Field Notes Back to School
Its Time for a Strike to End the Stranglehold over City Workers
The City University of NY has been a beacon of hope for working-class people ever since 1847, when it was established in lower Manhattan. At that point, according to its mission statement, City College was to give the working poor a shot at capitalism’s opportunities. The working class was beginning to organize in what was clearly becoming one of the wealthier cities in the US. Workers were demanding that their children be provided a top-rate education for free. Such an education would, according to the mission statement, “Make [the schools] the property of the people—open the doors to all—let the children of the rich and the poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect.,” Of course, the only workers who got to go to what was then called the Free Academy were white men, but given that, up until that time, the only institutions of higher education were private, this was definitely an advance. New York was becoming a center of commercial activity and thus needed an educated working class. Like all institutions, the university is a political one and its life ebbs and flows with the needs of the ruling class. Although it was costly and taxes had to be raised, the needs of growing capitalism together with the demands of the working class, made the establishment of what became City College, an inevitability. City continued to be white, with a smattering of Blacks later on, but basically neglected nonwhites until it was forced to change. Through the Great Depression, the City University remained free except for night students, while adding Hunter and Baruch Colleges, but it also remained white.
It wasn’t until 1969 when City College—then located in Harlem but still white—was challenged by Black and Brown students who declared the liberation of the City University, thus changing the complexion of the student body. These students said quite emphatically, that City College would be closed unless the people who inhabit the neighborhood got to go to its schools. The movement caught fire in a period of politicians caught off guard, confronted by a mass movement. An Open Admissions policy was instituted, making college free to all who graduated from a New York high school.
How was the New York ruling class going to retake control of City College? The fiscal crisis that devastated New York City in 1975 provided the perfect occasion. The CUNY administration took back the promises it made in 1969. Black and Brown students were now considered a drain on NYC finances and thus had to be removed one way or another. Rather than expanding the promise of free college education to all NYC workers, the administration sought and continues to seek their exclusion, cutting back on Open Admissions and charging tuition for the first time in 129 years. Here as in everything else, bourgeois society promises more than it can deliver.
The City University promised to make paying tuition easier with the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which would supposedly offset any tuition costs. That too was a ruse; over time, tuition continued to rise while financial aid became scantier and scantier. This led to the 1989 and 1991 strikes at City College that engulfed the entire university. The 1989 strike actually succeeded in rolling back tuition hikes and offered the student body a role to play in the governing process. There was in fact much more student input into the types of courses that would be taught, and ethnic studies began their debut during this period. Unfortunately, the only role the faculty played was to support the students’ demands, never warning them that if things remained in the hands of the Board Of Trustees the university would snatch back the gains that had been made as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The faculty advanced no demands for themselves and unfortunately did not call on all the unions to go out in support. The demonstrations in support of student demands were massive but devoid of workers. Predictably, the gains eroded over time.
By 2000, a new leadership of the Professional Staff Congress, uniting the faculty, CLTs and HEOs, which had called itself the New Caucus, threw out the old, corrupt, do-nothing bureaucrats, promising to make substantial changes. Barbara Bowen, the new PSC leader, turned out to suffer from many of the maladies of the old leadership; in particular, she would brook no challenges to her leadership. The union appeared to be very different, with a new rhetoric, but the substance changed little. Of course, the union could take a stand on all kinds of issues but chose to do little about them, notably failing to fight to end tuition. “Internationalism” as a rhetorical device became a vehicle by which the union leadership could display its radical credentials and gain a reputation for fighting the good fight, even while it continued to neglect its members. The union organized demonstrations against the endless American wars but did not fight for a decent contract for the workers. The pay, especially for adjuncts, was paltry, to say the least. Resolutions written to fight for one cause or another never really had any teeth: the slogan of parity for adjunct faculty, for instance. Arrests were staged and put on the website or featured in the Clarion. Everything they did was a show! Even the strike authorization that passed in 2012 with 92% in support wasn’t real, just a way to show the governor that he “can’t mess with us.” It never meant anything because the membership was never mobilized even to flex its muscles, let alone to rise to the heights that workers can achieve when we decide to withhold our labor. As a result, the last contract round basically guaranteed that we would get very little. Once again, the bulk of the faculty, that is, the part-timers, were shafted. The demand for $7,000 a course advanced by the most militant section of the union—the group then known as 7K or Strike—and ostensibly supported by the union leadership, was dropped for $550 a class by 2023, the last year of the contract.
