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Combating the Neoliberal University: The Case for a Strike

Faculty and employees at CUNY—the largest city university in the country with over 500,000 students—have been without a contract for six, up to seven years. In May, members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) passed a strike authorization with a resounding 92 percent “YES” vote. The results signal workers’ willingness to fight despite New York state laws that hamper their right to strike.

June 10, 2016

Photo: Murphyinstituteblog.org

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A shorter version of this article was published in The GC Advocate, (Vol. 27 Spring No. 2).

Capitalism and the University

In capitalist society higher education serves two essential purposes: the reproduction of broader social relations within the given society and the production of knowledge so as to perpetuate the dominant socio-political ideology of a certain strata of the ruling elite. The former is realized through the transmission of knowledge from professor to student in conjunction with the social and cultural conventions of capitalism being replicated in the classroom, department, student organizations, and so on. The latter is achieved via research agendas that serve the interest of one (or more) of the groups who comprise the ruling class. This is not to say that there is no pushback against these agendas both within and outside of the university. This pushback is, in general, a good thing, though it is not enough to transform higher education into an emancipatory social endeavor. Moreover, the increased neoliberalization of higher education in the United States since the 1970s is an additional rampart that must be destroyed if post-secondary education is in fact to be geared towards social emancipation rather than for the reproduction of capitalist mores and ideologies.

At the City University of New York, the process of neoliberalization is in full swing. CUNY management has not offered a viable contract to workers for nearly a decade. The Professional Staff Congress (which represents professors, adjuncts, HEOs and graduate students) has been without a contract for six years, and District Council 37 (which represents over 10,000 myriad other workers at CUNY, maintenance, janitorial, and a variety of other public sector workers) without one for seven.

The American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank, has suggested that the officer corps in the U.S. military no longer reflects the socio-cultural background of enlisted and NCO’s. Put another way, the rank and file of the U.S. military is increasingly Black and Latino. Consequently, this led to the reinstitution of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at a few different CUNY campuses, which had been pushed out of CUNY after student struggles in the early 1970’s. Additionally, the hiring of David Petraeus as an “adjunct” at Macaulay Honors College is part and parcel to CUNY’s recent pivot to some of the most repugnant socio-political forces advocating U.S. imperialism.

There is a long list of moves by CUNY administration and government officials as part of a neoliberal attack on a university formerly known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat.”

Furthermore, CUNY’s neoliberal turn is shown by the increasing reliance on adjunct labor and the two-tiered labor system. There has been, and arguably still is, collusion between CUNY administration and the New York Police Department, resulting in a domestic spying program targeting Muslim students. The seizure of the Morales/Shakur Center by CUNY administration in October of 2013, the brutal attack on student protesters initiated by CUNY security and the NYPD at Baruch College in 2011, and the proposed ban and curtailment of “expressive conduct” (i.e. the democratic right to protest) on CUNY campuses are further examples of this increasingly repressive trend.

There is a long list of moves by CUNY administration and government officials as part of a neoliberal attack on a university formerly known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat.” From rising tuition costs (since CUNY imposed tuition via a federal bailout package in 1970) to investing in private prisons, CUNY’s neoliberal turn has had decidedly adverse social effects for the University, New York, and higher education in the United States.

How then do we combat the university’s neoliberal turn right now? Beyond short term goals, how do we transform and retool the capitalist university so that it may serve the socio-economic interests of the working class and the oppressed? Given the extant economic, political, and social crises at CUNY, we are potentially on the cusp of being able to not only adequately address the increased neoliberalization of the university, but to reconstitute the institution so that it serves the broader interests of the most oppressed and ostracized social classes in New York City.

So far there have been attempts by diverse struggles to achieve this. However, none have been able to fundamentally reverse the neoliberal trends that CUNY administrators generally tend to endorse, promulgate, and enforce. The possibility of a strike by the PSC, DC 37, and other unions together in solidarity with the wider labor movement and in conjunction with student activism can prove an effective counter to the current crises. Furthermore, it can lay the foundation for future struggle which could theoretically attack the very functionality of the university under capitalism.

