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‘No Power Greater’: Solidarity and Struggle at CUNY

Adjunct faculty at CUNY have been exploited for decades, but the union leadership has done little to address the problem. A militant, rank and file strategy, grounded in solidarity, is the only winning solution.

James Dennis Hoff

September 23, 2018
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Photo: Luigi Morris for Left Voice.

It is a sad, but well-known fact that labor unions have become increasingly entangled in the systems of worker exploitation they were originally intended to resist. Business unionism, (the view that “what’s good for the company is good for the workers”) and service unionism (the idea that a union should be little more than a bargaining agent for employee grievances and economic interests) have, without question, become the dominant models of labor organizing in the United States. These approaches, deployed in the wake of existential threats to unions everywhere, may have saved some unions from extinction, but have unfortunately diminished and more generally constrained the power of working people everywhere. As a consequence, American labor is not only as weak as it’s ever been, but many workers have lost all historical knowledge of what a union is really for, and the meaning and power of solidarity.

One of the most concrete examples of this loss of solidarity is the proliferation of contracts that include tiered wage and benefit structures. Business and service unionists, intent on maintaining control and “legitimacy” through difficult economic times, have all too frequently negotiated protections for the wages and benefits of current workers only by giving up huge concessions for new hires and new part-time employees. At both the USPS and UPS, for instance, part-time workers, who make up the majority of weekend drivers, often earn as little as half of what their full-time counterparts do, while many UAW contracts, including current contracts with GM, have allowed similar tier systems to develop since 2007.

Although this tiered system is often associated with the private sector, it has been a consistent feature of public sector employment for decades. At public colleges and universities across the country, the expanded use of adjunct professors and lecturers has created an entire generation of highly-skilled and highly exploited second-tier workers who make only a small portion of what their full-time counterparts do, for pretty much the exact same work. This use of adjuncts has allowed public colleges and universities, often faced with brutal city and state funding cuts, to balance their budgets without unduly upsetting the permanent faculty and their union leaders. The abuse of such adjunct labor has been especially pernicious at the City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban university in the United States, which has steadily been moving toward a super-majority second-tier faculty since the 1980s. Currently, more than 65% of classes at CUNY are taught by part-time faculty, hired semester by semester, who often earn as little as $3,200 per course, or about $23,500 a year for a full course-load.

Thankfully, there seems to be a slow but steady shift in consciousness taking place. Just as the workers at GM and UPS have begun to push back against the two-tier system in their workplaces, so too have the faculty at CUNY. Union activists—composed mostly of adjuncts and graduate students—many of whom have been organizing for the better part of a decade, have finally convinced the leadership of the Professional Staff Congress, (PSC) (which represents more than 30,000 faculty and staff at CUNY), to prioritize a minimum $7,000 per-course wage for all faculty in the next contract, a demand that would substantially close the massive wage gap between part-time and full-time faculty at the university. If won, this demand for 7K has the potential to send shock waves through state university systems across the country. Actually winning such a substantive demand, however, is much harder than prioritizing it, and without a strategy of militant actions, up to and including a strike, if necessary, there is little reason to believe that the administration or the city and state will be willing to make such a concession. After all, the administration is practically addicted to the fiscal flexibility that precarious adjunct labor makes possible. It is also unlikely, given the history of the New Caucus (the current union leadership) that such militant actions will be pursued. And so, just as in West Virginia, it is going to be up to the rank and file to build the momentum necessary to end the two-tier wage system at CUNY.

Whither the New Caucus

In 1995, in response to the ongoing cuts to CUNY, as well as the continued exploitation and use of adjunct lecturers, a group of progressive-minded faculty, tired of the conservative old guard that had been running the union, formed the New Caucus in an effort to fight for a more equitable and accessible university. In 1999, the New Caucus slate was elected as the leadership of the union, and they have maintained tight control ever since. Under the direction of Barbara Bowen, the union has undoubtedly taken on a more activist role, organizing around questions of justice and fairness that go beyond wages and benefits, fighting for better funding for the university, defending students and their interests, and taking positions of solidarity with unionists and activists across the world. It is clear that many of those who formed the New Caucus had a more militant organizing model in mind than their predecessors, or much of the labor movement for that matter.

Unfortunately the New Caucus strategy, though it won some meaningful gains for CUNY faculty and staff, has failed to employ the kinds of rank-and-file organizing needed to build a fighting labor movement at the university or across the city and state. Instead of building bridges with other city labor organizations and their members to fight for more state and city funding or to challenge the Taylor Law, the union has pursued the same tired policy of political lobbying and Democratic Party endorsements as its parent organization (the AFT). Instead of organizing and prioritizing the most abused and exploited members of the bargaining unit, the New Caucus has effectively pursued a service-union strategy that has attempted to appeal to the self-interests of all members across ranks and job titles. By prioritizing across-the-board wage increases, and non-economic demands for each of the many groups of workers it represents, the union has managed to appease each of the units it represents without ever really challenging the administrative status quo. It’s clear the New Caucus has waged a noble battle in service of its members, and they have done so in a period of great austerity, but they have ultimately failed to address the underlying exploitative and undemocratic structures of both the university and the union itself, or to change the balance of power in any meaningful way.

