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Rekindling the Militant Spirit of CUNY’s Past

Mayor Eric Adams has announced an austerity budget that includes significant cuts to the City University of New York among other city agencies. In order to defeat these cuts, students, faculty, and other workers across the city must unite our struggles and be prepared to shut the university down.

James Dennis Hoff

May 22, 2023
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Prof. Gail Green-Anderson of LaGuardia Community College at a rally outside Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Manhattan office on Thursday.
Image: Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The City University of New York (CUNY) and its many constituent colleges have long been spaces of working-class struggle and resistance. Throughout the 1930s, City College was a bastion of anti-war, anti-fascist, socialist, and communist activism and politics that often pitted students and faculty against the administration and the state. In the 1960s a new generation of activists, led by Black and Puerto Rican students, demonstrated and occupied several city campuses in order to win “open admissions” — a struggle which effectively paved the way for tens of thousands of poor and working class people of color to get a college degree. And still today, students and faculty across the university are fighting to get cops off campus, to protect queer and trans students, and to make CUNY free again.  

Unsurprisingly, this activism and struggle has been frequently met with conservative reactions by the city and state. In the 1940s, state leaders created the Rapp-Coudert Committee with the express purpose of finding and weeding out communist and socialist elements within the university, leading eventually to the purging of more than 50 faculty and staff in the years immediately preceding the U.S. entry into the second world war. In 1976, just six years after the implementation of open admissions, the state and the Board of Trustees instituted tuition for the first time, forcing the new generation of Black and Brown CUNY students to shoulder the costs of open admissions. And since then the city and state have continued to undermine the university’s mission (to educate the children of the working class of New York City) by dismantling faculty and student self governance, corporatizing the university, slashing budgets, raising tuition, and cutting wages and compensation for CUNY workers. As a consequence, CUNY faculty are now some of the worst-paid faculty in the region, and forty percent of the public university’s budget now comes from student fees and tuition. 

This year, the university is once again facing a series of potentially devastating cuts that will only make the situation worse. While the latest New York State budget provided some additional funding to CUNY (still far less than is needed), New York City Mayor, Eric Adams has threatened to shrink the city’s contribution to the university’s budget by more than $68 million and is asking colleges to make plans to cut their spending by five or six percent next year. These cuts come at the same time that Adams is continuing to spend millions on overtime for the NYPD. Like all of the reduced spending in Adams’ proposed budget (and there is a lot), he is blaming these cuts on the cost of helping integrate a wave of new immigrants; but in a city that is continually cited as the wealthiest in the world, there is more than enough money available for improved public services, increased wages for all public workers, and aid for new immigrants. 

Of course, it is also no accident that these proposed cuts to CUNY were announced just a few months after the expiration of the last six-year contract between the university and the faculty and staff represented by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY) union. Clearly these cuts are meant to dampen the union’s ambitions to end the exploitative multi-tier system of adjunct labor, achieve wage increases for workers that keep pace with inflation, and to win gains toward making the university free again by passing what the union has called a “New Deal for CUNY.” In order to defeat these budget cuts and to win these gains, and many more, the students, faculty, and staff at CUNY, and other public sector workers, must unite their struggles. But power concedes nothing without disruption, and in order to actually succeed, we will have to do more than politely lobby the politicians in Albany and City Hall. If we want to win, we will have to rekindle the militant spirit of CUNY’s past and build the kinds of organizations capable of collectively shutting the university down.

Work Actions and Strikes Are Key

Rekindling that militant spirit begins by building a union that is ready and willing to strike, alongside students and other workers, for both better wages and the entire working class. This includes eliminating tuition and providing enough student aid so that everyone in the city who wishes to attend can do so. It also means organizing to defend the rights of the most oppressed and exploited members of the university, including fighting for equal pay and benefits for hyper-exploited part-time adjunct faculty, protecting students and faculty (especially those of color) against police violence, and protecting women and trans and queer faculty and students against discrimination and violence. 

