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Rank-and-File Rebellion at CUNY

The “$7K or Strike” demand aims to double the wages of exploited adjunct faculty. Such a radical demand requires radical action, but the union leadership is standing in the way.

James Dennis Hoff

February 23, 2020
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Illustration: Sou Mi

Like other public university systems across the country, the City University of New York (CUNY) has become ever more dependent on cheap adjunct labor. As a consequence, the ranks of underpaid and hyper-exploited part-time adjunct lecturers—most of whom now earn just $3,200 per course—have swelled over the last several decades to become a majority of the faculty. And as their numbers have gone up, the amount of funding that the city and state provide per student has steadily decreased even as tuition has continued to grow. This vicious cycle, whereby the university covers budget shortfalls by hiring low-wage and expendable adjunct faculty, only to incur even more budget cuts, has not only damaged the quality of education at CUNY, but has also effectively impoverished a whole generation of education workers, many of whom are already drowning in massive student loan debt.

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In response to this dire situation, rank-and-file activists in the Professional Staff Congress union (PSC), fed up with the failure of their leadership to address the exploitation of adjuncts, have been agitating around a series of bold demands for pay equity and full funding for the university. These demands, they insist, must be backed up by the credible threat of a strike.

At the center of this movement is the demand for a $7,000 minimum per course wage for all adjunct faculty. This increase, adjuncts say, would at least approach parity with full-time lecturers and chip away at the multi-tier faculty system that has developed in response to decades of austerity. But the 7K or Strike ($7KOS) movement, as it has come to be known, is not only about wages. From the beginning, $7KOS activists (including adjuncts, graduate workers, and full-time faculty) have insisted that the only way to address the problems of austerity and the university’s many woes, including ever-increasing tuition costs for students, is to build a fighting, class-struggle union that can effectively use the strike weapon, even in the face of the anti-union Taylor Law which prohibits any kind of work action by public unions in New York State.

Despite all the roadblocks the movement faces, including a demoralized union membership and an entrenched labor bureaucracy, $7KOS has managed to organize hundreds of activists and reach thousands of union members with its message, significantly changing the conversation within the union around the question of strategy. But as the idea of a strike to win a fully-funded contract finally gains traction among the membership, the New Caucus leadership has offered up a tentative contract that does not even come close to the movement’s demand of $7,000 per course. In response, $7KOS activists have undertaken a vigorous “No Vote” campaign.

Taking on the Leadership

From the very beginning, it was clear to most rank-and-filers that the effort to win parity for adjuncts, and thus to fundamentally transform the university, would likely put them on a collision course not only with the CUNY administration, but also with the union’s current leadership. Seasoned adjunct organizers had been butting heads with the New Caucus leadership almost since they were elected, and it quickly became clear that organizing for a meaningful strike action would necessarily include outflanking and at times directly confronting the power of the union leadership, which has become little more than a machine for lobbying politicians in Albany and providing member services.

The New Caucus, which was elected in 1999 to replace a largely do-nothing conservative leadership, came to power promising to build a more progressive, activist union. After the 1999 elections, the caucus took almost complete control of the union, sweeping the Executive Council and winning a vast majority of delegates on almost all the campuses. This allowed them to effectively dominate campus chapters and thus consolidate almost total control over the union. Since then, the New Caucus has become synonymous with the union more broadly.

Although the New Caucus promised a progressive program, including, among other things, a multi-contract strategy to end the exploitation of adjuncts and to win more funding for CUNY, the limits of their service model approach were obvious from the start. Rather than create the structures necessary to organize and build the power of the rank and file from the bottom up, the New Caucus chose instead to put almost all its energy into cozying up with elected officials in Albany and in City Hall. Following the PSC’s statewide affiliate, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), this lobbying strategy has included endorsements and member campaign donations (known as Vote COPE) to prominent state and local Democratic politicians, including developer-friendly Democrats such as Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council member Ydanis Rodríguez. Any politician who claims to represent the interests of CUNY is treated as a friend regardless of their record on other issues of importance to the working class, immigrants, or people of color.

But despite the many years of lobbying, the hundreds of bus rides to Albany, and several canned civil disobedience actions, this strategy has not only failed to win any additional funding for the university, but has also left the union, especially the rank and file, less organized and weaker than ever. The city and the state have continued to cut per-student funding to the university and have persuaded the CUNY Board of Trustees to cover those losses by simply raising tuition year after year. Indeed, even with the election of so-called insurgent Democrats, such as DSA member Julia Salazar in 2018; the dissolution of the conservative Independent Democratic Conference; and a Democratic Party trifecta (Democrats now control all three bodies of the state: the House, the Senate, and the governor’s seat), the most recent state budget included no new money for CUNY and nothing to fund pay equity for adjuncts. Astoundingly, this failure has been spun as a success by the leadership, who insist we are winning despite the ongoing cuts, and that our voices are being heard in the state capital.

