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Will CUNY Go on Strike?

On Wednesday, September 11, members of the CUNY Graduate Center chapter of the Professional Staff Congress union passed a resolution calling for an immediate strike authorization campaign; several other chapters are set to follow this month. Could this be the beginning of a bigger movement toward a strike, or will the PSC leadership once again squander the opportunity and settle for another weak contract?

James Dennis Hoff

September 16, 2019
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$7KOS activist and the author, James Hoff at a contract rally at City Hall, March, 2019. (Zuma Press, Newscom)

More than two years ago, rank and file members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union of the City University of New York began to organize around a set of bold demands for worker equality. At the center of these demands was a call for a minimum $7,000 per three-credit course for adjunct faculty—an amount that would bring them close to parity with their full-time colleagues. Long exploited by management, the use of underpaid adjunct faculty at CUNY has increased dramatically over the last several decades, creating a two-tier wage system that has undermined the PSC’s ability to fight for more funding for the university and divided the union. Recognizing the transformative nature of the demand, which would require a complete restructuring of the university, activists began to rally around the slogan “$7K or Strike!” ($7KOS). These rank and file union members, many of them adjuncts themselves, argued that the most effective way to approach such a demand and still win a good contract for the rest of the bargaining unit, was to begin the negotiations on a militant footing and quickly move toward organizing the membership for a confrontation with management that included the credible threat of a strike.

For more than a year, $7KOS activists pushed their point, organized rank-and-file members under their banner, held rallies in front of the governor’s office and city hall and, perhaps most importantly, passed a series of $7KOS resolutions at campus chapters declaring the chapter members’ firm commitment to doing everything possible to win $7K, “up to and including a strike.” These resolutions were passed at 11 campus union chapters across the university, and since then discussions and arguments about the efficacy of a strike have been a regular part of the deliberations of many chapter meetings as well as the Delegate Assembly, which is the final decision-making body of the union.

However, most members of the union Executive Council, which for almost twenty years has been dominated by the outwardly-progressive, but highly-bureaucratic New Caucus, have refused to weigh in on the necessity of a strike, and have repeatedly claimed that it is possible to win the demand for $7K at the bargaining table. Though President Barbara Bowen has said a strike is always an option, and indeed, even called for a strike authorization vote in the last contract, the leadership, including Bowen, has done almost nothing to organize or mobilize the membership since the first economic offer from the University earlier this year. Instead the membership has effectively been demobilized, asked to wait and see what the bargaining team gets.

Rank and File Rebellion

In response to this lack of a fighting strategy, members of $7KOS have taken their struggle to the next level and are now putting forward resolutions for a bold strike authorization campaign (reprinted below) at campuses across the university. The first of these was passed at the Graduate Center chapter on Wednesday, September 11.

The resolution, which calls on both the Executive Council of the union and the GC Chapter members to begin immediately preparing the ground for a strike authorization vote, was passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 86 in favor and 16 opposed. However, several PSC members who were present for the vote noted that many of those who voted against the resolution were not necessarily opposed to the idea of a strike or a strike authorization campaign, but had specific differences with the way the resolution was worded. As Graduate Center Higher Education Officer, A Martini explained, the atmosphere of the meeting was tense, and the presence of PSC Executive Committee members—who were invited to deliver a report on the contract negotiations the first half of the meeting—were not well-received by most members. “I was not surprised that it passed,” Martini said, noting that many members who voted in favor of the resolution were particularly angry about the secrecy surrounding the bargaining process. “They [PSC EC members] came to talk to us about the contract, but because of the secrecy of the process, they couldn’t really tell us anything. We’re supposed to be a democratic organization, but most members just don’t know what’s going on,” said Martini. This lack of transparency, particularly surrounding contract negotiations, has been a regular complaint of many rank-and-file members, and is one of the reasons why the membership has remained so inactive this contract round. And that is precisely what activists say this strike authorization campaign is meant to change. As Jane Guskin, a $7KOS activist, put it, a strike authorization campaign isn’t only about $7K for adjuncts, or even this particular contract. “A strike authorization campaign involves building the mobilized and energized membership needed to win full funding for CUNY, free tuition and support for students, and a fair contract for all faculty and staff,” said Guskin.  

Although $7KOS activists are focused on winning parity for adjunct faculty, they have always said they will not accept an increase for adjuncts that comes at the expense of students or other workers. And so one of the big sticking points for many has to do with the fact that the contract is being negotiated under circumstances of extreme and continuing austerity. For instance, there was nothing included in the last state budget to cover any wage increases for CUNY staff and faculty, much less the large sum needed to create pay equity for adjuncts. Furthermore, the Board of Trustees, in an unprecedented and cynical move, announced that the last tuition increase on CUNY four-year colleges was meant to be used to cover increased costs incurred from collective bargaining with the PSC. This means that any gains won for adjuncts, full-time faculty, or staff, are going to be paid for on the backs of students and through further cuts to campus budgets, possibly resulting in fewer classes, larger class sizes, and an increase in the number of exploited and overworked adjunct faculty. To solve this, they say a strike is absolutely necessary. Clearly, as this resolution shows, the rank and file are ready for a bigger fight, but as the leadership rushes to reach a settlement with management, how real is the possibility of a strike at CUNY?

