Massive Class Struggle Needed
to Win “7K” for CUNY Adjuncts
Over the past year and a half, since the expiration of the union contract covering faculty and many staff members at the City University of New York, the struggle against CUNY’s multi-tier academic labor system has reached a boiling point. This divide-and-conquer system pits tenured and tenure-track faculty against the majority of academic employees – adjunct instructors hired on a “contingent” basis – and relegates the latter to poverty pay, job insecurity and the lack of most benefits. As of fall 2017, CUNY employed 15,000 adjunct faculty compared to 7,000 full-time faculty.
Going back well over a decade, CUNY Internationalists have played a key role in this struggle, linking it with our call for no tuition, open admissions, abolition of the Board of Trustees and student-teacher-worker control of the university.1These are key demands at the largest urban public university in the United States, whose students are mainly daughters and sons of New York’s multiracial, largely immigrant working class. Growing out of this history, we have built student/adjunct contingents at union rallies and marches highlighting the demand to raise minimum starting pay per course to $7,000 (“7K”) for adjuncts, who do most of the teaching at CUNY but are paid half that amount.
The “7K” Demand
CUNY faculty – both the upper tier composed of 7,500 tenured/tenure-track faculty and the 15,000 adjuncts – are represented by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union, whose membership also includes some parts of the university staff. In addition, a range of different unions represent thousands of clerical, maintenance, janitorial, cafeteria and other sectors. To overcome this fragmentation, which helps CUNY management divide the workforce, we advocate the formation of a single union representing all university employees.
As the most militant defenders of labor’s cause, revolutionary Marxists call for a class-struggle leadership instead of the labor bureaucracy that sits atop the unions subordinating them to the bosses’ rules, institutions, politicians and parties (first and foremost the Democrats). Since 2000, when it won elections against the PSC’s conservative old guard, a liberal/reformist grouping called the New Caucus has run the union, combining leftish rhetoric with support for the capitalist Democratic Party and the signing of one contract after another that actually deepen the systemic inequalities of CUNY’s labor system. This highlights the need, in the PSC and throughout the labor movement, to oust the sell-out bureaucracy and forge a class-struggle leadership.
The “7K” demand was initiated by comrades active in Class Struggle Education Workers and CUNY Contingents Unite (CCU), an organizing group within the PSC that was founded in 2008 by adjuncts who waged a major campaign against the sellout contract signed that year. A key step came in August 2014, when the international Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor conference, held in New York, overwhelmingly approved the CCU’s resolution for:
“achieving or surpassing a MINIMUM starting salary of at least $7K per 3-credit course (or its equivalent) for all contingent academic employees in the U.S., combined with real job security and a seniority system; that this objective, despite being modest, is long overdue and needs to be implemented now, and that we support the struggle for this to be achieved in current contract negotiations.”
What followed were three more years of struggle and agitation that led to the PSC formally adopting the 7K demand for the present contract campaign. Over the subsequent period, a range of activists have popularized the slogan “7K or Strike.” In addition to the CCU, this has included some participants in the PSC Committee for Adjuncts and Part-timers (CAP), and a grad student-based grouping called “CUNY Struggle,” which has received favorable media attention in Teen Vogue and other liberal-left media. Beginning in Spring 2018, resolutions reflecting the “7K or Strike” demand have been passed by members at a growing number of PSC campus chapters.
What Now in the Fight to Win 7K?
This is a question that many CUNY activists are asking, and rightly so. It is addressed in an extensive Bulletin on CCU Perspectives and the Fight for “7K” published this April, calling for “a class-struggle perspective in the fight to end adjunct poverty and defeat CUNY’s divide-and-conquer labor system.”
The CUNY Contingents Unite bulletin begins with the proposal that CCU members made at a special meeting of the PSC Delegate Assembly in February, that as an immediate step the union call a mass march and rally for $7K and “intensively build this both on the campuses and through outreach to NYC labor, immigrant-rights, student and community organizations.” The proposal was subsequently endorsed for official presentation to the union by a vote of all but one of the large number of attendees at the April 5 special PSC CAP meeting on “cross campus contract actions.”
We reprint below some excerpts from the 58-page CCU bulletin.2
For a Class-Struggle Strategy
Facing unending and growing inequality, poverty pay, job instability and lousy work conditions, with crucial benefits lacking but disrespect and overwork more abundant than ever, years of struggle gave rise to the “7K” demand in 2014, and then its formal adoption by the union as part of the “bargaining agenda” in 2017. Today, “7K or Strike” has become an important banner of struggle.
To hammer out a strategy and tactics to win this struggle requires a systematic and serious evaluation of the social forces confronting each other in such a fight, the obstacles to be overcome, and how to build up the power and organization we need to do this. These tasks, in turn, can only be addressed through the fullest discussion and debate, that is, within the framework provided through the exercise of workers democracy.... To prepare the way for actually winning 7K, we need to have a clear assessment of what forces will face off in this fight, all the more so when discussing the need for a strike that would be “illegal” according to New York State’s vicious Taylor Law.
