No. 6, April 2009  

How Open Admissions Was Won in 1969
and Debates on the Struggle at CUNY Today

The following is a response to a broadside against the CUNY Internationalist Clubs that was written by D.S., a leading local activist in the International Socialist Organization, in the form of a report on a meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee Against CUNY Budget Cuts and Tuition Hikes held after the March 25 [2009] student/labor rally at Hunter College. It has been edited for publication.

For the moment I would like to put aside some of the highly-charged claims and accusations made in D.S.’s polemic (“Notes on the March 25 Meeting,” 27 March 2009), in order to focus on one of the fundamental issues to which he refers.

Early on during the post-rally meeting on March 25, I spoke to emphasize that in order to defeat attacks on the right to education at CUNY, it will be crucial to combine systematic organizing among students with a conscious effort to strengthen links with workers’ and immigrant-rights groups. Particularly if campus struggles become more militant, it will be essential to have pre-existing and active connections with sections of the labor movement. Thus, Internationalist supporters, and Class Struggle Education Workers members, had gone all-out both to help mobilize students and to get endorsements from a range of groups including the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, the Frente Unido de Inmigrantes Ecuatorianos, and many others.

Particularly significant was the vocal and visible presence of a contingent of Stella D’Oro strikers, together with six to eight transit worker activists, several members of the Jornaleros (Day Laborers) of Woodside, the lead organizer of DC 1707 (representing daycare workers and others), immigrant taxi, construction and deli workers, members of three groupings within the UFT [United Federation of Teachers], the Starbucks Workers Union, a spokeswoman for Domestic Workers United, and other workers.

There were over a dozen student and faculty speakers from Hunter (including the PSC’s adjunct organizer). A number also came from BMCC, Baruch, Brooklyn, CCNY, Hostos, Lehman, Staten Island, the New School and other campuses. The rally was co-chaired by the lead organizer of the recent unionization victory among research assistants at SUNY-Stony Brook, and addressed by the organizer of the adjunct unionizing victory at Pace University. I pointed out that this is only a small beginning, but represents a real step in the right direction.

During the rally I noticed that many students, particularly “new” Hunter activists who had emerged in the period since the March 5 walkout, were excited and energized by the workers’ presence and speeches – but that a number of the “long-term” activists appeared surprisingly uninterested. It occurred to me that this might be related to previously expressed differences over the perspective for having such a rally on March 25.

Thus, at the post-rally meeting, I was struck when a spokesman for the Hunter International Socialist Organization (ISO) explicitly argued, in response to my remarks, that strengthening links to labor should not be a central priority in the coming period. This statement then led into much of the ensuing debate. [Two members of Class Struggle Education Workers and an Internationalist activist from Hostos Community College] made concrete and pertinent points, including examples from Europe, Mexico and the United States.

All of them stressed the importance of linking up with the power of the working class – and each stressed that this must be combined with mobilizing among students. In contrast, a number of participants in the meeting openly counterposed “student organizing” and “student leadership” to building links with the working class. As [several comrades] painstakingly explained, this is a road to defeat.

How Open Admissions Was Won 

The power of labor: thousands of transit strikers rally in 1966 to protest jailing of Transport Workers
Union leader Mike Quill. The TWU won the strike.

At the March 25 post-rally meeting, I noted that in 1969, African American and Puerto Rican students launched the historic struggle whose 40th anniversary is being commemorated this year. These courageous students carried out a building occupation at City College, which sparked protests at other campuses, with demands focused on raising black and Puerto Rican enrollment and establishing black and Puerto Rican studies. I noted that open admissions was actually not part of the occupation’s demands, but was eventually won through the intervention of powerful city unions.

This statement was challenged at the meeting by D.S., who in his “Notes” writes that I “argued at the meeting that open admissions would not have been won in 1969 if not for the action of unions.” He states: “I see nothing in Chris Gunderson’s history, which [Abram] cited as the source of his information, that indicates that unions had anything to do with the 1969 open admissions strike.” I found these exchanges interesting, as I had been meaning for some time to talk to him about an article he wrote for the ISO’s newspaper (“Resisting the Cuts at CUNY,” Socialist Worker, 30 January), which described the origins of the open admissions policy without making any reference to labor unions or the working class.

Because history is central to political struggle, and because the lessons of CUNY’s own history are so crucial to our struggles today, it is worth pursuing this aspect of the debate.

At the March 25 meeting I referred Brother D.S. to two sources. The first is Christopher Gunderson’s paper “The Struggle for CUNY: A History of the CUNY Student Movement, 1969-1999)” (available on line at www.geocities.com/dillodistro/GUNDERSON.doc). Gunderson writes: “It is worth noting that Open Admissions was not among the demands” of the initial student occupation at CCNY. It is true that Gunderson, while making general statements about the need to “draw in other social forces including labor unions,” does not address unions’ role in the 1969 events.

