At the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) Delegate Assembly last night, a vote on launching a strike authorization campaign and vote within the union narrowly lost: 73 votes in favor, 76 against. Yet some delegates complained that technical difficulties prevented them from voting and the struggle will continue into another Special DA announced for next Monday (11/23). *
Last Spring, the union announced that 2800 adjuncts had been laid off (about 10% of the bargaining unit), and hundreds were losing healthcare during a pandemic. Some were eventually rehired, but many who were given reappointment letters didn’t end up receiving classes for the fall so wouldn’t be counted among those numbers. Non-teaching titles were also hit hard. A survey distributed among Non-teaching Adjuncts (NTAs) in September revealed that NTAs were given restricted hours or placed on month-to-month appointments at fourteen campuses across CUNY. Higher Education Officers (HEOs) are facing a work speed-up as hours for faculty and staff are cut, and College Laboratory Technicians (CLTs) along with HEOs are being asked to return to unsafe workspaces, putting their health in danger. At Bronx Community College, approximately 30 adjuncts who were up for 3-year contracts were nonreappointed, and at LaGuardia Community College, 20 veteran adjuncts suddenly had their jobs cut, hours slashed, and health insurance taken away. Campus budgets for the Spring 2021 semester are being withheld at 20%, and there is fearful talk of retrenchment, the process by which full-timers can lose their jobs during a state of financial exigency, often resorted to in the ’70s.
For all these reasons and so many more, a group of rank-&-file activists and leaders within the union felt it is time to have serious conversations about striking: what striking outside of a contract campaign would mean, how to take concrete steps toward it, and how to develop serious measures for assessing members’ willingness to strike in a state where public sector striking is illegal. Strike Authorization Vote (SAV) committees began forming across campuses in the Spring, and in September we held our first cross-campus SAV meeting, dreaming up plans for expanding our push and, over time, collectively drafting the resolution that was voted on last night.
The newly formed coalition included members of the Anti-Racist Coalition at Brooklyn College, Cut Covid Not CUNY, Rank & File Action (RAFA), over seven different campuses, and multiple titles including adjuncts, full-timers, and HEOs. The resolution itself links the strike campaign and vote to concerns about systemic racism at CUNY as well as unsafe reopenings in schools for librarians and other titles, and the persistent eroding of student learning conditions through larger class sizes and reduced class offerings. The tough battle and major institutional barriers facing us led us to take a unique and deeply collaborative, participatory approach to presenting the resolution to the floor: in the weeks leading up to the vote, we approached individual delegates and CUNY student and activist organizations (such as Free CUNY and campus YDSA chapters) beforehand to ask if they would “endorse” it–that is, publicly commit to vote yes. We added this growing list to the bottom of the resolution, and were receiving additional endorsements even up to final hour, with a total of 63 individual endorsers and 17 group endorsements (including CUNY for Abolition and Safety, the Black Student Union of the City University of New York, the Graduate Center PSC Executive Committee, and the CUNY Adjunct Project), which can be reviewed via the link to the resolution above.
Most of a meeting that ended up lasting almost five hours was spent in fierce (if often baffling) debate. While there were a few impassioned and downright insulting arguments against–for instance, the chapter chair of Baruch claimed the writers of the resolution “had a screw loose” and denied the existence of racialized austerity–the opposing side spent most of their time arguing in favor of the spirit of the resolution (so they claimed) but expressing problems with the specific language as presented. We question the legitimacy of these arguments, since the PSC Executive Council (hereafter EC) had met with us a few days before the DA expressing their opposition to the resolution but then refused to offer edits or revisions when requested. One member of the EC who wasn’t at that former meeting, Luke Elliott-Negri, submitted additional language emphasizing the need for assessment of the conditions for striking among members and working with union committees such as CAP (the Committee for Adjuncts and Part-Timers) as we develop a strategic plan for striking. This was voted through and he, along with Rosa Squillacote and Sharon Utakis, became the only members of the 27-person Executive Council to vote yes on the final version.
Disappointingly, the New Caucus’s choice for incoming President of the union (after Barbara Bowen ends her 20-year tenure), James Davis, expressed opposition to the resolution and voted no even after months of seemingly favorable conversations with members of the cross-campus SAV coalition. Meanwhile, our side spoke of “leading with hope,” and observed that the resolution as written seemed to follow the spirit the PSC is already undertaking: language around militancy and striking has been added to internal phonebanking scripts, the Special DA on Monday is now dedicated to discussion of strike readiness, and President Bowen even mentioned in the meeting that she believes a strike may be necessary in the spring!
In the end, we lost the vote: but narrowly. Three people indicated in the chat that they were unable to vote due to technical issues, which would have brought the vote to a tie, and many observed that Zoom’s hand-raising function is an inadequate mechanism for voting on such binding issues. Generally most delegates follow the will of the Principal Officers, but our diverse and vibrant coalition managed to split the vote down the middle and win over many new comrades in the process–something that was barely conceivable just a few months ago.
Ultimately this is a victory for the rank & file, and we look forward to the coalition continuing to build over the coming days and months toward the possibility of a strike that is so desperately needed during this crushing pandemic. The delegate who brought the resolution to the floor, Carolina Bank Muñoz, who has been a leader in the PSC for 16 years, commented afterward that she has “never been more hopeful about our collective capacity to organize and build power.” Despite reasonable fears at the beginning that this effort would be a lost cause, we are now that much closer to strike readiness. The outcome of Monday’s Special DA, where there may be another revised resolution submitted for a vote that incorporates some criticism of the original, could make all the difference.
P.S. Still confused about some of these union terms or acronyms? Check out this handy PSC Glossary, crowdsourced by Gerry Martini.
*note about authorship: the “we” of this article refers broadly to the coalition, but does not necessarily represent the strategies or approaches of all members and groups within this coalition. CUNY Struggle as an organization was not involved in preparations toward this SAV vote.