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CUNY Faculty and Staff Have Gone One Year Without a Contract — It’s Time to Strike

CUNY workers have been without a new contract for a full year and the university has yet to make any economic offers. It’s time to take action.

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A banner reads "Real Wages Or We Strike" at a rally for CUNY, which is experiencing cuts from Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul.

Broken elevators, water damage, and roofs with holes in them. Adjuncts who can’t pay the rent. Graduate students who are paid months late, subsisting off of rice and beans because they can’t afford anything else. Full-time faculty who can’t afford to even live in the city where they teach.

These are the conditions at the City University of New York (CUNY). 

It has been exactly one year since the CUNY faculty, staff, and graduate assistants organized in the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY) union had a contract. In that year, we have not received any wage increases. Furthermore, inflation has eaten away at our wages, devaluing them by over 25 percent since we settled our last contract. Many of us, as a consequence, are actually making less in real dollars than we were six years ago. At the same time, cuts at CUNY have resulted in sudden and unexpected firings, especially at York College, Queens College, and the other “colleges of concern” which are being forced to make additional cuts this semester.

The situation for CUNY academic workers is dire, and many are struggling to make ends meet. 

For CUNY academic workers, the question is: will we allow CUNY to experience a death by a thousand cuts? Will we allow our jobs and our lives to be increasingly precarious, or are we going to fight back? 

The only way forward is to organize the rank and file and prepare for a strike.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

While CUNY was once known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” the university has faced an endless onslaught of cuts and disinvestment since the 1970s that have led to crumbling campuses, increased costs for students, and lower wages for faculty and staff. Indeed, much of the funding for CUNY — a university that used to be free — now comes from tuition and fees. CUNY has almost 250,000 students studying at 25 campuses across the city. Eighty percent are students of color, and 50 percent come from families that make less than $30,000 per year. Eighty percent studied at a New York City public high school. In other words, CUNY is the university of the working class of the city, and that working class and the academic workers who work there are being squeezed to the bone.

These decades of cuts have also given birth to a massive, multi-tiered system of faculty compensation that has led to a significant portion of the teaching faculty making near-poverty wages. Roughly half of CUNY faculty are adjuncts –- considered “part time,” even though many teach a full-time course load. These faculty, almost all of whom work on semester-to-semester contracts, have little to no job security and can be fired at the discretion of the administration from one semester to another with no warning. While the last contract, thanks in part to the hard work of those who organized under the banner of $7K or Strike, did manage to win some wage gains for these adjuncts, almost all of those gains have now been eaten away by inflation due to the union leadership’s disastrous decision to negotiate a six-year, rather than four-year, contract.

And ongoing cuts to the university are only making the pain worse. Mayor Eric Adams has made several rounds of five percent cuts to city agencies, including CUNY’s community colleges. In 2023, the city once again reduced funding to the university by more than $155 million, which, among other things, resulted in the firing of 235 faculty and staff. Last year the mayor’s office proposed an additional $41 million in permanent cuts to CUNY for the 2024-2026 NYC budget, and amazingly, the University Board of Trustees — unelected lackeys appointed by the governor and the mayor — actually played along and rescinded a request to restore $61 million in funding they had previously requested. Meanwhile, Governor Kathy Hochul maintains a general state of austerity at CUNY, proposing an additional cut of $528 million in her most recent executive budget.The governor and state legislature have also refused to fully fund CUNY in order to make it free again, an act that would solve the university’s current enrollment crisis and allow thousands more New Yorkers to get an education and earn a degree. 

In addition to this, late last semester, CUNY announced that nine campuses failed to meet their Fall 2023 savings targets, and therefore must make additional cuts in the spring to create a budget surplus and indicate “fiscal responsibility.” As a result, 26 of the 39 full-time substitutes at Queens College slated to teach this spring were fired, and John Jay College’s Spring 2024 adjunct budget was cut by $1.5 million, resulting in approximately 200 course sections being canceled. York College is also facing significant cuts, with 18 percent of its spring classes getting cut from the schedule at the last minute.

Furthermore, CUNY administration is repressing the movement for Palestine, criminalizing protests and persecuting faculty and staff that stand with Palestine. This repression comes alongside continued academic and financial ties to the state of Israel amidst the ongoing genocide in Gaza. It’s yet another example of how our institution does not stand on the side of justice, but on the side of capitalism and imperialism. 

The Working Class Is Starting to Stand Up

But workers and students at CUNY do not have to just accept this ongoing austerity. As workers, students, and young people across the country have shown, we can fight back with working-class methods of struggle, including massive demonstrations, work actions, and strikes — and we can win. 

Last year, for instance, almost half a million workers went on strike in some of the biggest labor actions we’ve witnessed in decades. From healthcare workers and teachers, to the Hollywood actors and writers, to the massive and militant United Auto Workers (UAW) Strike, and many large strikes and new unionization campaigns within higher education itself, the labor movement is beginning to rear its head, and rank-and-file workers are finally saying enough is enough. These strikes have not only inspired other workers to take similar actions, but have in some ways reinvigorated the post-pandemic labor movement in the United states with a new sense of solidarity and an awareness that we can use our labor and our self-organization in the workplace to fight not only for ourselves but for our communities and for the class as whole. One small example of this is the UAW endorsing the call for a ceasefire in Gaza, a move that harkens back to the union’s more radical history when Black, white, and Arab workers organized together for Palestine.