This issue is discussed in the other source I mentioned at the meeting, in response to Brother D.S.: the indispensable book Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II (New Press, 2000) by Joshua Freeman, the CUNY Grad Center history professor who was also the author of the standard history of the Transport Workers Union (In Transit, Temple, 2001) and an outspoken defender of the 2005 TWU strike.

Noting the gross historic under-representation of African American and Latino students at CUNY, Freeman describes the 1969 occupations and the April 21 student protest where “white leftists” (his term) added the demand “Open admission for all.” However, the CCNY faculty endorsed a “dual admissions” program in which “half of an enlarged freshman class would be chosen using existing, grade-based criteria, while the other half would be filled with students from designated high schools in poverty areas, who would not have to meet any grade standard.” Instead, a “delegation from the Central Labor Council” headed by CLC president Harry Van Arsdale “suggested ‘enactment of a master plan [guaranteeing higher education for all high school graduates]…in 1970.’” (The bracketed phrase is part of Freeman’s text.)

When the president of CCNY “suggested that CUNY could survive a drastic expansion only by imposing tuition, Van Arsdale, the United Federation of Teachers, and others successfully argued that to do so would make a mockery of the expanded access the new admissions policy was meant to provide.” The next freshman class grew by 75 percent, with a large increase in white as well as black and Latino students.

The motives of Van Arsdale and other bureaucratic labor leaders were far from pure, and many of the city’s unions were far from immune to the “racial backlash” of the Nixon years. Yet open admissions, in “giv[ing] something to working-class whites while increasing opportunities for nonwhites,” had the effect of cutting against racism. This in itself, combined with the great benefits of the policy, was in the overwhelming class interest of all the city’s workers. Noting that “open admissions represented a significant advance toward equal opportunity” and the ideal of education for all, Freeman calls it “one of the great triumphs of working-class New York.”  Its later dismantling at the behest of the city’s racist rulers was a serious defeat.

It is instructive to look at the account of the origins of CUNY’s former open admissions policy given by the authors of a famous study that definitively showed the policy’s enormous benefits for large numbers of students: David E. Lavin and David Hyllegard’s Changing the Odds: Open Admissions and the Life Chances of the Disadvantaged (Yale, 1996). Describing the “perceived conflict between merit and quotas [that] seemed irreconcilable” during debates on the “dual admissions” proposal, the authors note:

“[U]ltimately, a way out of the quandary was found in a proposal put forth by the powerful New York City Labor Council, a coalition of major unions…. The Labor Council proposed that the only proper plan was one that would guarantee admissions to all…. Both within and outside the university, a consensus seemed to form around the approach of letting everyone in.”

A previous book co-authored by Lavin (Right versus Privilege: The Open-Admissions Experiment at the City University of New York [Free Press, 1981]) gives further details. It notes that in June of 1969, “resolution of the [CUNY] crisis began to crystallize. Particularly influential in this process was the powerful New York City Labor Council and its head, Harry Van Arsdale.” Particularly concerned that the children of Irish and Italian American workers (prominent in the skilled trades) be included in any outcome, “Central Labor Council representatives argued that the only proper plan was one that would guarantee admissions to all…. Only the open-admissions notion offered something to everyone and seemed to lay to rest the specter that increased representation of some groups would come at the expense of other groups.”

Again, the bureaucrats’ own motives reflected their job-trusting craft union outlook, but the effect of the intervention by the powerful city unions was to win a major victory for black, Latino, Asian and white workers and students.

Why It Matters Today

So yes, it was precisely the intervention of powerful labor unions, representing hundreds of thousands of workers, that won open admissions in 1969. If ignoring or downplaying this aspect of CUNY history means willful blindness to crucial lessons from past struggles, pretending that we think that labor will spontaneously “ride to the rescue” today, or that we overlook the role of the labor bureaucracy, is simply disingenuous.

When we argue for strengthening bonds with labor, this does not mean orienting to the conservative labor bureaucracy, which subordinates the working class to the government and the ruling Democratic Party. (Current and would-be student bureaucrats play a similar role among students.) The workers movement is not equal to its current leadership. Those who identify the two often ignore the former, only to capitulate to the latter – while chanting “Yes we can” in unison with those bureaucrats’ Democratic Party overlords.

Today, New York City is a potential powder keg of discontent among workers and oppressed communities throughout the city. Every day brings a new outrage against the working class. Moreover, the unions of today, though weakened by the relentless attacks of the past decades, have a far greater proportion of African American, Latino and Asian workers than was the case four decades ago. Additionally, enormous sectors of workers are not in any union at all –organizing the unorganized is a task that the labor bureaucrats, who play by the bosses’ rules, repeatedly prove incapable of accomplishing.

