On Wednesday May 11, CUNY Struggle held the first in a series of open forum discussions about issues central to university organizing, titled “What is the Student?”
The event drew undergraduate students, graduate student-workers, as well as adjunct and full-time professors, who gathered to debate and articulate the ideological underpinnings of a CUNY movement, and specifically the place of the “student” within such a movement.
To really have a productive conversation on this topic, it was useful to clearly delineate our understandings of what is, what ought to be, and how we conceive of the process which will bring us from point A to point B. Therefore we need not isolate empirical analysis from more abstract political analysis, no less from our aspirations for a better world.
Today CUNY Struggle teamed up with the Adjunct Project and the Graduate Center chapter of the PSC for the first of a series of pickets in solidarity with striking Verizon workers. We will be posted up at the Herald Square location (1293 Broadway) at 5:30pm on Mondays and Wednesdays until Verizon caves in and does right by its workers! We feel small gestures of solidarity like this are necessary not only to build our capacities within the CUNY system, but to build and strengthen ties of practical solidarity with the broader NYC working class. Click here for more information about these pickets, or else just come find us in the streets!
The strike authorization vote is in and the result is an overwhelming yes. Moreover, participation was significant, with over 10,000—around half the membership—registering a vote. The leadership has got what it wants—now what do they intend to do with it?
One possibility is that the leadership has ruled out striking and plans to use the vote purely as a bargaining chip to pressure the state to come up with a better economic offer. If this is the case, it would indicate that the leadership remains unwilling to transcend the status quo but finds itself compelled to use increasingly dramatic measures simply to maintain the present rate of decline in our working conditions. The other is that they have not made up their minds and remain open to the idea of a strike.
If the latter, no one knows what the magic number is that will cause Barbara Bowen & Co. to throw up their hands and resort to what in our view is the only tactic that can secure even the bread-and-butter goals of this ostensibly social-justice union—labor’s most powerful weapon, a strike. In the PSC press release and Bowen’s e-mail message to members, Bowen refers simply to a “decent economic offer” without providing specifics. The only thing we know for certain is that the union has rejected CUNY’s insulting pay-cut offer of last November. Moreover, we don’t know which of the 35 demands ratified way back in 2010 the bargaining team is pushing hard on and which are expendable, given that the union, in Bowen’s words, “remains absolutely committed to achieving an acceptable contract through the negotiating process.”
If adjuncts want documentation to cite in lobbying for a significant pay increase in the contract currently in negotiation/mediation, they might refer to the following PSC records from 2004, 2007, and 2010.
In 2004, the PSC was committed to parity for adjuncts in income and working conditions. They worried about the impact of the 9/6 rule on adjuncts’ livelihoods and promised to debate and discuss it fully. They even passed a resolution at the Delegate Assembly in Sept. 2004 to continue discussing the 9/6 issue:
Whereas the achievement of parity for adjuncts in income and professional working conditions is the contractual goal of the PSC, and
Whereas injury to one group is injury to all in a fully committed union of workers, and
Whereas improvement of the 9/6 rule has long been deferred, a more sensitive and sensible adjunct workload policy could make a favorable difference in how adjuncts view the union, and…
Whereas the May 2004 Delegate Assembly meeting ended with assurance of further discussion at this meeting on the 9/6 matter, now therefore
Resolved, that the PSC undertake a discussion on solidarity across the ranks during Campus Equity Week and the formation of a working group to start discussing adjunct workload (9/6 policy), but in privacy.
To mark the beginning of the PSC’s strike authorization vote, we invite perspectives on the vote, the contract, and the campaign ahead. This first piece comes from Jarrod Shanahan, a PhD candidate and teaching fellow in Environmental Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, a rank-and-file PSC member, and an editor of CUNYStruggle.org.
Before starting at CUNY as a graduate teaching fellow I worked on and off for over a decade as a residential furniture mover and truck driver. I saw firsthand the immense wealth of cities like Boston and New York juxtaposed with the poverty wages of myself and my coworkers, engaged though we were in backbreaking labor for endless hours in an industry that laughs at labor law. I felt quite viscerally our powerlessness against the dictatorial, often illegal management practices which characterize the average non-union “small business” so wrongfully hallowed in US folklore. I struggled with the difficulties of convincing my co-workers to take even the most preliminary steps towards collective action, as many quite rightfully feared retaliation, especially those without documents or with dependents at home, or else had negative experiences with the nepotism of unions like the Teamsters. And in one instance, when a handful of us organized a direct action campaign demanding higher wages and health benefits, we won some modest gains–only to be fired, under some bogus pretext, shortly thereafter. We needed a union, alright, because we wanted control over the work that we did, the power to fight for higher wages and benefits, the ability force agreements, and the strength to enforce them, until the next round of struggle.