The Crisis at CUNY

In Vol. 27 Spring no. 1 of The Advocate Conor Tomás Reed’s article (amongst others), “CUNY’s Largest Crisis in Forty Years,” succinctly lays out the current catastrophe at CUNY and how the recent neoliberal turn continually exploits adjuncts, students of color, and the wider strata of CUNY workers. The crisis of the neoliberal university and the problems inherent with university education under capitalism have been plaguing higher education in this country generally, and CUNY quite acutely.

The most pressing issue at hand is of course the impasse CUNY management has claimed in response to the ongoing negotiations with the PSC. The PSC has called for a strike authorization vote, and though this vote would be to prepare for a potential strike, not for an actual strike, it is an escalation which should be viewed as progressive and necessary.

CUNY’s administrators have cited the planned strike authorization vote as the cause of turning labor arbitration over to the Public Employees Relation Board. The PERB is a gubernatorially appointed body which also enforces the Taylor Law. The Taylor Law is a New York State statute which makes strikes by public employees illegal. The effects of which can lead to docked pay, fines, and imprisonment (the most recent imprisonment of a labor activist was during the 2005 MTA strike). This anti-democratic law is held over public employees and offers management a significant advantage during labor negotiations. Even more confounding (or maybe one should expect this) is the fact that the very governmental organization which implements and upholds this law, the PERB, is also the agency which oversees negotiations when such an “impasse” arises.

Bargaining in “good faith” wasn’t and won’t be on the table. If anything, the latest assaults on the rights of workers at CUNY beyond the issues of the contract negotiation “impasse” and the nearly decade long period without a contract only prove this.

The case of CUNY and the PSC is no different. Simply put, in turning over arbitration to the PERB, CUNY management sees no viable path to negotiating a “fair” or “equitable” labor contract (as if such things exist within capitalist society, save for a few anomalous examples). Moreover, CUNY management has not so tacitly alluded to the potentiality of “serious negative consequences” if in fact the PSC goes on strike. This should convince anyone who maintains the view that continued dialogue with CUNY administrators is necessary to achieving radical transformations at the university, or even broadly defined progressive labor relations, that such engagement is predicated on a tremendous dichotomy of power. Bargaining in “good faith” wasn’t and won’t be on the table. If anything, the latest assaults on the rights of workers at CUNY beyond the issues of the contract negotiation “impasse” and the nearly decade long period without a contract only prove this.

In recent memory, Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic Governor of New York acquiesced to the popular demand of a $15 USD minimum wage at the State University of New York. This of course galvanized substantial protests at CUNY, and while the workers of the City University have ostensibly won the minimum in the aftermath of the protests, the timetable for implementation is lamentable. In all actuality, by the time CUNY workers (and other workers, both public and private sector) receive the increase to $15 USD per hour (between 2018 and 2022) it will “too little, too late.” This paltry remuneration, when one considers inflation projections (1.6-2.4% increase in consumer price inflation over the next five years), means nothing. It is in fact a tactic being used by Democratic politicians to preempt and quell any potential labor unrest.

Another recent affront to the wider body of CUNY faculty, staff, and students has been the proposed $485 million USD budget cut. Linked to purported anti-Semitic activities, speech, and agitation, the New York State Senate voted to slash this funding to senior colleges. The allegations of anti-Semitism are largely baseless. While there are surely individual anti-Semites on CUNY campuses, there exists no organized or concerted effort to espouse anti-Semitic politics or propaganda.

The object of our collective ire must not be simply CUNY administration or the Board of Trustees, if we are to effectively challenge the status quo. Rather, combating the structures of capitalist education in addition to winning internal battles at CUNY is the only viable way through which to transform the university.

Students for Justice in Palestine are correct in their assertion that there exists a false conflation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. SJP is also quite correct to agitate against the scourge of Zionism. This conflation, willful or otherwise, has led the state government to enact such draconian measures. In effect, the CUNY administration is at the beck and call of government (both Republican and Democrat) in instances such as this, and at others, in apparent collusion (as was the case with the NYPD spying program).

