Rank and File Revolt at CUNY

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An Interview with $7K or Strike Activists.

Like universities and colleges across the country, the City University of New York (CUNY) has become increasingly dependent upon a massive and growing population of highly exploited adjunct faculty who are paid only a fraction of what their full-time counterparts make for much the same work. This two-tier labor system is not only incredibly unfair and unjust, it has undermined higher education and, in the case of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress (PSC), it has significantly weakened the power of the union. Although the PSC bureaucracy has so far, thanks in part to the anti-labor New York State Taylor Law, been slow to address the problem of adjunct exploitation, a new generation of rank and file union activists, operating under the banner of $7K or Strike have taken up a bold demand that challenges both the continued adjunctification of the university and the Taylor Law, as well their union leadership. Below we interview three of these activists (Amelia Fortunato, Jarrod Shanahan, and Travis Sweatte) about this important and potentially transformative struggle.  

Left Voice: Can you first start by just telling us a little bit about what the $7K or Strike ($7KOS) movement is and how it is different from the CUNY adjunct organizing that came before it?

Amelia: Sure! $7KOS is a rank-and-file campaign within the PSC, the union that represents CUNY workers. Our campaign is led by a growing group of adjuncts, full-time faculty, graduate and undergraduate students who are building power through on-the-ground organizing on CUNY campuses. Inspired by striking teachers across the country, we believe that without a militant rank-and-file mobilization, CUNY will remain deeply underfunded, adjuncts will continue to make poverty wages, and our students will be denied the education they deserve. Striking is a call to action — it speaks to the power that adjunct faculty have to shut down the university system and demand more.

To give a little context, CUNY enforces a two-tier system on its faculty, with adjunct faculty at the bottom. Adjuncts are “part time faculty” who are paid according to the number of courses they teach and lack real job security. However, adjuncts are hardly part-time workers. Many of CUNY’s 12,000 adjuncts teach up to 5 classes a semester on multiple campuses across NYC. In 2017, our union contract with CUNY management expired. The last union contract only deepened the inequality between adjuncts and full-time professors, with the biggest raises going to the highest-paid faculty. Our union is currently in the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. We are demanding that CUNY adjuncts be paid $7,000 per course, a real step toward living wages for adjuncts, which we believe is necessary for high-quality education at CUNY.

The $7KOS campaign has its roots in decades of adjunct organizing at CUNY, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that we were able to build enough power to successfully make adjunct pay the PSC’s central contract demand.The plight of adjuncts isn’t news to anyone. There has been a lot of media attention paid to the dire circumstances of teachers, in general, and adjuncts in particular. Stories about adjuncts living in their cars, being forced into sex work (for the record, I am highly suspicious of depictions of sex work as inherently degrading and sex workers as victims). The picture they paint is bleak. These are adjunct sob stories, and while garnering sympathy can be politically effective, as can uncovering the ugly truth about CUNY and a blight on higher education more broadly, these tactics on their own don’t redistribute power. Our campaign is in the business of redistributing power. We aim to build power among adjuncts and force CUNY trustees to come to the bargaining table by demonstrating our collective strength.

Jarrod: We stand on the shoulders of some hardworking and passionate activists. The $7K demand itself was produced by a movement of adjunct activism that predates most of our arrivals at CUNY. What sets this campaign apart, however, as Amelia emphasized, is our unwillingess to allow our energy to be channeled into the union’s top-down structure. I’m afraid the PSC in its present incarnation is much more effective at capturing and stifling rank-and-file organizing, than it is at doing any substantive grassroots organizing of its own. Therefore we have fought for years to steer our work out of organizing controlled by Central Leadership. Tellingly, our campaign has attracted a lot of folks who once organized with great alacrity in official union channels, but saw their efforts frustrated time and again by a bureaucracy that disempowers activists in order to empower leadership and channel all our energy into the dead end strategy of begging Democrats for table scraps.

LV: What brings each of you to this movement? Why does this matter to you? What’s the motivation?

Travis: The main motivation for me is that being a grad worker and adjunct at CUNY is my 2nd ever union job in my 20 plus years of working. My first union job ever was at the Strand bookstore, and it really was eye-opening the difference from all the other retail-sector jobs I had before. Clocking out the minute my shift ended, getting actual lunch breaks, and knowing that the owner couldn’t just fire me the first time I told them ‘no’ made me immediately wish that every place I ever worked was unionized. When I came to CUNY, the first thing I did was sign a union card. However, the feeling of liberation and being an empowered worker was much less obvious at CUNY. Instead of everyone getting the same pay for doing basically the same work, grad workers had vastly different funding packages and completely unfair work assignments. I would talk to adjuncts and they would sound like the low-wage workers I knew from all my jobs before I started grad school; nobody knew how long they would be able to keep their jobs, hours were basically seasonal as classes you get one semester were not guaranteed for the next, and the pay was completely insulting. After pouring a lot of time and energy into the strike authorization vote my first year at CUNY and getting a contract that only exacerbated all of these issues, I knew that the entire culture of the PSC needed to be transformed. For me $7KOS has the potential to make the PSC into a force that can actually stand up to management and politicians who are completely adverse to funding public education. Working on this campaign, I feel the same sense of empowerment I got from my first union job. While $7K per course is obviously not enough to make being an adjunct a job anyone would ever actually want, fighting for it with my co-workers across job titles makes it feel concrete that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Jarrod: I organize in the CUNY system because it’s where I’m at. And here I find others lumped into the same situation as me, stuck in this mess of a university under siege by austerity, in a brutal class struggle in which only one side is fighting. Since my comrades recognize our organizing as part of the struggle for control over the conditions of their own lives — which is what all organizing is, at the end of the day — there is a much higher level of dedication and political maturity. And best of all, we have the best shot at winning, because we’re in this. Now, does this mean it’s the most “strategic” point in the expanded reproduction of capital? No, and it doesn’t have to be. It’s where I’m at, and hence, where I can work most effectively.  

