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.Continue reading “Grad Center Rank-and-File Beats Back the WAC Attack!”
CUNY Struggle is an organization of rank-and-file academic workers in the City University of New York system. Part of our work is organizing within our union — the Professional Staff Congress-AFT Local 2334 — for the kinds of democratic reforms needed to mobilize broadly against austerity. In the last year, we have built a movement that pushed PSC leadership to demand a doubling of adjunct pay to $7000 (7K) per course in its present bargaining with CUNY. We now strive to back up this righteous demand with the weight of the collective power of CUNY workers, students, and the broader New York City working class. To date, we have helped seven campus PSC chapters endorse resolutions pledging to support a strike if the 7K demand is not met.
Our biggest obstacle in pushing for 7K has been the mistaken belief, shared by most of our union’s leadership, that meaningful gains can be won outside of a bargaining horizon that includes the possibility of a strike. This has placed us in a grassroots insurgency against our union’s failed strategy of lobbying politicians from a position of weakness. While striking is no silver bullet, and is not to be undertaken lightly, we find the power of every workplace campaign to emanate not from the persuasive rhetoric of its official representatives, but from the ability of its rank-and-file to withhold their labor.
Accordingly, we’re worried about the precedent the UAW is setting by forswearing a strike in advance. The UAW of all unions should be well aware of the disastrous historical outcome of no-strike pledges on organized labor in the United States. We support your campaign against this short-sighted and self-defeating measure, and hope that in joining forces we can advance a citywide movement of rank-and-file academic workers, in the spirit of the movement of educators reshaping the terrain of class struggle in the US today.
We stand with you, not as sympathetic observers, but as comrades in a struggle that is one in the same.
This afternoon, Brooklyn College became the seventh PSC chapter to vote YES on the “$7k or strike” resolution. The resolution passed easily, with only two abstentions. It was the largest chapter meeting of the semester, with attendance hovering around 80 people. With only a week of tabling and flyering, organizers were able to reach a large number of adjuncts who were eager to turn out and speak in favor of building a strike movement behind the $7k demand. Full-timers and undergraduate students at the meeting also voiced their support for a militant approach to contract negotiations. The meeting took place in an atmosphere of solidarity. People cheered and clapped after interventions in support of the resolution, and few expressed reservations. A faculty member in attendance even asked the crowd whether someone who opposes the resolution could explain why they do, because she couldn’t imagine what their arguments might be. But there was no one there who opposed the idea of a strike for $7k. It seems there is far less cynicism and apathy among the PSC rank and file than the leadership believes.
In an inspiring show of cross-title solidarity, three amendments were introduced by full-timers to strengthen the resolution and make it more actionable. A professor of political science added language that made explicit the resolve of the chapter to take on the difficult work of building a strike. A professor of computer science suggested adding a pledge clause according to which each person in attendance would promise to bring a colleague to the next meeting. And a professor of history amended the language in the resolution to reflect the fact that $7k per course is still only barely a living wage, a useful reminder of the moral obligation we have to fight for this demand.
The meeting was invigorating. With seven campuses on board, it is time to take concrete next steps toward building a strike movement. This is only the beginning.
All aboard the 7K or Strike train! This past week PSC chapters at two more CUNY schools, College of Staten Island and Hostos Community College, passed resolutions supporting a rigorous campaign for a $7K minimum wage per course for CUNY’s adjunct faculty in the coming PSC contract, all the way up to a strike! They join The Graduate Center, Bronx Community College, Borough of Manhattan Community College, and Hunter College, all of whom passed resolutions this past year. They also stand astride hundreds of PSC rank-and-filers, CUNY students, and their allies from across the city, who rallied for 7K or Strike last month.
These resolutions represent a democratic awakening at the local level, where important issues impacting the lives of CUNY workers and students are rarely deliberated. Moreover, they provide the opportunity to debate tactics and strategy around fighting austerity, inside and outside the CUNY system. As the present contract negotiations drag on and PSC members work yet again without a contract, we find ourselves at a crossroads of great importance to the fight against austerity: Do we continue to rely on a small set of technocratic “leaders,” who impose from on high a failed strategy of backroom conciliation with politicians and management, keeping the rank-and-file demobilized and in the dark? Or do we harness the power of our numbers, our fighting spirit, and our strategic relationships with students, parents, and communities across working-class New York City, to build a grassroots movement capable of going on the offensive?