Worst of all, this failed lobbying strategy has been paired with a conservative contract strategy that, over the twenty-year tenure of the New Caucus, has only increased the massive wage gap between adjuncts and tenure-track faculty. Rather than attempting to directly address the fundamental structural inequities of the multi-tier system they inherited, the New Caucus has attempted to address each group of workers in the bargaining unit as separate constituencies, while insisting on across-the-board wage increases that for all that often fall below inflation. This approach has resulted in gains for some adjunct faculty, including health insurance, an additional paid office hour and controversial three-year contracts for adjuncts who teach a minimum number of courses per semester for several years. Unfortunately, since many adjuncts do not or often cannot qualify for these benefits, this piecemeal approach has created even more tiers among adjuncts, and has left many in jeopardy of losing the benefits they rely on if their course loads are cut for even one semester. While these limited gains are surely welcomed by those who can enjoy them, the leadership’s failure to address the more fundamental questions of wage disparity between adjuncts and tenure-line faculty has only contributed to the university’s continued exploitation of cheap adjunct faculty members.

From $7K to $7K or Strike!

The movement for $7K or strike is in many ways an outgrowth of the rank-and-file adjunct activism that has existed at CUNY for decades. But that activism was partly a product of the New Caucus bureaucracy, which had promised, but failed time and again, to do anything about pay parity for adjuncts. For years, these activists worked within official union channels to build support for higher wages and respect for part-timers, and for years they watched as the real value of their wages fell and the wage gap between adjuncts and full-time faculty continued to grow. Realizing they stood little chance of ousting such an entrenched leadership, and not wanting to spend all their energy building yet another reform caucus, adjunct activists, who had been organizing under the banner “CUNY Struggle,” developed a two-pronged rank-and-file strategy that would eventually become $7KOS. The idea was to independently organize and radicalize union members around the demand for $7K while working inside and outside official union channels to pressure the leadership to build a comprehensive strike plan that could win.

The first task was putting forward and formally organizing around the demand for pay equity itself, which had been gaining ground among adjunct union members for years. Although the New Caucus likes to claim that they had been leading the push for $7K, the fact is that they were forced by the rank and file to include it in their official list of demands. Indeed, CUNY Struggle put forward the demand for $7K as early as March, 2017—nine months before the expiration of the last contract. They also organized and led several independent rank-and-file rallies around the demand for adjunct equity and full funding for a tuition-free CUNY. These rallies were based on the idea that the membership could not wait for the union leadership’s approval to take action, but had to be ready to independently organize the kinds of actions the leadership should have been organizing themselves. Although largely directed at the governor and the CUNY Board of Trustees, these demonstrations also called out the union officialdom for their lack of movement on the question of parity for part-timers, a criticism that began to resonate more and more with many rank-and-file members. In this way, the slogan “$7K or Strike” became a powerful tool to not only voice adjuncts’ demands for pay parity, but also to expose the union leadership’s lack of willingness to put up a real fight for $7K.

By the time the demand for $7K was officially adopted, $7KOS had already taken on a life of its own. And on April 26, 2018, just five months after the expiration of the last contract, $7KOS had its first big breakthrough. On that day, the Graduate Center chapter of the union overwhelmingly passed a resolution in which the members committed to go on strike if necessary to win the demand for $7K. Almost every chapter member who was present, with the exception of Chapter Chair Luke Elliott-Negri and a handful of New Caucus loyalists, voted for the resolution.

This victory was a major turning point, and the very next semester, after a summer of careful planning, several other CUNY campuses began to pass similar resolutions. These votes showed that there were, in fact, many union members across the campuses who were ready to go on strike to win parity for adjuncts. Thanks in part to this momentum, $7KOS began to build its own campus branches across the entire university. Activists in these new branches held meetings, tabled regularly to inform students and faculty about the movement, collected hundreds of pledge cards from union members committing to go on strike to win $7K, and held sometimes disruptive rallies, pickets, and grade-ins. Before the end of the following spring, eleven campuses, including almost all of the major four-year colleges, had passed resolutions supporting a strike for $7K.

But of all these victories, the most decisive and most important was the vote at John Jay College. The John Jay chapter had some of the most militant and experienced $7KOS activists at CUNY, but it was also a stronghold of New Caucus loyalists; it was only a matter of time before the two groups squared off. The chapter chair and New Caucus member Dan Pinello was particularly opposed to the resolution and threatened to resign if it passed. Taking up this challenge, the activists at John Jay managed not only to pass the resolution but also, for the first time in the history of $7KOS, got quorum—something that almost never happens at PSC chapter meetings. Achieving quorum meant that the vote did not merely represent the body’s will, but could be taken as the official position of the chapter. Shortly afterward, Pinello sent a letter to the PSC Delegate Assembly announcing his resignation.