As Reed rightly pointed out in his article, the path which CUNY is traversing is not solely due to Chancellor James Milliken, the Board of Trustees, or the plethora of administrative cogs at CUNY. The Democratic Party (represented by Cuomo and New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio) and variegated private business interests also have a vested interest in maintaining the general course the university is currently upon. The object of our collective ire must not be simply CUNY administration or the Board of Trustees, if we are to effectively challenge the status quo. Rather, combating the structures of capitalist education in addition to winning internal battles at CUNY is the only viable way through which to transform the university.

In order to gain any lasting social or economic improvements at CUNY, the rank and file (adjuncts, students, HEO’s, professors, and other campus workers) must be able to wield their social power through a strike. This must be the central drive for all immediate organizing on CUNY campuses, because if we do not utilize collective labor power against CUNY’s neoliberal stewards the status quo will remain largely unchanged and unchecked. Only through a strike (in the short-term) will the neoliberal variant of the capitalist university be effectively challenged.

A Question of Social Power: CUNY Struggle

CUNY Struggle has been formed in an effort to foment some sort of collective resistance to the recent neoliberal trends evident at CUNY. It is a grouping of leftists (primarily students and adjunct professors), which has as its most immediate goal the formation of CUNY-wide “popular assemblies.” The inaugural meeting on 12 March at the CUNY Graduate Center resulted in the adoption of sixteen “demands” (it is unclear who or what these demands are being made towards, or to what end) and has seemingly galvanized the growth of assemblies at other CUNY campuses, namely at Hunter College. While some of the demands are appropriate, necessary, and even radical – the abolition of the Board of Trustees, an end to the two-tier labor system, an open admission and tuition free (as opposed to a conciliatory call of a tuition freeze as advocated by the University Student Senate) university for example – there was very little concrete discussion on tactical or strategic aims beyond the formation of these ostensibly democratic bodies.

The laundry list of demands does nothing, no matter how good they may be, to advance the struggle against CUNY management and the state government.

While well-intentioned, these bodies, if they do end up constituting something politically significant, offer little in the course of tangible solutions to the socio-economic problems currently encumbering CUNY. The demands were borne out of grievances discussed in smaller groups, removed from the larger body. These grievances, as well as quite a few of the demands, have been well documented and respectively advanced over the preceding years by various other groups (including, but not limited to: Class Struggle Education Workers, CUNY Contingents Unite, and the Adjunct Project). The laundry list of demands does nothing, no matter how good they may be, to advance the struggle against CUNY management and the state government. This is due not so much to the putting forward of demands, as nebulous as some may be, but rather to the issue of tactics.

Such meetings are often ones of consensus and, in fact, have the potential to be detrimental as they belie the sharp political, tactical, and strategic differences of the various forces which are involved. In lieu of debating differences, CUNY Struggle has attempted, quite successfully, to engage in the stereotypical and self-defeating strategy of social-democratic “lowest common denominator” politics. While this tactic of popular frontism is apropos at times, it does nothing in regards to the existent crisis at CUNY. Discussion of the PSC’s strike authorization vote as well as discussion of a potential strike – and what this would mean and could materially accomplish at CUNY – was barely part of the program. The majority of the tactical and strategic portion of the discussion (everyone at the meeting was already largely aware of the grievances and the demands going in) centered upon organizing students and to a lesser extent, adjuncts. While this is critical in combating the neoliberalization of CUNY, any successful campaign must tap into the the broader labor base at CUNY; many of whom are disillusioned with both management and the bureaucratic PSC leadership. A “studentist” platform, which seems to be what came out of the inaugural CUNY Struggle meeting, has the conceivable possibility of altering the status quo at the university, but only in small measure. The strike is the only viable option to fundamentally and lastingly win any of the sixteen demands, or a plethora of other necessary changes at CUNY.

All this is not to say that CUNY Struggle has surreptitiously attempted to derail the fight against the neoliberal university. However, the lack of focus on the question of labor, and the power of collective labor actions in preference for studentist demands (and tactics) has undermined the radical impulse of the fledgling organization. To be clear, this isn’t to say that student activism is not imperative to successfully combating the neoliberal university, it very much is. Nevertheless, students are too imprecise a category of people to singularly focus upon. Students, as a body, do not have the requisite social power in and of themselves to take on CUNY management.

