Conor Tomás Reed Endorses CUNY Struggle

Longtime CUNY activist Conor Tomás Reed penned the following endorsement of CUNY Struggle. We are honored to have Conor’s support, but dismayed to hear about disenfranchisement throughout the Graduate Center chapter. If you feel you have been disenfranchised in this election, contact the PSC immediately (drosato@pscmail.org) and then email cunystruggleinfo@gmail.com toconor_tomas_reed_cuny_rally tell us the story.

I just found out that I can’t vote in The Graduate Center PSC election because of a technicality. For those of you in CUNY Struggle and the New Caucus and Fusion Independents with whom I’ve had the honor to struggle alongside for several years, I’m saddened about this disenfranchisement, but I also know that it symbolizes the inadequacies of “democracy” without a liberation framework. In lieu of a secret mail-in ballot, I wish to publicly vote my support for the CUNY Struggle slate.

We all fought hard to get a Professional Staff Congress/CUNY chapter on our campus, even as PSC Central set up technicality roadblocks to delay it. We all fought hard to authorize a 97% YES strike vote in Spring 2016, even as PSC Central then urged many of us to ratify a woefully uneven contract (which I am still proud my subsequent vote rejected). Within the past few years, many new and continuing GC organizers — on both slates and beyond — have broadened our reach and transformed what a union could do and feel like. We’ve also convinced PSC Central to take some risks and defend its members who are regularly on the frontlines.

While both CUNY Struggle and New Caucus and Fusion Independents have advocated new vibrant approaches to CUNY/NYC movement work, we are at a crossroads and must become more daring. As we face the precipice of authoritarianism, attacks and deportations of the most marginalized, automatic-dues dissolution for what’s left of U.S. unionism, and violent inequalities from schools to communities, even the most fiery-tongued of orthodox labor strategies is insufficient — especially when fused with top-down undemocratic union methods that have kept most of PSC’s membership uninvolved. CUNY Struggle presents an explicit break with various failed PSC models, and importantly, does so within The Graduate Center PSC chapter that is best poised to influence and turn the entire union into a fighting force CUNY-wide.

CUNY Struggle’s victory would no doubt be a contradictory transition moment. Even as CS members are more keenly attuned to the kinds of resistance that our union and university must create to survive and thrive, NCFI members helped to shape our fledgling chapter into existence and built trust with a broad layer of new union participants. Even as CS would possibly face isolation or derision by PSC Central’s New Caucus, our GC chapter would need to stand by our decision to support this organizing alternative. Even as both slates have highlighted each other’s flaws during the election campaigns, we’d need everyone to build upon NCFI’s foundations while embracing CS’s vision to (actually) center adjuncts in our next contract, prepare now to take militant strike actions, and directly connect to broader social struggles. Crucially, we’d need to make top-tier calcified leadership irrelevant by activating the entire PSC base to create a democratic and liberatory union. Leadership in a union matters, but leaders without a genuine rank-and-file movement are just toy generals, no matter what their politics.

From California to Chicago to Seattle, and from Chile to Mexico to Puerto Rico to Quebec to South Africa, we see how education upheavals can precipitate wider social changes — not through charisma or coercion, but in the words of Paulo Freire, through “education as a practice of freedom.” Our position in CUNY is no less strategically profound. I’m eager to continue practicing freedom with my comrades on both slates. Our longtime CUNY movement is worth all of your continued organizing efforts, no matter the election results.

I welcome CUNY Struggle to aptly seize the moment in leading alongside us all in a new movement direction, and I urge The Graduate Center PSC chapter to also vote for a radical grassroots CUNY Struggle.

High Rent and Low Pay

The following letter about Barbara Bowen’s scandalous “affordable housing” e-mail was sent to the Clarion by our good friend Sam Stein. It echoes sentiments we expressed at the time, and which we reiterated in our recent debate with the New Caucus

On February 21 and 22, I received emails from our union president, Barbara Bowen, informing me of a contractual opportunity to “participate in a lottery for a small number of below-market rental apartments in Manhattan.” The units are part of Peter Cooper Village, which was recently purchased by the world’s biggest landlord, private equity firm Blackstone. The city gave Blackstone $221 million in tax breaks, loans and more; and in exchange, the owner agreed to keep a small number of apartments stabilized at alarmingly high rents. Apparently, a few of those apartments were set aside for public-sector union members.