As if the usual gross exploitation of part-time workers at CUNY weren’t enough, the administration regularly uses bureaucratic maneuvers to further extract cost-savings from its most vulnerable employees. Adjuncts are rarely paid on time, they’re forced to give up their classes to full-time professors whose sections don’t meet the enrollment minimums, and fifth-year graduate students are forced to work as Writing Across the Curriculum fellows for twice as many hours as the contract permits but for the same pay. Adding to an endless list of injustices, this semester many international students at the Graduate Center have not been paid their fellowship money. Normally paid in August, fellowships can be as much as half a student’s income for the semester, which is especially vital for international students, who are barred from working outside of CUNY. The administration has offered no recourse besides broken promises and shady “advances” that were actually loans. Meanwhile, the PSC, which usually refuses to intervene in any issue not covered by the contract, has only further mucked up the situation by suggesting that the GC issue these loans rather than mobilizing its rank-and-file to demand immediate payment.
Thankfully, the rank-and-file aren’t waiting for the union leadership for direction. International graduate students have been organizing at the grassroots level to demand the money they were owed three months ago, as well as mechanisms to prevent future late payment. We share below an open letter explaining and raising these demands. At the time of publishing, over a hundred GC students and faculty have signed. You can sign onto the letter here.
At today’s meeting of the Hunter College chapter of the PSC, attendees passed the $7K or Strike resolution that passed at the Graduate Center last spring and Bronx Community College last week. After significant debate, the vote was twenty-eight for, one against, and one abstaining.
It is worth noting that many adjuncts cannot attend chapter meetings because low wages and punishing conditions demand that they shuttle back and forth between the several jobs they must hold to stay afloat. Recognizing this fact, colleagues from Hunter’s Film & Media department circulated a petition through which members unable to attend could signal their support for the resolution. In just two days, eighty members of the department, including a few full-timers, signed the petition.
Also significant is that the number of undergraduate students in attendance doubled from the last meeting. The support of students is a prerequisite for any successful mass action by teachers. Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions, but just saying it is not enough—we need to mount a fierce campaign to actively enlist students on our side by making their teachers’ plight visible and asking them to participate actively in the life of the union. We should also make students’ concerns—tuition, class sizes, building conditions, advising, and more—part of our bargaining agenda in service of building a democratic bloc that can redirect the university away from the cruel logic of profit-seeking and in the direction of our ideals. This is not how it is done, the savvy will tell you. Pay them no mind. Formal structures have failed us—a democratic revolution is our only hope.
Another PSC chapter has thrown its weight behind a strike for $7K! As Hunter College voted on its successful 7K or Strike! resolution, a similar resolution was on the floor at Borough of Manhattan Community College. The room was packed to capacity and the energy was palpable. Chair Geoffry Kurtz remarked on the rarity of debating and passing such a resolution at the chapter meeting level. Members across titles, including multiple tenured faculty, spoke about the importance of supporting $7K, not just as a moral issue, but also as a strategic one: adjunct precarity, after all, is simply the principle means of imposing austerity on the entire university system. When adjuncts lose in the short term, everybody loses in the end.
The Executive Committee at BMCC had prepared a resolution, inspired by the initiatives at the Graduate Center and Bronx Community College, calling for $7K to be won by “large-scale collective actions, up to and including some form of job action or strike if and when such an action would unite PSC members and help the PSC win $7K.” Now, we at CUNY Struggle have earned something of a reputation for intransigence bordering on impracticality. But we were happy to support this resolution in the spirit of compromise without which a strike would be impossible. When the resolution hit the floor, however, the rank-and-file had other ideas. Multiple members unconnected to CUNY Struggle spoke up to say they were not satisfied with its indirect “waffling.” There was broad support for an amendment to state a clear commitment to striking for $7K. Therefore a motion was called and passed overwhelmingly in support of “large-scale collective actions, up to and including some form of job action or strike.” Period.
Today BMCC took a stand for CUNY’s future. Which campus is next?