Amelia: Well, in short, my future is on the line. Four years ago I arrived at CUNY as a PhD student after working as a staff organizer for Unite Here, Local 1 in Chicago since 2010. I entered CUNY’s Sociology doctoral program excited to study labor, and as part of my funding package, I was required to teach undergraduate courses at a CUNY campus (without any pedagogical training, I might add). While I actually dreaded the experience of getting up in front of the classroom, teaching CUNY students over the past few years has been a deeply gratifying experience and surprisingly the most rewarding part of the PhD process. I genuinely hope I can teach Sociology to undergraduates for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, academia has changed. The two-tier system drives down wages for all faculty and provides a disincentive for universities to hire more tenure track faculty and fill vacant positions. Adjunctification is so pervasive that only something like one in four people who finish PhDs now receive tenure track positions. Of course, I hope I am lucky enough to be one of them, and I am hustling to publish and get fancy fellowships and accolades toward this end like everybody else. But looking around a room of my peers and knowing that most of us will spend our careers as adjuncts — will pour our blood, sweat and tears into teaching our students while struggling to makes ends meet under mountains of student loans and credit card debt — makes me really angry. As it stands now, being an adjunct is not a viable career, especially for working class graduate students, students of color, or anyone else supporting a family. I want to teach, but will I be forced to choose a life of poverty to do so? I don’t accept that choice! This is why I organize alongside Travis, Jarrod and others in the $7KOS campaign. Until adjuncts make living wages, until we end the two-tier system in academia, until public universities are adequately funded, I will be a fighting member of this militant rank-and-file movement.

LV: Many union leaders, and even some rank and file members have argued that a strike is not possible or would likely fail. They say the Taylor Law is too powerful, and argue that a strike would be a gift to the Governor, who would happily punish CUNY faculty the same way Pataki punished the TWU in 2005. What do you say to these claims? Is a strike really possible under the Taylor Law?

Jarrod: The TWU strike is often cited against a strike, but rarely examined in its specificity. Based on my understanding, that strike was waged from a position of weakness, not strength, by a small circle of top-down business unionists who had worked hard to sideline left-wing activists, while not working nearly as hard to build up a culture of day-to-day militancy, to say nothing of substantive ties with the communities that would be most impacted by the strike. So sure, if we strike like that, we’ll be crushed. And to be honest, I can see Bowen and Majumdar, who fit this mold to a tee, leading us down that same road if left to their own devices. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Amelia: The Taylor Law is only as strong as we are weak. Of course, it would be naive to pretend there isn’t risk involved in an illegal strike. None of us in the $7KOS campaign take striking lightly. It’s for this reason that many of us in the campaign spend hundreds of hours organizing on our campuses — reaching out to our coworkers, building relationships with other faculty (something that is quite unnatural in the atomized work life of an adjunct), and having tough conversations about what it would take to win. If we build the organization necessary to take tens of thousands of CUNY workers and students on strike (and we intend to!), we will have built the rank-and-file and community power needed to fight back against any legal charges or financial penalties Cuomo and CUNY management plan to hurl at us.

I also want to point out that there are risks involved in all strikes. Low wage workers across the country and the world who walk out on strike do so risking their livelihoods with no promise of victory. Tell me what a “safe” labor strike looks like. When were working class people ever guaranteed anything without an ugly fight? Also, frankly, when I look ahead to my potential career as an adjunct professor, when I think about trying to survive in NYC and raise a family on poverty wages, the prospect of not taking militant action feels a lot scarier. We might stand to lose a lot as  as the most contingent, precarious faculty at CUNY, but we also have the most to gain!

LV: Do any of you believe that the New Caucus will ever actually call a strike? And if not, what does that mean for the movement for $7K?

Travis: I think at this stage in our organizing, the question isn’t about the current leadership caucus’ ability or willingness to call a strike, but rather to ask if it’s possible for workers to organize and build actual strike capability. Changing the two-tier system, making a real dent in the underfunding of the public university, and challenging the Taylor Law are three points that, to me, make it vital that we demand that this contract changing the trajectory for how CUNY treats its workers and its students. I believe that when we show that all of us who work at CUNY, across job titles, are unwilling to settle for a contract that continues to demonstrate that CUNY administrators and New York state and city politicians do not believe in the value of public higher education, the barriers that we face now will seem much less formidable. Saying that leadership will never call a strike is similar to pointing out that illegal strikes are not worth the risk; both feed into pessimism that only serves the interests of the bosses.