Despite the bureaucratic nature of the PSC leadership, the union offers the most cogent response to the classist assaults being waged against CUNY workers under capitalism and exacerbated by the recent neoliberal tendencies of university administration.

However, the workers of CUNY do. This includes the PSC rank and file, members of DC 37, UNITE HERE, and other unions which have significant representation amongst CUNY workers. It is only through the combined struggle of workers and students that anything will be won. It is through the strike that any such victory would have the potential to be lasting rather than temporary. The people who actually make CUNY run, who are integral to its functioning as a New York City institution of higher education, whose labor allows the institution to operate, are those who need to be involved in such struggles to push back against neoliberalization and tackle the question of the university under capitalism.

Social power, real social power, is wielded not by those who have a superior moral compass, nor by those who by virtue of their ideas and strategy, no matter how egalitarian or righteous, think they can convince the upper echelons of CUNY administration and state government into acquiescence. Power then is the ability to coerce and to force opposing bodies and individuals into either quiescence or subjugated social positions. In its rawest form it is warfare, and in the case of the current crisis at CUNY it is class warfare. Despite the bureaucratic nature of the PSC leadership, the union offers the most cogent response to the classist assaults being waged against CUNY workers under capitalism and exacerbated by the recent neoliberal tendencies of university administration. This is not the time to hem and haw or balk at the chance to fully and forcefully deploy our collective strength as workers. Social power, for the oppressed and working classes, is reified through struggle against the bosses, and concretized by victory in such clashes.

Adjuncts, the PSC, and the Question of a Strike

If we are to challenge the neoliberalization of CUNY in the short-term, and its role within the wider apparatuses of finance capitalism in the long-term, then social power must be mobilized. As has consistently been advocated throughout this article, the immediate strategic concern to this end is the strike. In Reed’s article, he denotes five tactics: pledging to support a potential strike, which centers on adjunct as well as student demands, the creation of a strike fund that protects the most economically vulnerable, compiling and disseminating propaganda highlighting the crisis at CUNY, putting pressure on Graduate Center central-line faculty to advocate for the strike, and building solidarity with other union workers at the Graduate Center. These tactics, on the surface at least, are necessary for successfully passing the strike authorization vote as well as organizing a strike in the future.* Of the five areas that Reed suggest concerted action, let us focus on the first. In particular, the secondary clause regarding centering a potential strike in line with adjunct and student demands.

It is unclear whether or not Reed supports a strike pledge and potential strike only if the PSC will center its demands around students and adjuncts. This is an important distinction as there are certain elements within the PSC and CUNY which have actively and tacitly voiced opposition to the strike based on the failure of the union to adequately represent the rights of adjuncts. This critique is not only valid, it is quite accurate. The PSC and its bureaucratic and often conciliatory leadership (represented namely by Barbara Bowen and Steve London, President and First Vice President of the union, respectively) do not, and in the foreseeable future, will not advance the cause of adjuncts. In fact, the union bureaucracy is very much complicit in CUNY’s continual and expanding reliance on adjunct labor. The PSC’s abject failure to bargain on behalf of all of its membership, particularly for those who are most oppressed, plays into management´s neoliberal aims of bolstering the two-tier system of labor.

Those who are wary of a potential strike are rightful to be so given the strained relationship between the union’s rank and file and the leadership. However the calls for a separate “adjunct strike” only serve to segment the union, and by default, weaken collective social power. An adjunct only strike would indeed play into the hands of CUNY management if an actual strike by the PSC was to go through. Furthermore, such division within the union could actually result in adjuncts being utilized as scab labor in the course of a strike. For example, let us say the PSC strike authorization vote passes and a subsequent strike ensues, if contingents of adjuncts reject the strike due to the failure of the PSC to represent their interests, the strike will inevitably be defeated, and resoundingly so.

The PSC’s abject failure to bargain on behalf of all of its membership, particularly for those who are most oppressed, plays into management´s neoliberal aims of bolstering the two-tier system of labor.