This new enthusiasm, particularly in the UAW, has been injected in part by the growing number of academic workers, primarily graduate students and adjuncts, who have organized with the UAW, UE, and the AFT. The graduate workers at Columbia University, for instance, who fought for years to win their union, clashed with the UAW bureaucracy several times during their first contract struggle. 

And of course many of these rank-and-file unionists have been active in building the wider movement for Palestine that has broken out on college campuses across the country, including many CUNY campuses. While the CUNY administration maintains academic and financial ties to Israel, students have built a strong movement for Palestine despite repression and threats from the administration. 

This new energy and organization means that there are increasing opportunities for workers, rank-and-file unionists, and students of all stripes to organize together to transform our university.  

Our Contract Campaign 

Even though we’ve been working for a year without a contract, both labor and management are still in the stages of putting forward their initial proposals — there has been no exchange of counter-proposals yet. The union’s starting proposal so far includes across-the-board raises of eight percent for the first two years of the contract and then 4 percent per year after that (8/8/4/4/4), which is not even enough to make up for wages lost to inflation during the last contract or since the last contract’s expiration. It’s also not enough to make up for additional raises for some lower-paid job titles including an adjunct pay formula that ties adjunct pay to median full time lecturer pay, remote work protections, an expansion of adjunct job security, and more.

Although we have been without a contract for a full year now, the leadership of the PSC has done remarkably little yet to organize the rank and file to fight for a new contract and to force the university to take us seriously. Instead, they have focused, as they have so many other times, on lobbying and waiting at the negotiating table for CUNY to make proposals. In fact, the union has been bargaining with the university since June, and has still not received an economic offer of any kind. 

There are many reasons for this passivity, but one of them is the Taylor Law. Under this state law, the provisions of public-sector contracts remain in effect even after contract expiration. This may seem like a good thing on the surface — after all, this means the protections of the contract are still enforceable — and many union bureaucrats in New York State have made that argument to the rank and file as a way of defending the law. But the Taylor Law is a fundamentally anti-worker piece of legislation which also bans strikes or any kind of work action, and it has had a chilling effect on the urgency of bargaining. For example, it is very common for it to take years for the PSC to negotiate new contracts (the last contract took two years to negotiate, and the one before that took seven years!).

We Must Unite and Prepare to Break the Taylor Law

In order to win a contract that provides real raises for CUNY faculty, graduate assistants, and staff and fights the tiered labor that means that some workers are paid less for the same work, we will need to prepare to use the biggest weapon of the working class: our ability to strike. CUNY does not function without our labor and we must prepare to withhold it. 

While numerous higher education unions have gone on strike in the past few years, PSC-CUNY has never gone on strike in its 50 year history. The Taylor Law adds a layer of difficulty for the PSC to go on strike. If public sector workers strike, the state can take a number of steps against them, including jailing union leaders, fining the union, suspending automatic dues checkoff, and imposing a loss of two days pay for every one day on strike. 

The Taylor Law may seem like an insurmountable barrier, but it is not. It has been broken many times with unions successfully winning the strike. Across the country, other public sector workers have gone on illegal strikes; take the 2018 West Virginia teachers strike, where Emily Comer, a teacher, makes the point very clear, “it’s only illegal if you lose.” It is possible to strike and to beat back the Taylor law provisions — if we organize. 

More than that, we must strike not only to win a good contract, but with the perspective of eliminating the Taylor Law from the books. It is an undemocratic law meant to protect the bosses and weaken unions and the working class. We should not stand for it, and should not allow it to stand.

In order to strike and in order to break the Taylor Law, we are going to need to be strong and united, both within the CUNY community and with the broader NYC community. Already, “CUNY on Strike” was formed to organize this struggle. In order to build for a strong strike, we will need organs of democratic discussion and organization, community assemblies organized to discuss, vote, and decide on steps forward for the movement, organizing faculty, staff and students together. We will need to unite across the university, including not only the PSC, but also the CUNY workers organized in DC-37 and the other campus unions, united across titles. It must mean bringing in and taking up the demands of the movement for Palestine, including ending the repression against the movement and divesting all CUNY ties from the state of Israel.

We will also need to seek the support of the broader New York City community –- of workers in other sectors, of teachers, healthcare workers and all of the city’s workers. A strong, fully funded CUNY is a demand that serves the entire working class of New York City since CUNY educates the New York City working class. 

The CUNY We Need 

Organizing for a contract that reverses decades of austerity is an important immediate goal. But we demand much more than just a contract with wages that keep up with inflation and the elimination of tiered labor. 

We demand a fully funded, free CUNY, paid for with taxes on the wealthy. This should be a step in the struggle for free, public universities for all. 

And we want a CUNY that is run not by overpaid administrators, but rather by the students, staff, and faculty who make CUNY run. We want a CUNY that is by and for the working class of New York that CUNY represents. 

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.

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