Gains won at the Expense of Adjuncts

While the union has won some notable and hard-fought gains for adjunct faculty in recent contracts, including health insurance and a paid office-hour for those who teach two or more classes per semester, adjuncts at CUNY still earn subsistence level wages for much the same work as their full time and tenured colleagues. Indeed, since coming to power, the New Caucus has not only failed to increase adjunct wages in any meaningful way, it has consistently refused, contract after contract, to address the growing wage gap between full-time and part-time faculty. Adjunct instructors, for instance, earn a starting salary of just $3,200 per three credit class, while starting full-time lecturers can earn anywhere between $6,000-9,000 per course, and tenure track and tenured professors even more. Meanwhile full-time faculty receive generous benefits (such as paid parental leave, from which adjuncts are excluded), and significant yearly step increases. Adjuncts, meanwhile receive much smaller step raises only every three years—if and only if they are lucky enough to remain employed all semesters for that period.

Such inequality actively undermines union solidarity and degrades the value of all labor at the university. Worse, the continued exploitation of adjuncts at CUNY has set in motion a vicious cycle of further exploitation, since such low adjunct wages only incentivize the administration to cover revenue shortfalls by hiring even more low-paid part-time faculty. Because of this, the university has, during the tenure of the New Caucus, moved towards a model where the wages and benefits of a shrinking minority of well-paid and well-compensated full-time professors are effectively funded through the exploitation of the rest of the faculty. As Marc Bousquet, one of the founders of critical university studies, explains:

Academic unions are complicit with management in worker exploitation in their own way, but they are consistent with American unions in this regard…Which is to say: higher education is a typical workplace, in that ‘solidarity,’ like faith and chastity for Augustine, is more of an ongoing project and often-deferred goal than a naturally- occurring phenomenon waiting to be discovered.

This quote captures pretty well the ideological and organizational nature of the New Caucus, whose members regularly speak of solidarity, yet rarely practice it. This failure, of course, is not only the product of any one group of leaders, or even a particular culture of leadership, but is a direct consequence of the economic conditions that have pushed full-time faculty into survival mode. Like fortress Europe, whose citizens mistakenly seek to protect their crumbling social democratic welfare states by limiting immigration, the full time faculty have sought to protect themselves from the ruthlessness of the market, by sacrificing, rather than fighting for their colleagues. However, as many Left labor activists and socialists have consistently argued, such practices are a race to the bottom and ultimately hurt all workers. There is no back door or emergency exit by which to escape the never-ending assault on working people. The only way to win is to face such attacks head on and in unity.

Solidarity Requires Equality

One of the fundamental principles of social unionism is a commitment to solidarity and equality among workers. While many full-time faculty and staff at CUNY correctly argue that they are themselves underpaid and exploited, insisting that the union should seek higher wages for the whole bargaining unit, it remains that some faculty are clearly more exploited than others. It’s a hard fact to face, but it’s clear that wage increases, for full-time faculty in particular, have been won and sustained on the backs of the growing ranks of adjuncts and that this practice, along with the contingent nature of their employment—not to mention regular professional prejudice from their full-time colleagues—has alienated most adjuncts, who make up about 40% of the bargaining unit, from their own union. True solidarity requires that the PSC and its members publicly call out the inherently exploitative nature of the two-tier system and commit themselves to win, by all means necessary, full and total parity in this contract. Although faculty parity is not the only, or even necessarily the most important struggle in the long term, (a free and open university run by the faculty and students should be our ultimate goal) it is clear, and has been for decades, that no other struggle is possible without first building an equitable and inclusive workplace in which all workers have a stake in the union. And herein lies the power of solidarity: although full time faculty may have to temporarily give up some potential economic gains for the benefit of their part-time colleagues, that sacrifice ultimately makes the university better and the union more powerful.

Of course, management likes to see its workers divided, defeated, and weak, and it is fantasy to think that the state and university will deliver such a victory at the bargaining table without the credible threat of a strike. As teachers have proven in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and more recently, in Tacoma, (where educators won 18% raises after just seven days on the picket lines), radical actions get the goods. This is not to say that the strike is the only weapon the union can employ. Any strike has to be preceded by a series of escalating work actions, including working to the contract, rolling pickets, sick-outs, student and faculty walkouts, and other spontaneous or planned short-term work stoppages that directly challenge the logic of the Taylor Law and weaken its legitimacy. Such actions of course, require committed activists, capable of leading and organizing the ranks in their departments and offices to join in struggle not only when called, but always, through their own day to day acts of resistance and organization. To do this, the union will have to do more than simply mobilize its members to turn out for the cameras or phone bank for politicians. The union will have to first give up some of its control to the campus chapters, and dedicate more of its resources to educating, training, and building a rank-and-file leadership across the university. It would be nice to see the New Caucus lead such a revival of the rank and file, but their record suggests that any such transformation of the union will have to take place from the bottom up.

But solidarity also means solidarity with our students and we have to be sure that any significant raises for adjuncts are not paid for on the backs of our students through tuition increases or reduced services. This is why, in addition to fighting for adjunct parity, the PSC must also commit itself to the creation of a free and open university for all. As part of this, the union has called for a rally on Wall Street this Thursday, September 27th, from 4-6pm to demand that the financial sector, including Bill Thompson, the chair of the CUNY Board of Trustees, pay their fair share to fully fund CUNY. This will also be an opportunity for PSC members to show their strength and take the first steps toward true solidarity, by turning out in huge numbers and marching under the banner of the rank and file to demand 7k or Strike.

James Dennis Hoff is a PSC-CUNY member and long-time political activist. He teaches at the English Department of the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).

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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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