A two-bedroom “affordable” apartment for PSC members rents for $3,400 per month. According to the Furman Center’s most recent “State of New York City Housing and Neighborhoods” report, that’s actually higher than the median asking rent in neighborhood. For this two-bedroom apartment to be considered affordable, a PSC member would have to make $136,000 per year. As a graduate student and teacher with one of CUNY’s best funding packages, I make just $25,000. A vanishingly small number of highly paid professors could actually afford this housing, while the vast majority of PSC members struggle to find affordable homes and shelter.

Remind me again why we rushed to endorse Mayor Bill de Blasio?

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Response to Penny Lewis

By Andy Battle

Penny Lewis, a candidate for delegate on the incumbent New Caucus and Fusion Independents (NCFI) slate in the ongoing Graduate Center chapter elections, has penned a piece in which she claims to rebut a series of “lies and half-truths” being circulated about her group’s record and vision. Unfortunately this piece obfuscates more than it reveals. The main thrust of Lewis’s piece is an attempt to distance NCFI from the increasingly-unpopular New Caucus, the group that has controlled the union for the last seventeen years—a period during which funding for CUNY has plummeted, tuition has gone up, conditions have worsened, and the university has in large part replaced ordinary tenured faculty with outrageously low-paid and ultra-vulnerable teachers it calls adjuncts. To foster the impression of independence, Lewis spends a lot of time trying to explain how her group actually doesn’t agree on a lot of crucial issues, but still manages to generate something called a “unity slate.” It is hard to know what to make of these undefined terms and abstract claims, but attention to concrete examples of the NCFI approach in action reveal there is considerably less to this argument than meets the eye.

This vaunted diversity, for instance, counted for very little when it came to closing ranks and advocating that members accept the latest New Caucus contract, which yet again pushed flat-rate raises that expand the yawning gap between a shrinking, privileged minority and a growing sea of highly-exploited contingent workers. Ironically, the dissenting voices in their leadership found an outlet only on the independent CUNY Struggle website. In other words, when it came time to confront an issue with actual stakes, i.e. getting in line behind the central leadership or taking a risk and bucking the trend, the diversity NCFI brags about vanished rather quickly. CUNY Struggle, on the other hand, mounted and led a spirited public campaign against this brutal and unimaginative agreement that sought to hold the leadership accountable for its short-sighted approach—and succeeded in doing so, as responses to our campaign in The Chief and in the pages of Jacobin indicate. We believe that we have played a significant role in fostering not only the kind of spirited democratic culture that is a necessary feature of any successful workers’ organization, but a clear and growing consensus in the PSC that the plight of adjuncts is the central issue facing all faculty today. President Bowen’s recent e-mail, like a lot of the rhetoric NCFI debuted at the recent debate, sounds a lot like what was being published on the CUNY Struggle website over a year ago. But if had been up to the NCFI leadership, that pressure would not exist, since they fear alienating their patrons.

Another difference between the two slates is reflected in their endorsements. It is telling that those who have formally endorsed the CUNY Struggle caucus—including Sonam Singh, a key player in the recently-concluded Barnard struggle that won $10,000 a course for adjuncts—are connected to the grassroots and identified with the most contemporary trends in fighting for academic workers, whereas those who endorse NCFI are professors perched at the absolute highest tier of academic labor at CUNY, who make between eight and ten times what I do as an adjunct, and as far as I can tell are uninvolved in union politics or the academic labor movement at large in any sense beyond the rhetorical. This says a lot about the priorities of the respective caucuses. Overall, to my mind what CUNY Struggle willingly sacrifices in networking and name recognition we more than make up for with connections to the grassroots, straightforward integrity, and willingness to address head-on the basic issues confronting the growing sea of contingent workers in academia, including the scandalous lack of concern evinced by many tenure-track faculty for their colleagues who now teach a majority of the classes at CUNY.