A struggle must be waged within the PSC to oust the bureaucrats in order to have leadership representative of the rank and file, leadership which will fight for adjunct laborers. The struggles within the PSC to either reconstitute the leadership or to push them in the direction of actually advocating on behalf of both adjuncts and full time professors are ones which must be waged continuously and in conjunction with the drive for a “Yes” vote and during a potential strike. Any organizing outside of the PSC – as it relates to the strike question – can, and likely will, lead to the evisceration of the union by CUNY administration and state government. Therefore, the similar calls for separate strike pledges, “strike authorizations” outside of official PSC channels will consign the most effective method of struggle against the neoliberalization of CUNY to defeat. All this is to say that in spite of the PSC’s deficiencies, which are many, it is only through the union that any significant measure of social pressure will be exerted in counteracting the neoliberal agendas of CUNY management in particular, and the role of CUNY in U.S. capitalism more generally.

Agitate for a Strike, Smash the Taylor Law

The PSC has never been on strike in its history. We have an historic duty to agitate for both the passage of the strike authorization vote at hand and an actual strike. The existence and likely implementation of the anti-democratic and draconian Taylor Law should give us pause, but it should not shutter our resolve. The law needs to be smashed, destroyed. A strike has the potential to do this, if properly prepared and organized. Given the PSC’s problematic bureaucracy, it is not sufficient that such a strike be localized to the constituency of the PSC. In other words, solidarity and cohesion is imperative to any potential strike. The workers of DC 37 should also be propagandized to go on strike simultaneously. Furthermore, linkages with the broader labor movement in New York City invariably adds weight to the wielding of social power. A sizable portion of the students at CUNY must also be mobilized to go on strike as well. The workers in the PSC, DC 37, as well as other unions with workers at CUNY, together with large swaths of students and organized labor in New York, can indeed smash the Taylor Law through a strike and reverse the neoliberal trends at CUNY.

The PSC leadership must be pushed to hold the strike authorization vote – which should be met with a resounding “Yes!” – and a strike preparation committee elected by the membership, their position revocable at any time. Other workers at CUNY not in PSC must also be won over to the strike, as should a significant portion of the student populace. Lead by the workers of CUNY (non-academic laborers as well as adjuncts), a strike waged by these aforementioned groups along class lines is the way forward. Any pretense that the PSC can’t advocate for the broader membership (it can, in its current formation it won’t) must be shed. Any moves to impinge upon the strike authorization vote or a potential strike both from within and from outside the union must be quashed. CUNY management and state government will deploy political subterfuge (as evinced in CUNYMatters, Feb.-Mar. 2016), legal maneuvers (the Taylor Law), or even more coercive measures if necessary. We mustn’t give in to the machinations of those who currently have stewardship over CUNY. The time to go on strike is near. The neoliberalization of CUNY will not be willed away, rather it will be forced away

Any “progressive” aims coming out of struggling against these trends are most effectively achieved by wielding social power, particularly collective working class power. Open admissions and free tuition, a cessation of racist campus policing, ending reliance on the two-tiered labor system, the abolition of CUNY administration and the Board of Trustees, and a plethora of other transformations at CUNY will only come once collective social power is mobilized and deployed in such a fashion so as to reconstitute the university not as simply non-neoliberal (for neoliberalism is merely a symptom of the disease), but as an anti-capitalist institution founded upon equitable labor practices. One formulated in the interest of the working classes and all oppressed and marginalized social groups.

*Since the time this article was written, members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) passed a strike authorization with a 92 percent “yes” vote.

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Gordon Barnes is a Doctoral Candidate in the History Program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where he is one of the leaders of the CUNY Internationalist Marxist Club. He researches elite ideologies and politics in the British Empire during the nineteenth century, specifically in Jamaica and Mauritius, and how manifestations and fears of subaltern violence influenced elite discourse around race, immigration, labor, and political inclusion. He was formerly the Editor-in-Chief of the GC Advocate and digitization researcher at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Our first printed issue A New Generation Rises Up is out. Get it at your nearest radical bookstore or order online. For shipping outside the US please contact us.




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Professional Staff Congress (PSC)   /    CUNY   /    labor   /    strike   /    United States