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Student Workers Stand Up for CUNY and Palestine

Attacks on CUNY and CUNY activists are an attack on all working people and students. Workers and students united can fight back.  

Olivia Wood

November 25, 2023
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A rally with people holding signs and a banner reading "Full funding"

The following is a speech given by Left Voice member and CUNY PhD student Olivia Wood at the PSC-CUNY (AFT Local 2334) Graduate Center chapter’s “Rally for a Living Wage” on November 15. Read the written version and watch the video below.

My name’s Olivia, I’m a 6th year student in the English program, and I’m a member of Rank and File Action and Left Voice. If grad assistants and adjuncts at CUNY made anywhere near a living wage, I would have my PhD already. I wouldn’t have had to work sometimes as many as 4 additional jobs in a year — two of them being additional part time CUNY jobs —  in order to support my family and pay the medical bills I have for my disability, hundreds of dollars per month of which aren’t covered by my CUNY health insurance. 

Adjunct faculty teach more than half of all CUNY classes. This is because it’s much cheaper to hire a part-time faculty member to teach a full-time course load than to hire a full-time faculty member. We are facing decades of underfunding of our university, which hurts both students and workers. This is a policy choice — a policy choice explicitly intended to deprive New York’s working class, especially New Yorkers of color, of a high quality education, a policy choice that has continued under both Republicans and Democrats. There’s always money for the military and for police, but never money for healthcare and education.

You know the things they say about us — that CUNY in general and the Graduate Center in particular is just a bunch of queers, a bunch of Marxist social justice warriors, that we’re just mooching off the public dime — they say these things to delegitimize us, to justify even further cuts, to drive wedges between us and the working class of New York. But we are the working class of New York, and we educate the working class of New York, and the working class of New York includes queers and includes Marxists, and we should never apologize for that. 

These same accusations are also being used to delegitimize campus protests for Palestine: mocking student activists for being clueless radicals, and justifying giving more money to the police to surveil us. They’re also perpetuating serious islamophobic stereotypes and calling any criticism of Israel antisemitic. All of these arguments are connected to one another — and the intended result is to gut CUNY from within. 

Sylvia Rivera gave a speech in 2001 called “Our armies are rising and we are getting stronger” — and that’s even more true now. The labor movement is growing in power, especially the higher ed labor movement, especially the grad worker labor movement. We are living in a new moment. We’re also living in a new moment for student movements — look at the campus protests for Palestine all over the country. Our university and many, many other universities are repressing both students and workers who speak out for their own rights and for justice in Palestine. That’s why after this, some folks are going straight uptown to the rally at Columbia, to stand with SJP and JVP, who have been suspended from Columbia’s campus. If they touch one of us, they touch all of us. But all of this repression is a sign of the bosses’ fear. 

As they say in the great labor movement film of my generation, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, “if you let one ant stand up, then they all might stand up, and there goes our way of life.” Through this repression, they’re trying to keep us from standing up. But we are standing up anyways. And it’s our duty to keep standing up: to organize our coworkers and classmates in class struggle, to organize toward a strike. Because our power is in our position as workers and as students, and this power — the power to withhold our labor, the power of a strike —- is what we need to use for everything — to fight for a living wage for all of us, for free tuition, for an end to the genocide in Palestine, and more.

Watch the speech here!
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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

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