The Faculty Caste System: Auto-Ethnography of an Adjunct

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.

Introduction

cropped-Buttons-header-photo1A 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.

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Rank-and-file Unionism at the University of Washington

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.

Pencil and fist

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:

  1. Institute term limits and shorter term lengths for elected leaders
  2. Tie union staff salaries to the median academic student employee wage
  3. Ensure that union leaders are active academic student employees
  4. Increase transparency of union staff positions and contact info
  5. 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.

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Abusing Tropes of Death, and other reflections on direct action in the CUNY struggle

(or, I’m About To Violate the Taylor Law)

by Drake Logan

Note: This piece was submitted to CUNYStruggle.org in response to Sean Kennedy’s “Death of the die-in (and PSC ‘Civil Disobedience’, too). We welcome reader submissions, which do not reflect the views of CUNYStruggle.org. 

I appreciate Sean M. Kennedy’s effort to boldly critique our actions in struggling against austerity conditions at CUNY, as critique can so often be stifled in the service of fear—that to critique in the midst of political struggle would undercut the cause or detract from the “real” issues at hand. I write as a CUNY instructor and graduate student who was planning to engage in the direct action last week, but needed to stay home for health reasons. Instead of getting arrested that night as planned, I sat down at my desk and finally had the chance to try and tabulate exactly how underpaid I am.

BarronArrest

would like to join in Kennedy’s critique of the inappropriate—and, appropriative—use of imagery from a Black Lives Matter die-in to promote the March 24th CUNY action. And, I too would like to question the use of the die-in as a direct action tactic which aims to symbolize what is already a metaphorical “death” or “starvation” of our institution.

Continue reading “Abusing Tropes of Death, and other reflections on direct action in the CUNY struggle”

Death of the die-in (and PSC ‘Civil Disobedience,’ too)

by Sean M. Kennedy

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This photo of a Black Lives Matter die-in was photoshopped and used in student-made promotional flyers for the PSC die-in.

On Thursday, March 24th, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) staged its second “civil disobedience” of the academic year, this time a die-in in front of the building that holds Governor Cuomo’s New York City office. Like its “blockade” of the entry to the building that holds CUNY’s central offices last November, the PSC trained participants who volunteered to risk arrest, and the NYPD dispatched those arrested to central booking, where they were released shortly after—the whole action a smooth operation carefully production-managed for maximum positive media exposure and minimum duress for participants. What couldn’t be controlled, of course, was the reaction from observers, inside and outside the PSC, to the action, which ranged from adulation for those arrested to revulsion that the PSC once again colluded with cops to enact another fake civil disobedience (or civil disobedience “lite”), at a moment when many rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law.

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The Graduate Center Doctoral Students’ Council endorses a strike

On March 18, 2016, the DSC passed the following resolution endorsing a strike. 

Resolution Endorsing a Strike to Ensure a Fair PSC Contract With CUNY

WHEREAS the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) is the faculty and staff union representing 25,000 CUNY workers, including Graduate Center students working as graduate assistants and as adjuncts;

WHEREAS six years have passed since the PSC’s last contract expired;

WHEREAS the PSC has been steadily bargaining for a new contract with CUNY management since June 2014;

WHEREAS the Doctoral Students’ Council (DSC) passed a resolution in December 2014 calling for a $7,000 minimum starting salary per three-credit course for CUNY adjuncts;

WHEREAS the CUNY University Student Senate, comprising delegates from all CUNY campuses, passed a resolution in September 2015 supporting “all adjuncts, especially those who are also doctoral students within CUNY, in their demands for better wages and working conditions”;

WHEREAS the DSC passed a resolution in October 2015 against five more years of tuition increases and in support of a tuition freeze and state funding of CUNY’s mandatory costs;

WHEREAS the DSC understands that wages for faculty and staff, state funding, and tuition are related;

WHEREAS CUNY management has made only a single economic offer to date, one that would have essentially amounted to a pay cut for faculty and staff, and which the PSC rejected;

WHEREAS the PSC and its members have been mobilizing for a strike-authorization vote since October 2015, which, if the vote is held and is successful, would allow the PSC to call a strike;

WHEREAS New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed, in January 2016, a $485-million cut in state funding to CUNY;

WHEREAS, also in January 2016, CUNY management declared an impasse in bargaining, noting a number of unresolved PSC demands, including salary increases for adjuncts, multiyear adjunct appointments, increased access to tuition waivers for adjuncts, and penalties for non-payment of adjuncts and graduate assistants;

WHEREAS the PSC continues to organize around a strike-authorization vote as the necessary next step in the fight for a fair contract with CUNY management, and is actively seeking public pledges of support for a “yes” vote;

WHEREAS the Adjunct Project (AP), an affiliate of the DSC, endorsed a strike as the only means to ensure a fair contract with CUNY management; and

WHEREAS the AP also endorsed organizing by other groups and coalitions across the Graduate Center and CUNY in support of a fair contract, a strike, or both, including the Alternative StrikePledge for Adjuncts and Allies, which specifically centers adjunct and student concerns; the Adjunct Message Center, which supports the demands of long-time adjuncts and conveys them to the PSC leadership; and a planned series of popular assemblies to discuss and unite demands for a transformed CUNY;

Be it RESOLVED that the DSC endorses the PSC’s strike-authorization vote;

Be it further RESOLVED that the DSC endorses the Alternative Strike Pledge for Adjuncts and Allies, the Adjunct Message Center, and the planned series of popular assemblies;

Be it further RESOLVED that the DSC endorses a strike as the only means to ensure a fair contract with CUNY management;

And be it finally RESOLVED that the DSC calls upon the PSC to establish a strike-relief fund to defray or minimize financial penalties any striking workers receive due to New York State’s Taylor Law. 

Visit HR for Fun and Profit

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be hearing from the people of CUNY in their own words. Had a run-in with management? Feeling mad about the injustices of the two tier system? Are you a student struggling to balance life, work and school? We want to hear from you. Email submissions to cunystruggleinfo@gmail.com

This first post in our series of worker and student stories is written by a graduate student worker and adjunct at one of the CUNY campuses.

I had some spare time between classes yesterday and decided to visit my local HR department. Because of the on-again, off-again nature of adjunct work and possibly due to factors related to my own lifestyle, I can’t quite remember if I have been employed as an adjunct for six straight semesters and am therefore entitled to a step increase that has not shown up on my latest appointment letter. So I went to my HR office to ask them for a copy of my employment history with the school. I delivered my request to the receptionist, who looked at me like I had just landed from Mars and insisted to know why I would want such a thing. I told her I wanted it “just to have it” and eventually just “can I please have it”—it’s in the contract, after all. This was not the right answer. She said make sure you sign the register with your exact name and department and I was told to wait while she gathered reinforcements.

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Reflections on the first CUNY-Wide Popular Assembly

Last Saturday, over 100 people turned out for the first of what we hope are many CUNY-Wide Popular Assemblies. At this day-long event people from across CUNY, including students, faculty, staff and community members, came together to discuss our common problems and imagine a way out.

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