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CUNY Union Lawsuit Fails; Workers Need a Strike

The faculty and staff union’s request for a court injunction to reinstate 2,800 workers laid off by CUNY earlier this summer has been denied. By relying on the lawsuit instead of preparing for a strike, the union leadership has failed to protect the jobs — and health insurance — of its members.

Olivia Wood

August 14, 2020
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Photo: PSC CUNY

On July 1, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) filed a lawsuit against the City University of New York (CUNY) on the grounds that the university failed to protect employment “to the greatest extent possible,” one of the stipulations for the funds the university received from the CARES Act. On August 12, a federal judge denied the union’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have forced the university to reinstate the 2,800 part-time employees laid off in June. Without the injunction, these 2,800 workers will likely remain unemployed until January at the earliest. The judge also indicated that he would likely be willing to dismiss the case entirely. 

Union leadership presented this lawsuit to members as a powerful rebuke to CUNY’s pandemic cuts. However, a lawsuit puts justice into the hands of the court, not the workers. As former CUNY professor and alum Audre Lorde is famous for saying, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Lawsuits attempt to use a bourgeoise tool — the courts — to undo bourgeoise law. While small gains are possible using this method, it will never liberate the working class. Workers at CUNY need to use our own tools, such as strikes and work stoppages, to first protect each other’s health, livelihoods, and access to care during the immediate national crisis and then to fight for better working conditions, a fully funded, equitable university, and a renewed militancy among NYC labor unions that will last beyond Covid-19. 

Despite the leadership’s refusal to use — or even mention — these tools of workers’ power, rank and file union members at CUNY have been discussing the need for a strike for months. Union members organizing as Rank and File Action (RAFA) have been circulating a petition calling on the PSC leadership to initiate a strike authorization vote since early July, but conversations began long before that. We rightfully expected a wave of adjunct layoffs as spring semester contracts expired in May, graduate students need funding extensions, and everyone needs guaranteed health insurance and protection against being ordered back to work before it is safe. 

However, the PSC leadership refused to take radical action, and they did not mention even the possibility of strike preparation until July 25. In the PSC’s statement, they give CUNY until August 26, the first day of classes, to meet their demands. Waiting so long — and relying on the potential success of the lawsuit — leaves thousands of workers in dire straits. With the failure of the lawsuit, the vast majority of these workers are still unemployed, with no recourse to get their jobs back before school starts. And the union bureaucrats should have foreseen this. Discussions in Congress over both the CARES Act and a potential future stimulus package have made it abundantly clear that both major political parties favor giving more money to businesses than to workers, and the money given to workers should be as little as possible for as much political gain as possible. A court decision preventing layoffs under the stimulus package would throw a wrench into this politicking and put far more organizations than the City University of New York at risk. Of course the judge argued that the CARES Act does not guarantee continued employment, despite the instruction to protect employment “to the greatest extent possible.” 

These 2,800 layoffs did not need to happen. It was more than “possible” to keep every single one of those workers employed. The money is there, and instructors are sorely needed; enrollment at some CUNY colleges is actually up this fall, and research shows that smaller class sizes in remote learning are necessary to maintain the same quality of instruction. While CUNY is forcing thousands into unemployment and short-changing its students, the university has also recently hired or is about to hire several new executives, all with six-figure salaries and exorbitant benefit packages. CUNY’s Chancellor, at the top of the executive compensation plan, receives an annual salary of $670,000, an additional housing stipend of $7,500 per month, a car, and a paid driver. His housing stipend alone could pay the annual salary of more than three adjuncts. Yet, the judge argued, the CARES stipulation only mandates a “generalized duty” and only refers to employees “in the aggregate.” The judge’s ruling renders this language effectively meaningless, allowing universities to define “possible” however they wish. 

With coronavirus cases, unemployment claims, and eviction cases all on the rise, there is no time for a strategy of gradual escalations. People’s lives depend on strong, swift action. The PSC must call for a strike authorization vote immediately (not as soon as “possible”), so that the workers of CUNY can use our own power, our own tools, our own strength, to fight against the university administration and the politicians that govern our ever-shrinking budgets. 

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and an adjunct English lecturer in the NYC metropolitan area.

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