Today, the majority of New York City’s working class is of immigrant origin, and many bring valuable experiences and traditions of militant struggle from their countries of origin. It is no accident that most of those represented at our March 25 rally came from groups and associations of immigrant workers – as was also the case during the successful campaign we initiated against CUNY’s post-9/11 “anti-immigrant war purge” (see the Internationalist pamphlet Defend Immigrant Students–Defeat CUNY’s “War Purge”! [2001]).

So rather than imagining that labor will automatically “ride to the rescue,” or “counting on” labor support somehow materializing, we have argued for going beyond campus bounds to actively establish and strengthen real links, now, with unionists and immigrant-worker activists throughout the city and beyond, as a crucial component of organizing a massive, militant response at CUNY. We have not simply preached this, but sought to practice it. Instead, while paying some faint lip service to the general, theoretical importance of labor, in practice (and often explicitly), the ISO counterposes a kind of student vanguardism.

It is striking that Brother D.S. ended his January 30 Socialist Worker article by writing: “The recent student occupation of the New School should provide an example to CUNY students of the kind of tactics that have been proven to work  – and remind them of the history of struggles at CUNY for their and future generations’ education rights.”

I cannot help but be reminded of some would-be Marxists at the New School (I am not referring to the serious and dedicated activists but to others), who talked in general about “the proletariat,” but had no idea even as to whether the workers at the occupied cafeteria were organized in a union. When we approached the workers’ shop steward, it turned out they had a clause for respecting picket lines, and thus they stayed out of work. (See our leaflet “Inside the New School Occupation.”) Making no attempts to get support from working people in the city, quick to red-bait those who were not enamored of student-vanguardist posturing, those particular verbal leftists proved all too vulnerable to the Kerrey administration’s maneuvers when the chips were down. In the process, those Marxists-in-rhetoric-only helped push through a settlement that many of the serious activists there have come to see as one more subterfuge from war criminal Kerrey.

Despite the courage of the students and supporters who participated in the sit-in (who were joined by a significant number of people from CUNY, comrade A., D.S. and myself among them), the brief, isolated occupation did not win a victory. Kerrey & Co. just doled out a few empty promises.

We cannot afford a superficial or light-minded approach to struggles at CUNY. This struggle is no game of words. Any real intensification of the fight at CUNY must be well-prepared and surrounded with already established, solid links of solidarity – between CUNY campuses, to others throughout the city and state, and to sections of the working class, immigrants and oppressed communities.

Student protests can, in periods of heightened social conflict, serve as an important catalyst for broader social struggles. This is what happened in France in May 1968, when university protests touched off factory occupations and a general strike of ten million workers. In Mexico that same year, the government managed to isolate students from the working class, drowning their struggle in blood during the Tlatelolco Massacre.

During the discussion on March 25, CSEW member I.D. gave powerful examples from recent history, including the Greek students’ occupation of the Polytechnic University in Athens. He stressed: “what we are debating here is a question of strategy and program.”

Hostos activist C.M. talked about the crucial experience of the Mexican UNAM strike of 1999-2000 – where we succeeded in getting the powerful electrical workers union to build a workers defense guard (see Internationalist pamphlet The UNAM Strike and the Fight for Workers Revolution [2000]).

The struggle is international, and holds crucial lessons for all of us activists at CUNY. When I say we ignore them at our peril, I mean that literally.

The struggle of ideas reflects, and contributes to, the class struggle. A fashionable philistinism – sometimes decked out in postmodern garb, sometimes couched in New Left-inspired demagogy against “ideological squabbles” – may try to dismiss it all with a haughty wave of the hand. But programmatic differences have practical consequences.

“Students and Labor: Shut the City Down!”

As we all know, CUNY is not an elite university like NYU or the New School. At CUNY, the administration will not hesitate to unleash serious police violence against any militant-seeming action that it perceives as being isolated. The class approach is key to avoiding such isolation. Among other things, it means working actively to link up, now, to organizations and groups of workers, immigrants, African American, Latino and Asian communities, and others targeted by the cuts and hikes, together with activists at SUNY, NYU, the New School, Pace, F.I.T., Columbia and other campuses. The key is being able to mobilize real power – the kind that the working class, with its ability to shut down productions and transport, actually has.

On March 5 and on March 25, hundreds of protesters responded with enormous enthusiasm to our chant, “Students and labor, shut the city down!” It is no exaggeration to say that this slogan has caught on like wildfire since comrade A.L. coined it at a militant rally outside the New School last December. Students can’t do it alone – but linking up with the working class, it can and must be done. Historical amnesia on labor’s role in past struggles only serves a program that puts labor on the back burner in the struggles of today. Conversely, the real history is an important tool for a class-struggle program actually capable of winning victories today.

The fact of the matter is that for huge numbers of working-class New Yorkers, defending the right to go to CUNY is a question of direct and clear class interest. Any strategy that fails to give “priority” to that fact is not only based on a counterposed class outlook, but is an obstacle to actually winning. Because we are serious about winning, we view this political debate as a crucial – indeed central – part of the fight.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com