This fall the leaders of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which represents more than 25,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York (CUNY), began talking about a strike. In fact a vote simply to authorize the union leadership to call a strike – a power which might or might not ever be utilized – will not be held until an unknown date this coming Winter 2016. But even discussing a strike is something unprecedented for many PSC members, and the issue has created a wider buzz among students and other workers who are most conscious about the inequities at CUNY. Indeed this struggle could be a really important one for PSC members, and workers and students as a whole.
The PSC union is comprised of CUNY’s full-time faculty, part-time adjunct faculty, and other “professional” staff members (meaning skilled workers who were required to have at least a four-year college degree.) The privileged status of many PSC members as “professionals,” especially the tenured permanent faculty, is obvious. At the same time, adjunct professors who do so much of the teaching at CUNY are terribly treated and exploited. Most do not have any job security, being hired (or not) only on a semester-by-semester basis without a fixed schedule, reliable benefits, paid vacations or decent wages. And the non-academic workforce that makes CUNY run — from DC 37 office workers to maintenance staff and kitchen workers – are low paid and treated with disrespect. And some work at CUNY is subcontracted to private companies. In these cases the workers are even more exploited and have no union representation.
The CUNY Administration thus divides the workforce, with a privileged upper-crust sitting atop different layers of more exploited workers, with some lacking job security and denied a living wage. The well-known capitalist trend of doling out low- paying and unstable part- time jobs instead of good paying full time jobs is in operation here. The ferment over the status of adjuncts in the CUNY university system is part of a rising national discontent of the lack of a living wage for all workers.. The popular “Fight for 15” campaign, which aims to attain a more livable wage for low- wage service workers, has been one notable response to this trend.
The growing anger of adjuncts at their mistreatment has been putting pressure on PSC President Barbara Bowen and other PSC union leaders to carry out a level of active mobilizations and meetings of the membership. And their efforts already seem impressive – especially since other unions are far from doing anything for their members most of the time. However there are a number of obstacles to a successful struggle occurring. One is that the majority of PSC members are afraid of a strike, for reasons that have to be taken seriously and addressed. Another problem is that the minority of PSC activists who already know that they do want a serious struggle understand that the PSC leaders are not on the same page and thus are not actually preparing to carry out a strike, — when such a massive type of job action would be the way to win serious improvements. This means that the tendency is for the PSC leadership to make serious efforts to mobilize support for a vote to authorize strike action while at the same time sending out signals that they are really not preparing to strike and rather to accept a shallow improvement in wages when more could be achieved.
At a time when the already outrageous cost of living in New York City keeps on getting higher, PSC members haven’t received a raise since 2009, and have been working without a contract since 2010. Meanwhile, CUNY’s office workers have been forced to work without a contract for even longer, but the leaders of the two District Council 37 Locals which represent them do nothing userful. So there are abundant reasons why a fightback against the abuses suffered by adjuncts and other CUNY workers, as well as by students, is well overdue.
Despite widespread and deeply felt anger over the conditions at CUNY, the idea that bold actions can win gains is not so obvious. At this point only a militant minority of PSC members, with the support of a militant minority of other workers and students, are in favor of preparing a strike. The most conservative attitudes are generally held by long- time tenured full-time professors who are comfortably absorbed in their academic work and often identify more with the attitudes of upper CUNY Administration. Even for part-time adjuncts, the risks of a strike can appear too great – especially when the PSC leadership claims that a slight wage increase is the best that can be hoped for now, and that other changes in the unfair status of adjuncts will be modest at best.
The next few months ahead will be vital for winning over more PSC members, and other allies like campus workers and students, to the idea of a CUNY strike. Such an effort will have to include frank discussions of what kinds of demands are worth striking for and what steps can be taken to launch a successful strike under the concrete conditions that exist.
The CUNY Administration’s proposed salary increase of only 6% over 6 years is well below the rate of inflation and thus amounts to a further cut to actual pay. Most CUNY adjuncts make less than $3,500 per course over a whole semester, forcing many to take second jobs and depend on public assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid as well to survive. The union leadership’s counter-proposal of a 14% compounded raise, though still barely above inflation, could thus bring some much-needed relief. But the demand has not been enough to generate excitement among adjuncts. And for good reason. It would not be enough to even start to fundamentally change the conditions for the majority of adjuncts.
Adjuncts are only temporary employees and most only get paid for their time teaching in class. All the other hours of work that go into preparing effective classes for students, grading exams and papers, and mentoring students, are generally unpaid, with the exception of some adjuncts who are paid for just only one hour of office work a week if they teach more than two classes on the same campus, but no matter how many classes they teach altogether. Taking into account the many hours that adjuncts work outside of the classroom, many are getting paid below minimum wage. One can see that unless all adjuncts get paid for adequate office hours and have a guarantee of continual employment, the wage increase that the PSC leadership has put forward will bring little relief although, it will help somewhat. The earnings of the university’s 7,600 full-time faculty also lag far behind that at comparable universities in the region, meaning that full- time professors also have a real interest in supporting a struggle. And the so-called “professional staff”, along with other campus workers, are generally aware of the greater pile-on of work in recent years, with no greater compensation.
Making demands that can begin to change the structure of the university on the faculty level also fits in with the need for changes that would really benefit the students and other workers. On a practical level, a PSC strike could not survive without wider support. As well, the PSC union is well situated to raise demands that will champion the needs of working- class students and other workers. It could become a popular cause in New York, and one not easily defeated.
For example, the overuse of part -time adjuncts also relates to the downgrading of what CUNY offers students. Because most adjuncts are not paid to hold office hours to meet with their students; and because the rest are paid for only one office hour a week regardless of how many classes they teach, students can’t be properly helped. While enrollment has risen to an all-time high, the number of full-time faculty who are supposed to be available to help students outside of the classroom has been reduced by a third.