Finally, I was dismayed by Lewis’s characterization of wanting to force a debate about the strategic direction of the union and to remodel it as a workers’ organization committed to direct democracy and direct action as a meaningless “protest vote.” Her characterization of heartfelt and principled political disagreements as “personal attacks” serves to trivialize and stifle the kind of critical approach and demand for accountability our union needs more than ever right now, particularly as we come out of yet another failed attempt on the part of the leadership to influence the budget-making process in Albany through persuasion and moral appeals. CUNY Struggle members have worked for two years now—on a purely volunteer, activist basis, without pay, course releases, or any of the other perks that accrue to those who choose to work within official union channels—to spread our vision of a militant, democratic union run by its members, even as it has made us unpopular with those who prefer that a membership they consider naive and unsavvy not rock the boat. Having embarked on this course and refused to stray from it, we are accustomed at this point to the smug condescension of the congenital insider. But this is not a season for insiders. It is distinctly possible we are nearing a crisis point in American society, in the basic sense of that word—when old paradigms no longer work, are overthrown, and get replaced with something else. The New Caucus has had seventeen years to vindicate its fundamentally cautious, insiders’ approach to bargaining, and during that time, conditions at CUNY and the welfare of its faculty and staff have plummeted. The labor movement as a whole is on its last legs, and without a fundamental reorientation of the kind that CUNY Struggle has consistently advocated, those legs are going to collapse for good. Little tweaks here and there are not going amount to much in the face of the assault we face.

The main issue in this election is whether the fundamental reorientation we need can be accomplished under the aegis of a New Caucus that has thus far resisted it at every opportunity. The current Graduate Center chapter leadership half-perceives this, as reflected in their tortured slate name—a timid attempt at asserting the kind of independence CUNY Struggle has always enjoyed. At Hunter College, where I teach, the New Caucus is engaged in a similar rebranding process, trying to have their cake and eat it too with a hybrid “Hunter Organizes/New Caucus” idea whose meaning remains unstated and unclear. It is not a coincidence that the two chapters where you find the present, unelected leadership suddenly running to the left are precisely the ones where CUNY Struggle members are now mounting formal challenges. In the end, though, there is only one group in the present elections that has from the beginning seen the problem clearly, pointed it out even when it has made them persona non grata in official union circles, and now offers a concrete program to enact the kind of radical transformation in the way we operate that alone offers us a chance to stand up to the assaults on workers and students we face. That group is CUNY Struggle and we humbly but excitedly ask for your support and participation in making this project a reality.

CUNY Struggle Debates the New Caucus (video)

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Last night, on the eve of our chapter elections, members of CUNY Struggle debated the Graduate Center’s New Caucus slate. Two distinct visions for the future of the CUNY movement were on display: one bold and daring, another timid and technocratic. Ballots are in the mail this week, and we encourage everyone to cast their ballot for the CUNY Struggle Caucus. But whether we win or lose, CUNY Struggle will continue to push the envelope inside and outside the PSC, building toward the horizontally organized, autonomous mass movement that is our only hope in this moment of unprecedented social crisis.

Watch our debate here. (Note: you need to provide an e-mail address to view this video, but it need not be a real one.)

Why Vote for the CUNY Struggle Caucus?

To challenge the status quo. We are running to overcome the entrenched, apathetic central leadership of our union that has been in power for 17 years. If we win, CUNY Struggle will have ten delegates at the PSC delegate assembly, and we will work to pass resolutions that empower adjuncts and graduate students, as well as hold democratic, participatory chapter meetings.

To democratize the union. Empowering the rank and file is the only way to combat the imminent attack on public sector unions. We want to hold leadership accountable by instituting open bargaining and proportional representation in governance, so that members from all titles are able to play a meaningful role in our union. CUNY Struggle rejects the New Caucus’s reliance on lobbying and instead proposes a more militant strategy based on direct action and preparations for a strike to ensure we get $7,000 per course in the next contract. (Read the rest of our platform here.) The last contract, which our opponents supported, distributed most of the gains to the top tier of our union and kept CUNY adjuncts in poverty, making a measly $3,300 per course, which is less than $30k working full-time. This only continued the trend of CUNY setting the low bar for adjunct contracts city-wide, and it must stop now!

To fight for a broad social-justice-based union. Unions can and should fight for more than wages and job security. Working conditions like class size, control over GTF assignments, and diversity in hiring,to name a few, should be a part of bargaining negotiations. We also want a union that stands in solidarity with our students and with all New Yorkers, fighting for free tuition and against deportations & policing.

