As faculty, staff, and graduate student workers at the City University of New York (CUNY) approach one year without a contract, a new strike campaign is forming, fueled by outrage over decades of underfunding, low wages compared to other New York City schools, and fresh cuts to the university’s 25 campuses.
Just last month, dozens of faculty were laid off right before the start of the semester — with full or nearly full classes getting cut from the schedule, leaving students in disarray — after the university ordered enhanced cuts at nine CUNY schools. Furthermore, Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposed executive budget cuts CUNY funding by $528 million. Most of this decrease comes from the capital budget, which provides for building upkeep and other infrastructure costs, even though only eight percent of CUNY’s buildings are considered to be in a “state of good repair.” Her proposed budget also doesn’t provide for contractual salary increases for unionized workers.
While the enacted budget will inevitably be different from Hochul’s proposal, it’s unlikely to be meaningfully better in the ways that CUNY’s workers and staff need and deserve. Elevators and escalators are broken. Most employees, including part-time faculty, graduate assistants, and many staff positions, are not paid a living wage. Class sizes are enormous, and students often can’t take the classes they need because not enough sections are offered. Many staff members are doing the work of two, three, or four people, due to a hiring freeze on replacing colleagues who leave. Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, but everyone is stretched thin.
Meanwhile, negotiations between the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY, AFT Local 2334), the union representing faculty, staff, and graduate student workers at the university, and CUNY management are going slowly. The contract expired in February of 2023, but management refused to come to the table until June. No bargaining sessions were held in November, December, or most of January; now bargaining has resumed, and CUNY management has hired an external consultant — Gary Dellaverson, former head of labor relations for the MTA — to continue negotiations. According to both the union’s official bargaining updates and reports from members who have been observing during open bargaining sessions, management is anxious to settle a contract quickly — one that mirrors the severely low, sub-inflation raises in the recent tentative agreements made with the other CUNY unions.
The strike campaign, operating as “CUNY On Strike,” held initial events shortly before finals last fall, and is hitting the ground running for the Spring 2024 semester. On January 26, the second day of spring classes at most of CUNY, the campaign hosted simultaneous in-person and remote sessions of “Strike School,” modeled off of Rutgers AAUP-AFT organizers’ successful event series by the same name preceding that union’s own strike last spring. Nearly 250 people attended across both modalities, representing nearly all of CUNY’s 25 campuses.
While the PSC has never gone on strike in its 50+ year history, this is not CUNY’s first strike campaign. In 2020, workers at Hunter College Campus Schools, public schools whose workers are represented by the PSC, very nearly went on strike over Covid safety concerns, reaching a deal with management mere hours before the strike was set to begin. From 2017-2019, the “$7k or Strike” campaign, which called for a minimum wage of $7,000 per 3-credit course for part-time faculty, passed non-binding resolutions in a majority of the PSC’s union chapters. When the 2019 tentative agreement included a minimum wage of $5,500 by Fall 2022 — far short of $7,000 — the campaign organized a No Vote twice as large as in either of the two previous contract ratification votes. Meanwhile, adjunct faculty at Rutgers (also a public university) and Fordham make nearly $8,000 per course; at NYU, over $10,000; at Barnard, $12,000. Many CUNY faculty teach at one or more of these schools as well — it’s not a matter of skill or qualifications, but a matter of exploitation.
The cuts currently being implemented by the CUNY administration are not due to lack of funds — instead, the bosses have decided that colleges should hold an additional 2.5 percent of their existing budgets in reserve; meanwhile, Mayor Eric Adams is cutting tens of millions of dollars from the city’s CUNY allocation, which funds CUNY’s seven community colleges — these “savings” were entirely absorbed by the NYPD’s enormous increase in overtime pay solely for police stationed in the subways. New York State is projected to have a $2.2 billion budget surplus this year, even without passing a proposed bill to tax Columbia and NYU and use the funds for CUNY. The money to pay CUNY’s workers and fix its buildings is there — the city and the state simply don’t want to invest it, when they can continue to force the university to operate on an increasingly frayed shoestring.
CUNY On Strike is operating in a much-changed political context from five years ago: labor organizing in higher education has exploded since the NLRB’s 2016 Columbia decision (which ruled that graduate student workers at private universities may unionize) and even more so since the onset of the pandemic. This explosion has included major strikes among academic workers close to home for CUNY — including but not limited to the Student Workers of Columbia (UAW Local 2710) and NYU-GSOC (ACT-UAW Local 7902) strikes in 2021, the New School part-time faculty strike in 2022 (ACT-UAW Local 7902), a joint strike of three academic unions at Rutgers in 2023, and a very-near strike among NYU adjunct faculty in 2022. Many CUNY workers have had first-hand experience on their colleagues’ picket lines, and since so many part-time faculty teach at multiple schools, some of them have been on strike themselves.
The strike campaign also comes amid a progressive shift in higher education beyond the labor movement, as university students and faculty across the United States mobilize for Palestinian liberation. Many members of the strike campaign are involved in both movements and seek to build deeper connections between them, such as through a “Labor and Palestine” panel hosted by the CUNY Graduate Center’s Adjunct Project in November and the successful internal campaign in December to get the PSC to officially sign on to the “U.S. Labor for a Ceasefire” statement.
So why hasn’t the PSC as a whole called for “all aboard” this strike train, given the context of massive cuts, massive layoffs, and slow progress at the bargaining table? As public sector workers, PSC members are subject to New York State’s “Taylor Law,” which makes public sector strikes illegal and provides for various penalties (including fines on the union, fines on individuals, the suspension of dues collection, and jailing of union leaders). Some CUNY workers look to the example of the 2005 Transit Workers Union (TWU) strike as an example of why public sector strikes are doomed to fail, while many others are hesitant about strike organizing because “the union’s not ready yet.” CUNY On Strike takes the position that the best time to get ready is yesterday, and the second best time is now.
A recent memo from CUNY’s Executive Vice Chancellor indicates that CUNY will soon be increasing class sizes, increasing its “just in time” operations to cancel classes even more last minute than in the past, increasing faculty workloads, and conducting an “academic program review” that could result in the elimination of entire degree programs, as has already happened at West Virginia University, SUNY Potsdam, SUNY Fredonia, and UNC Greensboro. The pending, longer-term threat of program elimination is a perfect example of why strike organizing is so important now and goes far beyond the boundaries of this contract campaign; CUNY workers and students need to be ready to fight, not only for a strong contract now, but for all of the other attacks approaching on the horizon.