A shortage of staff has meant day-long waits in financial aid, registrar and advisement offices, chronic glitches in the university’s technical network and online services, thousands of students forced to share a handful of scanners and free printers, a large library system that cannot be properly maintained, bathrooms without toilet paper, and buildings in various states of disrepair. And so many other headaches face beleaguered workers and students at CUNY every day.
These poverty conditions characterize the experience of public education, making the notable increases in tuition at both CUNY and the State University of New York (SUNY) even more of a travesty. It has increased by $300 more each year since 2011, while funding to the public university systems was repeatedly slashed. The proportion of the budget at CUNY’s senior colleges funded by the state has fallen from three-quarters in 1990 to just over one-half today. At CUNY’s community colleges, the state’s contribution fell from 36% to 25%. The Board of Trustees is planning to continue to increase tuition by $300 a year on all campuses for an additional five years.
The ruling class of this country in general, and New York City in particular, only started providing public higher education for a good number of youth of color in response to massive struggles in the past. But these gains have been eroded over time, reflecting austerity attacks that have a sharp racist edge, affecting Black and Latino students the most. For example, the very year that white students became a statistical minority at CUNY, 1976, the university was first targeted for budget cuts and free tuition was rescinded. For the past twenty years in particular, the state and administration have colluded in attempting to implement policies for the “restructuring” of the senior campuses – raising tuition towards the level of private universities and turning CUNY further away from providing the educational needs of working-class and poor Black, Latino and immigrant youth. Departments and services that catered primarily to poorer working-class students of color have often been eliminated or put on the endangered list.
In the past, attacks at CUNY faced steep resistance – often provoking outpourings of protest by the university’s predominantly Black, Latino, and immigrant student body. [See our article CUNY’s History of Austerity – and Struggle].
In recent years, a broader offensive to enforce racist discipline on communities of color through police harassment and brutality has been employed, made concrete with such programs like “Stop-and-Frisk” and “Broken Windows” in New York, the massive escalation of deportations of undocumented immigrants, and “anti-terrorist” scapegoating of Muslims and Arabs. These racist policies, combined with the pressure of skyrocketing costs of living and the dramatic reduction of available good union jobs in NYC, has been key to dividing and conquering working- class and youth resistance. The success of attacks on working- class people, particularly youth of color, has in turn also depended on the cover provided by so-called “progressive” politicians such as de Blasio, Cuomo, and Obama.
But mass resistance is again breaking out in certain areas. The most important example recently was the “Black Lives Matter” movement against racist police killings. Starting with protests against the racist George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin and the injustice of his getting away with the crime, it grew with the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland after more police murders of unarmed Black people there, and spread nationwide with protests against other infamous cases, like the choking to death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Those protests saw widespread participation by students both on campus and off. Continued protest actions for racial justice, such as the recent University of Missouri football players’ strike, have been a catalyst for keeping the fight alive with protests, this time in Minneapolis and Chicago in the aftermath of more terrible murders by the police.
In New York, there is thus the potential for the PSC to tap into wider frustration among poor working people and youth of color, and working-class people in general. The PSC leadership headed by Barbara Bowen makes bold speeches about CUNY’s important place in the history of public education for working-class people. But when it comes to concrete matters, they argue that the union cannot expect to do better than a minor pay increase at this time. We have argued in this bulletin that it is necessary to pressure the union leadership to take on additional demands that will at least start to chip away at the second class status of adjuncts and restore better faculty availability and other resources for helping students. We think these demands should include paid office hours and job security for all adjuncts.
There are also immediate possibilities on CUNY campuses for connecting the fight for a fair contract to other issues which the PSC already claims to support. In particular, for example, the New York Police Department has continued to infiltrate and spy on Muslim student organizations, despite promises by the mayor to end this practice. CUNY became what it has been at its best – an institution providing excellent education for people who cannot afford to get this anywhere else – precisely because of mass struggles giving voice to the cause of the working class and oppressed people, and it must become that again.
In building support for a strike authorization vote, the PSC can take many steps beyond what it is already doing. It can organize rallies and mass meetings of supporters across the campuses, including students and other workers as well as PSC members. It can launch a public campaign around demands that have the potential to draw in not only CUNY people, but other workers and young people as well. It is not a viable plan to try to win over the more conservative members of the PSC before reaching out to militant workers and youth on and off campus. In fact, when the more conservative members can see that the PSC is raising issues that have wider support, when the PSC creates visible alliances with other workers and students and looks more like a real force to contend with, this can help shift the attitudes of some PSC members themselves.
Struggles such as the one that we propose at CUNY can win real gains, but no struggle can stop the attacks permanently and secure the future for workers and humanity as a whole as long as capitalism persists. The bosses and their parties have no choice but to increasingly attack us to try and prop up their profit- system. For as long as the capitalist system survives, any victories that working-class struggles achieve can only be temporary because the worsening economic crisis will force the ruling class to try to cut spending on social services like education and squeeze the workers further, and to use racism and national chauvinism to divide the working class so that it can’t build an effective united defense.
The only way to ensure a decent life with jobs, health care, and all the other necessities for all human beings is to take the power to run society out of the hands of the capitalist bosses and their politicians: for workers to rise up and take control of society and run it in our interests. This is why the LRP not only fights side by side with others in today’s struggles but also raises the idea that “Socialist Revolution is the Only Solution!”
Supporters of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) at CUNY and involved at other workplaces, unions and struggles, seek to join with others to help foster a new rise of resistance at CUNY. We hope that others who agree with ideas in this bulletin will get in touch with us for both practical collaboration and political discussion.
3. www.capitalnewyork.com, CUNY will request continuation of annual senior college tuition hikes