While such a movement cannot be wished into existence, every contract struggle is nonetheless an opportunity to build those instincts and the muscle memory needed to prepare the ground for increasingly militant actions. Unfortunately, the PSC-CUNY leadership has frequently taken the exact opposite approach, treating contract struggles as merely pragmatic affairs, focused solely on a narrow set of immediate contract gains, rather than opportunities to build the organization and power of the rank and file members of the union for more ambitious escalating struggles. While the PSC-CUNY leadership professes a progressive unionism — and indeed, the union supports many of the same demands outlined above — their conservative, top-down mobilization strategy, centered almost entirely around lobbying and negotiations, has undermined and hamstrung rank and file power for decades, making the achievement of such gains all but impossible. Indeed, in the last two decades since the New Caucus leadership took control of the union, faculty wages have failed to keep pace with inflation and, as the union’s own newspaper has pointed out, have dramatically fallen behind the wages offered by comparable institutions across the region and country. 

This trend has only gotten worse since the union settled its last six-year contract. Since the start of that contract, faculty wages, which had been degenerating for decades, have lost an astounding 13 percent of their value thanks to skyrocketing inflation. This means that any new contract that even seeks to maintain faculty wages (to say nothing of increasing them or decreasing the wage gap between adjuncts and full-timers) would have to win gains equivalent to at least 15 percent wage increases in the first year of the new contract, with an additional three to four percent a year going forward. This is far more than what was won by the District Council 37 union (DC37), which ratified its new contract in March. And since city agencies almost never break the pattern set by the first municipal union to settle, this means any hope of maintaining current wages will almost certainly require a strike or at the very least the credible threat of one.

Unfortunately, the PSC-CUNY leadership did not even begin its contract campaign until the previous six-year agreement expired, and has done nothing so far to prepare the ground for work actions or a strike vote, a step that rank-and-file activists had been demanding well in advance of the expiration of the contract and throughout the pandemic as a way of fighting back against unsafe working conditions and preparing for future contract battles. Indeed, the PSC-CUNY has not gone on strike even once in its history and has only taken a single strike authorization vote (in 2016). That strike authorization was almost immediately negotiated away for a further percentage point of across the board wage increases instead of real wage parity for adjuncts, which is what the rank and file had been organizing to win. Instead of using that strike authorization to build lasting strike committees and begin preparing members for escalating work actions to win those demands, they quickly settled with management, offered the membership an objectively terrible contract, and called it a victory

This conservative approach to contract negotiations and budget battles is of course not unique to the PSC-CUNY. Like other bureaucratic labor leaderships, even those that embrace progressive values, the New Caucus has historically eschewed direct action in favor of the less disruptive path of political endorsements and lobbying. This timidity and inherent conservatism of the leadership is at once a response to and a reification of the awful anti-union Taylor Law, which criminalizes strikes by public sector unions in order to stop working people from using their most powerful weapon. 

But the Taylor Law, like all anti-worker laws before it, is only as powerful as we allow it to be, and it can be defeated. For decades the New Caucus and other city labor unions have used the threat of the Taylor Law to justify their inability to take any kinds of work actions that might even remotely be seen as illegal, and in doing so have actually helped to strengthen it considerably. Tactics that were never meant to be limited under the Taylor Law, like working to rule or walking out of work to demonstrate or protest, even if only for a few short hours, have been interpreted by union leaders and lawyers as illegal and thus never employed. This timidity and fear was exemplified by the union leadership’s decision to hold its first contract campaign rally at 7 a.m., so that staff could be on time for their 9 a.m. shifts. 

But like any muscle, the strike muscle atrophies without use. In order to build that strength again, rank and file public sector workers like those at CUNY, alongside the communities they serve, have to begin to start taking actions now that challenge the Taylor Law in preparation for eventually dismantling it. This means refusing to perform unpaid work (especially when working under an expired contract), organizing rolling walkouts and demonstrations, day strikes, picket lines, and strike votes in preparation for an indefinite strike if needed.

Building Coalitions Through Struggle 

Winning such a strike, however, will require more than just faculty and staff walking out of their classrooms and offices. CUNY labor is important for the social reproduction of the city’s workforce, but, unlike K-12 teachers, without whom huge portions of the entire workforce must stay home for lack of childcare, the immediate impacts of a strike at CUNY would likely be insufficient to force the hands of the CUNY administration or the state. In order to win such a struggle, the union will need allies. This requires building coalitions of mutual struggle with students and the community as well as other public sector workers.