The incumbent slate, the New Caucus and Fusion Independents (“NCFI”, a rebranding of the New Caucus) have accused us of opposing “cross-title solidarity” with HEOs by misrepresenting an email we wrote about room capacity, in an effort to sidestep our debate challenge. It is clear that NCFI, much like the New Caucus, would rather not discuss the issues. They want you to take their progressive credentials at their word — but their record speaks for itself. They’ve had abysmal attendance at the delegate assembly, they’ve refused to take bold action against central leadership (even adopting the New Caucus name), and they’ve failed to put forward concrete democratic reforms. In an effort to cut through the mudslinging, we issued a public challenge to a debate open to all, which they’ve since accepted. Join us tomorrow, March 5th, at 5pm in room 9207 at the Graduate Center for a debate.

Ballots that include pre-paid postage were mailed to your home address on Monday: make sure you drop them in the mail by April 24th to ensure they get counted. Vote CUNY Struggle!

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So what’s the difference between CUNY Struggle and the NCFI?

They are proposing a half step when only a full step will do it.

Our contributions to the union and to CUNY

As unpaid rank-and-file members of the union, we have made many contributions to the chapter, to adjunct organizing within the union, and to uniting our struggles with that of CUNY students. Here are a few examples:

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  • Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 5.48.16 PMIn March 2016, we organized a Popular Assembly that brought together over 100 activists from across CUNY, including undergraduates and CUNY workers, to link the fight for a new contract with student struggles for free tuition and against campus policing.
  • We wrote and published a back-to-school zine called “CUNY at the Crossroads: a history of the mess we’re in and how to get out of it,” which tackles austerity at CUNY, the rise of contingent academic labor, policing and the suppression of free speech on CUNY campuses, and a brief history of resistance. This document serves as the basis of our strategy and we have distributed almost 500 copies. Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 5.47.42 PM
  • We organized a workshop on building an intersectional movement for free tuition at CUNY at the BLM occupation of City Hall Park against broken windows policing and then-police commissioner Bill Bratton.
  • We organized with long-term adjuncts to mount a spirited “Vote NO” campaign against the last contract, featured in the Huffington Post, Politico New York, The Chief, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Jacobin.

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  • We helped build X-Campus Rank and File, a citywide network to foster solidarity among academic workers, with graduate workers from other NYC universities.
  • We built the CUNY Struggle listserv as an open, CUNY-wide, multi-tendency forum to help coordinate the efforts of the PSC rank-and-file, especially adjunct-led efforts to put pressure on the union leadership.
  • We organized a series of open meetings culminating with a public speak-out at Hunter College last spring, with wide participation from both PSC rank-and-file and undergraduate social justice clubs.
  • We regularly participate in the PSC-wide Committee of Adjuncts and Part-Timers and organized meetings on the campuses to mobilize adjuncts, including establishing the Hunter Adjunct Committee.
  • We participate in a coalition with the Adjunct Project and the GC Chapter of the PSC to determine non-negotiable contract demands for adjuncts and ways to ensure these demands are heard, which produced this text, now central to contract discussions.
  • Many of our candidates work as PSC shop stewards to deepen the union’s connections to graduate students, expand the grievance process, and sign up new members.
  • CUNY Struggle members actively participated in the chapter’s efforts to sign up 700 fee-payers, including tabling in the lobby and reaching out to agency fee payers in their departments.
  • Four of our candidates have served as elected DSC steering officers and department representatives.Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 5.53.29 PM
  • CUNY Struggle co-sponsored a multi-day Verizon picket in Herald Square along with the GC Chapter of the PSC.
  • CUNY Struggle agitates at GC chapter meetings and at the Delegate Assembly against the perpetuation of failed incremental strategies and for the democratic restructuring of the union.

Sonam Singh from Barnard Contingent Faculty Union Endorses CUNY Struggle, Tells Us How They Got $10k Per Course for Adjuncts

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Sonam Singh is an Adjunct Lecturer in English at Barnard College and a member of the Bargaining Committee for Barnard Contingent Faculty-UAW Local 2110 (BCF-UAW), a union for part-time and full-time non-tenure-track faculty at Barnard College. BCF-UAW was certified in October 2015, commenced bargaining in February 2016, passed a strike authorization in December 2016, and settled its first contract in February 2017, a few days short of a February 21 strike deadline. Over the five years of the contract, per-course minimums will rise from $7,000 to $10,000 for part-time contingent faculty and annual salaries from $60,000 to $70,000 for full-time contingent faculty. 