LV: Recently the union leadership issued a harsh letter condemning the activities of $7KOS activists that stated unequivocally that $7KOS is not the position of the union.What do you think this means for the future of the movement? How would you describe the relationship between $7KOS and the New Caucus union leadership?

Jarrod: I think our response letter said it all. I would only add that I’m sick of hearing these folks described as “leaders.” If there was any doubt before that letter that they aren’t leading — or even capable of leading — anything but a small and ever-shrinking clique of obsequious party faithful, there should be none now.

LV: As you know, over the last two years we have seen a massive revival of the strike tactic among public sector workers, especially education workers. Why do you think this is, and how do you think it relates to the movement for $7K?

Travis: I think it’s really telling that the revitalization of working class power is coming from largely feminized labor. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see massive, district wide strikes after we see the massive March on Washington and the MeToo movement. The election of a self-avowed sexual predator to the presidency and the ascension of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court are just two glaring examples of how working within approved methods, namely electoral politics, will really never serve as a path to liberation for oppressed groups. Much as Black workers were at the front of the rank-and-file movement in the 60s and 70s that tried to wake up the labor movement to the dangers of acquiescing to the bosses and putting the fate of workers into the hands of the Democratic party; I think we’re going to see a lot more teachers, nurses, hospitality, and care workers (to name just a few) showing us that we really don’t need to work and live this way, that we can fight back, and we can win.

Jarrod: Travis is correct to point to this as a movement of feminized labor. Let’s take this a step further and call it what it is: the long-awaited response to a crisis of social reproduction. Global capitalism has been in sustained crisis for decades. It is simply not a sustainable system. Since the 1970s, the worst of the burden has come not out of the profits of individual capitalists, but out of wages, benefits, job security, and quality of life for working people in the sphere of daily life: housing, education, healthcare, transportation, and environmental conditions, to name only a few. Now, the public sector has been stripped to the absolute bone, replaced largely by police and jails, and the misery and deprivation this restructuring has wrought in the lives of working-class people is impossible to ignore. While this trend is not new, three things have changed over time. First, things are worse now than ever before. Second, we have a new generation of activists who are not willing to accept the old mantra “there is no alternative.” Third, centrism — this craven drive to perennially split the difference, always in favor of the ruling class offensive against workers — is on a fast track to being completely discredited in the eyes of most Americans. I’ve never been more hopeful for revolutionary change in my entire life as I am right now.

LV: So what happens if, as many people are expecting, the union bureaucracy delivers a contract to the membership that is far below the demand for $7K? What’s the plan for going forward in that instance?  

Jarrod: Every day, as the $7KOS movement grows, I expect this less and less. Two members of the bargaining team recently avowed the team’s unqualified desire for $7K. Thousands of politically-engaged members, not all of whom are adjuncts, are not just ready to fight like hell for $7K, but are expecting a fight for $7K to be the union’s position. So if the handful of politicians who control this union try to renege on a bold promise they have made, that has helped inspire and activate so many precarious workers across the CUNY system, needless to say they will have a different kind of fight on their hands…

Travis: I agree that we have really already lowered the potential for a weak contract. Before the Janus decision, there was so much fear in our union that losing agency fees was going to drastically weaken us. Instead, you see the West Virginia teachers, who already faced some of the worst labor laws in the nation, go on a state-wide strike immediately after the Janus decision was declared. I think that the $7KOS movement has shown everyone in the union what the post-Janus PSC should be. Union dues should not be a fee that you pay for a service you receive, they should be the contribution that you make for yourself and your fellow workers. This means that every union member has a voice in the decisions that the collective makes. We should decide what kind of workplace is possible, not be told by others that we are asking for too much or being unrealistic. We’ve already seen how we can really fight for what we know is necessary by having $7K per course a central demand on this contract. We’ve known the whole time that this demand would not be given to us by legislators or college presidents, we knew this was only going to happen if we came together and fought with our only real leverage over the bosses, the ability to withhold our labor. Our name is our core principle; we will accept nothing less than $7K per course minimum, and we are willing to go on strike to achieve this.

LV: Let’s imagine the union leadership recognizes the pressure from the rank and file and decides to call a strike authorization vote, you go on strike, and you win. What then? Where does $7KOS go then?

Amelia: Great question! Fight to end adjunctification in higher education across the country? Win a fully-funded CUNY that our students deserve? Build a broad rank-and-file movement across NYC to take on the housing crisis, fix the crumbling MTA system, and demand living wages for all workers? The sky’s the limit! But I don’t think these fights can wait until we win $7,000/course for CUNY adjuncts. While this campaign organizes under the banner of “7k or Strike,” it’s about so much more, and it’s going to take a broad movement, the support of students and the wider community to win. We have already seen students and adjuncts involved $7KOS take on and organize around other demands. Luckily, when you empower people to expect better jobs and lives, it’s hard to contain them.

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Left Voice

Left Voice

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