We are reprinting, with the author’s permission, a fantastic piece by our comrade Ruth Wangerin from College of Staten Island, a fierce adjunct organizer with whom we are fortunate enough to collaborate. CUNYStruggle.org welcomes submissions about the lived experience of the CUNY system, and this piece is exemplary to that effect. We have posted Part I, which originally appeared on New Faculty Majority, and have linked to Part II, on the same site.
A button designed by Anne Wiegard for a UUP event says, “I was contingent before contingents were cool.” Well, I was contingent before anyone had even heard of “contingents.” Specifically, I was hired by the City College of New York in 1970 as an adjunct lecturer when I was in grad school. At that time, the City University of New York did not have graduate assistantships. I have since learned that CUNY had a lot of adjuncts back then, particularly in continuing education courses for which students paid tuition (CUNY was free otherwise, back then).
I was in a regular department teaching undergraduates. It felt like a privilege to get the experience. I loved the anthropology department at City College, it was fun being a “professor” at my young age, and the money helped. However, I wasn’t altogether naïve. I could see that the college was being pretty cheap with us, not only in the rate of pay but also in taking their sweet time getting our first paychecks out each term.
Since at least the 1970s, internal union reform efforts in the US have focused on two issues—the inability of long-entrenched union leaderships to resist mounting attacks on workers, plus a recognition on the part of the most creative and militant rank-and-filers that in order to have any real chance of resisting those attacks, we have to question the seemingly prescribed limits of our struggles. Both of these things are happening right now at the University of Washington, where a rank-and-file caucus called UW Academic Workers for a Democratic University (UW-AWDU) is struggling to change the bylaws of their UAW local in order that the union become more genuinely run by and for the workers.
UW-AWDU began in 2014 when a group of rank-and-file members of UAW Local 4121, which represents over 4,000 student-workers at the University of Washington, met to discuss their dissatisfaction with the current leadership, some of whom have remained in place for anywhere between eight and twelve years. What UW-AWDU seeks is to make their union stronger, more ambitious, more democratic, and more connected to the social movements going on around it. They began by reaching out to over twenty student organizations to build “Reclaim UW,” a student-led coalition that fights for social and economic justice at the university. Working alongside student groups, UW-AWDU has expanded the idea of what a labor union exists to do, conducting teach-ins, radical history tours, and campaigns to support fired custodians, connecting with striking Seattle teachers, fighting for budget transparency, and contesting the UAW International Board’s effort to undemocratically nullify a California student-worker local’s resolution in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Their most impressive action to date was to disrupt a tony dinner party for the university’s Board of Regents (an august group that routinely violates the state’s open meetings law), demanding that the university, Seattle’s largest employer, honor the city’s $15 an hour minimum wage law. In case you were wondering whether direct action gets the goods, consider this sentence from the Seattle Times’ article on the “Reclaim the Regents” action:
The regents and UW police tried to wrest control of the meeting from the protesters but were shouted down by nearly 100 people packed into a lounge on the building’s first floor. After about 20 minutes, the regents fled to a downstairs dining room in the UW Club, leaving plates of uneaten appetizers on the table.
Within days, the university had announced an increase in wages to $11, and six months later announced a second increase that puts 5,500 workers, including student-workers, on track to receive the $15 minimum by 2017. This makes the University of Washington the first school in the country to agree to a $15 an hour wage for all workers, including student workers.
Having shown what a mobilized membership can achieve, UW-AWDU is now engaged in a fight to formalize a set of principles that would pave the way to a more transparent, democratic, and ultimately more militant and effective union. The changes they have proposed to the bylaws of their UAW local seek to:
Institute term limits and shorter term lengths for elected leaders
Tie union staff salaries to the median academic student employee wage
Ensure that union leaders are active academic student employees
Increase transparency of union staff positions and contact info
Secure the right for union staff to collectively bargain in their own union
What these provisions all have in common is that they reduce the gap between union leaders and staff and the workers they represent. If adopted, they would establish an environment where workers do not passively await the outcome of opaque negotiations between inside players, but instead represent themselves and their interests. This is a recipe for a more engaged membership, one that feels it has a stake not just in the result of collective bargaining, but in how it is achieved and what the union ultimately exists to do. These efforts follow similar campaigns to democratize union locals at NYU, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of California, where AWDU and similar caucuses have won important battles aimed at creating stronger organizations that can fight not only for contract-to-contract bread and butter, but combat the root causes of the crisis in higher education that keeps us for the moment poor and demobilized. Only broad-based mobilizations of the kind imagined by UW-AWDU and its reform allies stand a chance of turning back the neoliberal tide and paving the way for the kind of university we—the faculty, students, and workers who make all this happen—want to see.