetings.
Regardless, we were interested not only in passing the resolution, but meeting quorum, as an answer to the eternally dissatisfied naysayers who grasp for excuses to scoff at a movement that has by now engaged thousands of their colleagues. Yet, after all this talk about the sanctity of quorum, despite insisting that the John Jay vote would be illegitimate with fewer than 102 voting members, the chapter leadership booked a room that could only fit about half that many people!
The hard work of $7KOS organizers and their allies turned people out in droves. It was the exact kind of organizing that will be needed to build a winning strike, on display for all to see. When we found the meeting room too small, we improvised an overflow room in the hallway. We also intervened to make sure the meeting didn’t begin while dozens of members were still lined up outside, as sleepy union staffers flipped through their membership lists, completely unprepared for (and visibly disinterested in) a high-participation, democratic vote. When the dust settled, and meeting began, attendance was well above quorum, for the first time many people could remember at John Jay.
Once discussion kicked off, a diverse group of members, including full-timers, adjuncts, graduate assistants, told stories of immigrant struggles, of poverty, and even of premature death among adjuncts. Speakers committed themselves to fighting for a strike that won’t be, as one of the anti-$7KOS speakers admitted about the 2016 strike authorization vote, a mere bluff. In defiance of all logic, opponents of $7KOS insisted that successful strike organizing was impossible… while addressing a crowd of workers and community members who had organized a midday meeting that spilled down the halls, packed with excited rank-and-filers clamoring for direct action.
The $7KoS resolution carried by a firm margin, to great applause and chants of “$7K or Strike!” But the vote was closer than it should have been. Many adjuncts who teach at multiple colleges to make ends meet were denied their right to vote by staffers, who argued they were registered as members of another chapter—a structural democratic problem for adjuncts whose college-level assignments shift as part of the precarity of our jobs. Moreover, for every confirmed adjunct attendee, there were at least five who told us they desperately wanted to come to vote in favor but couldn’t, because they were teaching on other campuses or working second or third jobs. That $7KOS won the vote decisively even though the conditions were so strongly rigged against adjuncts is a testament not just to the wildfire popularity of the $7K or Strike campaign, but also to the breadth and depth of our hundreds of hours of organizing, and to the weakness of the anti-strike wing’s ability to mobilize people against fellow union members.
Moreover, the chapter leadership had gone all out trying to delegitimize bottom-up decision making, and to disorganize the growing number of us who have committed to have each other’s backs. They spammed the chapter email list to fear-monger about the motion on absurd and confused grounds, and canceled all $7K grade-in tabling because the members who turned out regularly wouldn’t agree to a ban on conversations about striking. Chapter Chair Dan Pinello even threatened to resign if his membership defied him and voted up the $7KOS resolution. Pinello and his cohort also failed to denounce the College’s laughable decision to tear down any posters mentioning a strike—a ridiculous and unfounded interpretation of the Taylor Law. But with friends like these, who needs the Taylor Law?
Similarly, after the roaring applause for the adoption of the $7KOS resolution, a watered-down countermotion called “No Contract without $7K” failed to even make quorum. A small and isolated group of adjuncts aligned with the New Caucus had advanced this resolution in response to ours, and emailed the entire chapter encouraging them to vote for it—and vote against $7KOS. Designed only to sideline $7KoS and weaken our movement, this resolution didn’t make any damn sense. One of its scant proponents even argued that it too called for a strike for $7K, since “No Contract without $7K” meant the same thing as “$7K or Strike,” but it just wasn’t called $7KOS. This is the kind of unserious nonsense we have been up against all across CUNY lately, but thankfully most PSC members are not easily fooled. And their expectations are being raised by the day.
The vote at John Jay was a glimpse of what transformative change at CUNY can, and must, look like. We know there’s a long road ahead, but we know we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. Bottom-up democracy in the union, where members are involved in making decisions about strategy and building the solidarity needed to win, is not “impossible.” It’s not only morally better than elite-driven closed-door negotiations, but it’s just more effective, because the power of a union is in the members who make it up.
A democratic, member-driven union is coming to CUNY, and with it, a broad-based CUNY movement capable of going on the offensive against austerity. Members elected to office on small-turnout elections have to learn how to follow the movement and serve our most vulnerable members, or else get out of the way. As promised, Pinello resigned after coming face-to-face with the dreams and determination of the people he was elected to serve. Who’s going to be next, and who’s going to get with the program?
It’s a new era. Join us!