While the PSC leadership has, to its credit, worked to build such coalitions of students, faculty, and community members, such as the CUNY Rising Alliance, it has unfortunately reproduced within those organizations the same tired, timid, and failed strategy that it has pursued within the union. As a consequence, the CUNY Rising Alliance has unsurprisingly become little more than another lobbying arm of the PSC-CUNY. But real coalitions of power can only be achieved through collective struggle. This means organizing with and taking militant actions on behalf of and in solidarity with students and other workers. It means helping organize independent student groups on campuses to fight for a free CUNY through escalating direct campus actions alongside workers and PSC members. It means working with the rank and file of theTransit Workers Union (TWU) to fight for a free public transit system for New York City. It means rejecting the awful politics of the Municipal Labor Council, and instead encouraging rank-and-file, cross-union solidarity organizations like the newly formed Public Sector Rank and File Committee, which seeks to build the infrastructure for a strike wave across all public sector unions in the city. And it means using our labor to take a stand against all forms of oppression and violence against the working people of the city, including kicking the police out of our unions and fighting against the racist violence of the NYPD, which is an enemy of labor and all working people of the city. 

Participating in these kinds of direct work actions and struggles not only helps to build the solidarity needed to win more funding for CUNY and better contracts for CUNY workers, it helps to create the organization, enthusiasm, and experience needed to build the kind of class-struggle unions that are necessary to defend the entire working class. Anything less is doomed to fail, but all of it begins by first embracing class independence, rejecting the failed strategy of class conciliation, and breaking with the parties of the boss. If our union leaders will not do this, then we will have to force them. This means organizing when necessary outside of the usual bureaucratic structures imposed by our union leaders, by creating independent strike committees to discuss possible work actions, open meetings with student activists and student organizations to discuss joint actions between students and workers, and cross sector working groups and organizations to discuss how to build the forces to strike across the entire city. 

A Historic Moment for CUNY and the City 

Mayor Adams’ proposed cuts come at a historic moment for CUNY and the City, and the response from working people must be equally historic. As federal pandemic aid dries up, New York, like other cities across the country, is facing a massive budget deficit, which, in the absence of wide-spread class struggle, will almost certainly mean a return to the draconian austerity we saw before the pandemic. Indeed, this first post-pandemic city budget is just a taste of the kinds of cuts that all city agencies, and CUNY in particular, are going to face in the future, especially in the likely case of another recession. Whether it’s increased tuition for students, cuts to vital programs like CUNY ASAP, or the continued deterioration of wages for faculty and staff, the impacts of these attacks are going to be even harder to bear thanks to the rising cost of living in New York and still-persistent levels of inflation which will continue to eat away at the wages of students and city workers alike. 

But this return to austerity is not only happening in New York and it is not taking place in a vacuum. Cities and states are proposing new rounds of cuts to public services and education and activists and unions are fighting back. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the wave of higher education strikes and work actions that have proliferated at universities and colleges across the country since the end of the pandemic. We’re now in a stage of heightened struggle over the future of higher education. Workers across the sector are showing us that there’s tons of energy and power there to fight and win real gains. Recent strikes at Rutgers and Temple University, though far from perfect, pushed back against proposed cuts and have shown that direct action gets the goods. This is precisely why it is so important for rank-and-file public sector workers across the city to work collectively and in solidarity with each other to build the kinds of fighting unions we will need to fight back and defeat these attacks and those that are almost certainly coming in the future. 

On May 12, PSC-CUNY held a rally on the steps of the Tweed Courthouse to protest the budget cuts, but was unable to turn out more than a couple of hundred union members and students to listen to Democratic politicians drone on about how much they love CUNY and how committed they are to fully funding the university. In a union of more than 25,000 members, the inability of the leadership to mobilize even one percent of those members to resist such austerity is a telling rebuke of the New Caucus’s failed lobbying strategy, which has either alienated or pacified huge swaths of the membership. 

If we wish to build the kinds of organizations and unions capable of winning real gains for workers and our communities, we will have to stop wasting our time lobbying and getting out the vote for Democratic politicians and instead use that energy and those resources to build a party of the working class for socialism that can link our struggles across sectors and across cities.

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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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