1. So, how did you get so much money?

A really important part of it was making clear—to ourselves, to our members, and to the administration—that we didn’t think it was a lot of money. In every case, from our initial demands down to the amounts we settled on, contingent faculty will be paid less than tenure-track faculty for the same work. I think it’s crucial for contingent faculty to start negotiations at pay parity. The existing paradigm for adjunct pay has to be rejected from the outset.

“I think it’s crucial for contingent faculty to start negotiations at pay parity. The existing paradigm for adjunct pay has to be rejected from the outset.”

Beyond that, the success of our campaign, in the face of a hostile administration, was to pass an overwhelming strike authorization and mobilize actively for a strike. A strike authorization without a credible show of an ability to strike does not accomplish much. For example, the modest health care benefits we won for part-time faculty and the administration’s acquiescence to our wage demands happened only because of setting and mobilizing for a strike deadline. If the administration thought striking was unlikely or most members would cross the picket line, they would have been happy to drag out the process indefinitely. If all we had done was bargain, all the negotiating acumen and rhetorical savvy in the world would have made little difference.

2. How did BCF-UAW mobilize members?

Our contract campaign was only going to be as successful as the Bargaining Committee’s ability to credibly speak on behalf of the membership and the administration’s awareness that they weren’t bargaining with a group of pragmatic professional bargainers but with a unified group of their employees demanding fundamental fairness in working conditions. The biggest problem with classic closed door bargaining is that management knows the union bargainers—especially if they’re long-term bargaining professionals—are willing to settle faster and settle for less, especially if they haven’t put in the organizing work outside the bargaining room unifying membership around core demands. We updated membership regularly (typically after each session), solicited feedback, invited members to observe bargaining, and held informational meetings. The administration knew our demands in the bargaining room were continuous with our organizing outside it, that our members were unified behind us.

“The administration knew our demands in the bargaining room were continuous with our organizing outside it, that our members were unified behind us.”

The other piece that’s important to mention is student support. It was crucial to make sure that students understood our issues and heard about bargaining from us as often as from the administration. Barnard has some amazing student activists who were powerful allies and helped create pressure on the administration. Ultimately all colleges and universities are teaching institutions and unions have to work to win students to an understanding that teaching and learning conditions are intimately connected, that our issues are shared issues.

 3. Aren’t CUNY and Barnard very different institutions?

In many ways, yes. I think the main thing I’d emphasize is that Barnard is not Columbia; it is not a subsidiary or branch of Columbia. It is a completely separate institution with its own President, Board, and a quite small endowment. Barnard depends on tuition dollars and government grants for the majority of its budget. We were bargaining with a school with limited resources and large fixed commitments. But we grounded our campaign in the college’s core teaching mission and demanded fairer allocation of those limited resources.

It’s also important to note that there are many faculty who adjunct at both Barnard and CUNY, as there are many people who adjunct at some combination of Barnard, Columbia, CUNY, NYU, The New School, etc. Each of these institutions draws from the same labor pool and each of these institutions looks to the others to determine pay and benefits levels for contingent faculty. CUNY, as the lowest-paying employer for adjuncts, depresses the market for part-time faculty across the city. Personally, I was extremely discouraged by how the last PSC contract actually increased the gap between part-time and full-time faculty and how unwilling the PSC leadership was to own up to this basic fact.

 4. What advice would you give to PSC rank and file members who want to democratize the union?

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that large unions can be anywhere from wary of to outright hostile towards genuine rank-and-file engagement. But without such engagement unions cannot thrive and be effective forces for change; the best they can do is fight to maintain an often inadequate status quo. We need unions that have visions and competencies far beyond the (albeit important) cards-certification-contract-grievances routine that bureaucratized unions manage. I don’t have advice to give, but as an academic, union member, and New Yorker, I support all PSC members who demand transparency, accountability, and robust democratic procedures in their union.