The New Caucus Strikes Back

This wave of successes was not taken lightly by the PSC Executive Council, which quickly went on the offensive. In a public and strongly—worded letter posted to the PSC website and sent to the union membership in March 2019, the principal officers excoriated $7KOS movement activists, accusing them of misrepresenting themselves as the union leadership and attempting to mislead members about the likelihood of a strike. Of course, none of these claims were true, and the paternalistic and defensive tone of the letter, coupled with a ham-fisted defense of the union’s decision-making processes, only demonstrated the weakness and inability of the New Caucus to take up the growing demands of the rank and file for greater militancy.

Although the letter was ostensibly a rebuke of the organizing tactics of $7KOS, it was also clearly meant to distract attention from the union’s most recent counterproposal to management (presented just two weeks before), in which they had already begun to walk back the demand for $7K through a series of bizarre compromises meant to avoid, rather than directly confront, the pattern of austerity funding for public sector unions. Rather than stick with the demand for a minimum of $7,000 per three credit course for adjuncts, with corresponding raises for all the adjunct steps, the bargaining team pursued a strategy that would increase the number of paid hours without increasing hourly pay. In other words, the New Caucus, even as early as March, was already offering more work for already-overworked adjuncts in exchange for an increase in wages that was still less than the original demand of $7K. This strategy has now led to a proposed contract that does not include $7K, but does create more required work and completely eliminates the guaranteed raises for adjuncts in the current contract.

In response to these concessions, activists have begun organizing around yet another series of campus resolutions, this time calling for an immediate strike authorization campaign. In addition to demanding a strike authorization vote, they are also calling for hiring more organizers as well as forming local campus strike committees to begin preparing outreach for a vote. These resolutions have since passed at the Graduate Center, Queens College, Bronx Community College, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and Brooklyn College, and they are scheduled to be voted on at several other campuses this Fall.

Lessons Learned

Despite the best attempts of $7KOS activists to push the union toward a more radical bargaining strategy, the bargaining team and the executive council have nonetheless agreed to a tentative contract that is full of compromises and givebacks and comes nowhere near the membership’s demand for $7K. In response, $7KOS and rank-and-file activists, angry with the meager gains for adjuncts and tired of the union’s closed-door bargaining policy, have mounted a fierce “No Vote” campaign that is already gaining significant attention within the union and the local media. A successful rejection of the proposed contract will send a message to the CUNY administration and the PSC leadership that this contract is not good enough, and that there is the will to fight for more. More importantly, it would further embolden and mobilize the ranks of the membership to take independent action to organize a serious challenge to the current PSC leadership.

While there is still a long way to go toward building within the PSC the kind of militancy necessary to win a strike, it is clear that the $7KOS movement has succeeded in establishing a foothold within the union from which to act, raising expectations of what is possible, and continuing to push the membership toward an understanding of the need for a more radical strategy.

More importantly, they have managed to engage and begin to train a whole layer of rank-and-file union activists committed to building a stronger, more unified, and more democratic union. This wide appeal was made possible in part because of the simple and righteous nature of the demand, which speaks in defense of the most exploited members of the union and weaves their struggle together with the broader struggle of all faculty and students for a better university. And as the history of the labor movement in the United States shows, it has always been radical union members, those like the $7KOS activists and those who support them, and not the union leadership, who have provided the impulse and the direction for labor’s biggest wins.

Although the New Caucus has sold itself as a progressive leadership, it has played the same role in this struggle that the union bureaucracy always plays. Their rapid abandonment of their promised radicalism, in favor of a policy of good relations with CUNY management, close-door negotiations, and blind faith in the benefits of lobbying Cuomo and De Blasio, is based on a concrete political worldview: the idea that Democrats are our allies, and that institutional channels are the only means to advance our interests. Rather than embracing and channeling the power of the demand for $7KOS, the New Caucus has disavowed the union’s most active members, choosing instead to exchange labor peace for a few more crumbs worth of gains from management. The groundswell of opposition to this bureaucratic unionism, hegemonized by $7KOS activists, can become the starting point for a more organized opposition caucus within the PSC union. But to avoid repeating the history of the New Caucus, which is the same as other “reform caucuses” in other unions, a clear independent working-class politics needs to be articulated, one that does not include political support for politicians of either party or friendly relations with any state authority.

As already demonstrated by the teachers in West Virginia, Los Angeles, and Chicago who are learning to use their unions to fight for the broader class, strikes work! It is not improbable that an organized rank and file within the PSC could bring that strike wave into the higher education sector.

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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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