The situation, already dire, has now become a disaster, especially for the thousands of contingent workers who were just laid off. All of these people who made little before, and saved even less, are now forced to live on unemployment insurance, without any health care. The response of the union leadership was predictable, and because there were few tricks up their sleeves other than lobbying and sending petitions to Albany, they were caught flatfooted. Now, the leadership claims that everything is on the table including striking, but they have not organized and have done nothing to implement a strike. August 26 is the first day of classes and yet there has still been no preparation for a strike. Pulling teeth without Novocain is less painful than trying to get Barbara and company to do something meaningful to organize the power of the union membership in a concerted, conscious manner.
With the 26th of August fast approaching, the plan now seems to be that we will all go on line with our students and talk about how horrible everything is due to the draconian budget cuts. After all, where did the money for the CARES Act go? We have now learned that that money will be used for infrastructure, not for wages. The 2,800 or so workers (the number is not clear yet) who have been laid off are considered secondary to the more important infrastructure that will eventually keep us all online. While the union argued that the CARES money should go to laid-off faculty ,the court sided with the Chancellor. Now what? The Board of Trustees is holding on to the money. It’s impossible to know for certain, but it seems likely that the CUNY administration wishes to use the intellectual property of the faculty to streamline education, i.e. to create a system of education without faculty and without diversity.
Given that the attacks on the City University will scale back education for the New York City working class, most of whom are Black and Brown people, this is racist policy. Without a doubt, this should be confronted. Where is the union? Our power lies in our ability to withhold our labor but instead, the union leadership has continued to push negotiations. Clearly that has gone nowhere. The downward spiral was and is predictable. Budgets have been cut, classes have been canceled so that, for the faculty who have remained, class sizes have increased, threatening any hope of a relationship between an instructor and students.
Rank and File Action, the opposition group that stemmed from 7K or Strike, has been arguing all along that this was to be expected: that the premise of education now is not one of education in the broadest sense, but is rather a vision of shrinkage and the creation of a working class that is just a cog in a machine. RAFA has written a strike authorization resolution demanding that the union leadership act, that is, that it call a strike. In order to have a successful strike, strike committees need to be set up, in order to give maximum ownership of the strike to the workers. The strike must not be left in the hands of Bowen and her EC; rather, the committees must be democratically elected among the ranks, always coming back to the membership for open and honest discussions about how to move forward, so that no decisions will be taken behind our backs. Without striking, those thousands of workers, not only those in the PSC but the non-teaching workers in District Council 37 and in other unions represented on the CUNY campus, will continue to be unemployed; the buildings, which are in terrible need of repair, will never be fixed; tuition will continue to rise making CUNY unaffordable; and everyone who is no longer working will lose their healthcare. Management will continue to be more and more tyrannical while the faculty will lose whatever prerogatives they have achieved up until now.
We fight for a different kind of education, one where the City University is fully funded and free, one where people learn about their true history, and one that represents the population of NY—that is, for an education that represents the colors and heritage of New York City, not a homogenized city. The wealth is in the city: there are 116 billionaires. We demand that, at the very least, Cuomo tax them so that, at least for the time being, CUNY will not continue to come to poor and working-class students with its hand out, raising tuition. A well-organized strike will thus bring to the fore the question of power and with it the idea that workers should run industry since the wealthy are only concerned with creating profit for themselves. In the short run, this strike will challenge the leadership of the unions, who continue to make deals with management, hoping to forestall a greater crisis, but, in reality, creating a situation where an explosion is inevitable. We need to move towards a general strike to mobilize the full force of the New York City working class to win our demands.