Prospects for a Strike?

At first glance the prospects for a strike at CUNY look slim, and indeed the University has not seen a single faculty strike since it was founded. There are several obvious reasons for this. First off, for much of its history, the faculty at CUNY were largely well-compensated and given a relatively significant level of control over their working conditions. As a result, faculty and academics were, in general, less likely to enter into an all out confrontation with management and their union leaders. The second, and perhaps more important reason, is that a strike at CUNY is illegal. The Taylor Law, which was passed in 1967, strictly prohibits a strike or any work action, including slow-downs or, maddeningly, even working to rule. It also specifically prohibits the promotion of a strike by any employee. The penalties for breaking the law include significant fines to the union and two days of lost pay for every day an employee is on strike. Despite an early round of resistance to the law by NYC labor in the late sixties and early seventies, the Taylor Law has unfortunately had a conservative effect on all public sector unions in New York, including the PSC.

However, much has changed in the last thirty years. For starters, faculty salaries at CUNY have plummeted. When adjusted for inflation, the full-time faculty have seen about a 25 percent decrease in real wages since the implementation of the Taylor Law, and their numbers have dropped precipitously relative to the number of students the university enrolls. In their place, the university, like universities across the country, has hired an army of adjunct lecturers to teach a majority of the classes for a small fraction of the cost of a full timer. The days of the well-paid CUNY professor are largely over, and now close to 60 percent of the faculty work for poverty-level wages with little to no job security and few benefits. And the staff at CUNY, particularly college lab technicians, have been subject to similar forms of austerity. This means that many of the members of the PSC, even some of the full-time faculty, are much less complacent and more desperate than their counterparts of yesteryear. Likewise, though the Taylor Law is often held up as an insurmountable challenge for NYC public sector unions, its legitimacy has been conspicuously challenged as of late. Mayoral candidate Cynthia Nixon and State Legislator Julia Salazar have both come out in favor of repealing the no strike clause of the Taylor Law. Meanwhile, the wave of often-illegal teachers strikes that have followed in the wake of West Virginia’s 2018 uprising have shown that anti-union laws can be challenged and even broken, and that unions can still win big gains and, most importantly, build power through strikes.  

As CUNY union activists have repeatedly argued, there is no way to change or repeal the Taylor Law without directly and strategically confronting it. Though an all-out strike, like the Transport Workers’ Union’s strike in 2005 that landed the union president in jail, would require an enormous amount of organization to win, such organization must include work actions that directly challenge the Taylor Law. Day strikes, slow downs, and massive coordinated teach-outs that close down the university are all examples of actions that would be extremely difficult to prosecute under the Taylor Law. At a workplace like CUNY, where faculty teach a wide variety of days and times, any attempt to dock the pay of such employees  would be a logistical nightmare. And of course, a teach-out, even one that shuts down the university for several days, still involves teaching, making it near impossible for the University to call upon the Taylor Law to shut it down. Moreover, thanks to the legal concept of precedent, every time management fails to invoke the Taylor Law, the law becomes that much weaker. Despite the regular fear-mongering that comes up every time the possibility of a strike is mentioned, the Taylor Law can be challenged and even defeated. Doing so, however, requires not only building the capacity needed for a walkout, but also student and community solidarity to defend it.  

Although the PSC New Caucus likes to talk tough, it is clear that the union bureaucracy will not call a strike unless they are forced to. It is just as clear, however, that there is no path forward for adjunct equity or a free and fully-funded CUNY without employing the power of a strike. So the question for the PSC is not whether or not a strike will happen, but how to build one—and that is ultimately a task for the rank and file. If the $7KOS movement is any indication of the radical potential of the now-majority adjunct faculty at CUNY, we should not discount the possibility of a strike in the near future.

Strike Authorization Campaign Resolution

Adopted at the PSC CUNY Graduate Center chapter meeting on 9/11/19

STRIKE AUTHORIZATION CAMPAIGN NOW! 

Whereas: the PSC’s contract campaign has so far failed to yield positive results, and CUNY’s Board of Trustees has used our bargaining demands as a pretext for approving a $200/year tuition increase for CUNY undergraduate students at the four-year colleges; 

Whereas: without a credible threat of a strike, PSC members have no power to win our contract demands and especially the demand for $7K per course as the adjunct starting pay, or to demand sufficient funding from New York State to pay for our contract without raising tuition; 

Whereas: the PSC carried out a strike authorization campaign for the last contract and did not incur Taylor Law penalties; 

Therefore be it resolved that: the members of the Graduate Center chapter of the PSC assembled today urges the PSC Executive Council and Delegate Assembly to immediately:

Be it further resolved that: effective immediately, the members of the Graduate Center chapter of the PSC assembled: 

*** Proposed Strike Authorization Campaign Plan 

Strike authorization pledge:

Building mobilization capacity:

Financial resources:

Publicity:

Coordination:

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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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