Against us are powerful opponents: the capitalist rulers and their hand-picked Board of Trustees and administration, their courts and repressive apparatus, and their politicians, who – Democrats and Republicans alike – have repeatedly enforced the Taylor Law against public-employee strikes. Appeals that they “do the right thing” or be “fair”; cloying Valentine’s Day appeals to “show CUNY some love”; or other kinds of empty, liberal/reformist happy talk won’t cut it. To the contrary, smoothing over the real clash of class interests, this kind of thing can only politically disarm, delude and disorient the union ranks. The same goes for poorly-conceived individual or small-group symbolic actions or publicity stunts, sometimes presented as a stand-in for effective, mass-based militancy.
The CUNY Board of Trustees and their Wall Street godfathers don’t care about, and won’t be moved, by any of that. When it comes to upholding and enforcing their class interests, as we said at the DA: they don’t play. They won’t be budged by moral suasion appeals or flash-in-the-pan symbolic tactics when it comes to something so “big and expensive” as 15,000 adjuncts getting $7K per course, which their kept media will doubtless rail at as a “whopping 100% raise” – despite the fact that it still would only begin to approach something akin to a living wage.3
To get them to disgorge some of the millions, billions and trillions they’re sitting on will take much more than ostensibly clever mottos, memes and jingles about love, fairness, “investing” in CUNY, and so forth. Again, it is a question of power. This reality cannot be evaded by those serious about a strike. Without telling it like it is, on this and other fronts, we will never convince the majority of the union, let alone others, and of CUNY students and their families, to join us in struggle. They have a lot at stake and can’t afford to mess around, and neither can we.
For the union bureaucracy, the real obstacles that do exist serve as fuel for arguments against actually preparing for a strike to win 7K. For those committed to fighting to win 7K, it is necessary to systematically explain that a solid, massive, militant and well-prepared strike can win, even when up against a vicious anti-strike law repeatedly applied by the courts and cops under both bosses’ parties, if sufficient mass power is mobilized from our side.
So Where Do We Get the Power to Win?
Adjuncts certainly can’t do it on it our own. Winning over tenured/tenure track faculty, HEOs and other sectors is necessary and crucial – if there is to be a strike, it must be of the whole union – but not sufficient: we also need to win over our fellow CUNY employees who are members of DC 37 (clerical, maintenance, janitorial, etc.), of UNITE HERE (cafeteria workers), and of other unions, thousands of whom work at the City University. If there is a strike, we will need to shut CUNY down. If you can’t or won’t do that, you lose. To do that, you need mass picket lines that no one crosses.
And that, at a huge university where we face the Taylor Law, requires solid, active backing from the rest of city labor, on those picket lines. It requires telling the truth that New York’s capitalist rulers can get along for quite some time without lectures and exams being given and papers graded – but the center of finance capital can’t get along without the transport and communications, power and sanitation, warehouse, food, tourism, healthcare, construction (like the 10,000 “Count Me In” protesters who took over Seventh Avenue last year) and other sectors with the power to shut the city down.
These are some of the reasons why it’s imperative for us to see and state clearly that a strike must break through economistic, craft-union-style barriers that separate “our” fight as adjuncts from other job titles, “our” 7K demand from the burning needs of our sisters and brothers throughout the university, and “our” fight at CUNY from the rest of labor and the oppressed.
Thus, uniting with the power of NYC’s workers and oppressed is ABC practical sense and necessity for any serious strike strategy. Without this basic sense of class forces as part of a perspective for “7K or Strike” grounded in social reality, this powerful and important slogan would be denatured, emptied out and boiled down to little more than hot air and play-acting. The first step in mobilizing the workers power needed to win is to recognize this – organizing, starting now, with an eye both to key unionized sectors and the vast sectors of immigrant workers, largely still not unionized, whose super-exploited labor keeps this city running in a thousand ways; with youth fed up with racist oppression (like what we just saw at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn), and so many others with increasingly urgent and pressing reasons to join together in an upheaval breaking down divisions between those “inside” and “outside” CUNY.
So we need to tell it like it is on this topic too. The basic perspective outlined above continues to be ignored, dismissed or resisted, in practice, by the official union bureaucracy. Why? Above all because it clashes with their obeisance to the Democrats, especially of the so-called “progressive” ilk. (As the New Caucus leadership boasted back in 2013, the PSC was the first public-employee union to endorse Bill de Blasio for mayor.) Yet not only adherents of the leadership’s standpoint, but some of those critical or oppositional toward it, also view the fight from a narrow, inwardly-looking perspective, which can only serve to confine it within bounds that would, if maintained, lead to defeat. This too is among the obstacles that need to be overcome by those seeking to hammer out an effective strategy, a process in which forthright debate and discussion of contrasting views is always essential....
Working-Class Perspective vs. Ivory-Tower Worldview
People sometimes ask why there are different adjunct organizing groups at CUNY. As in most kinds of organizing that involve significant challenges, obstacles and stakes, there are contrasting and sometimes counterposed strategies, outlooks and perspectives. Under conditions of workers democracy, these can and should be debated in order to clarify the issues and chart a way forward. One of the biggest obstacles in organizing on university campuses is the ivory-tower, academic-centered worldview encouraged in academia. Not infrequently, this is accom-panied, when academics seek to organize themselves for collective goals, by animus against “outside” forces and agitators.
This outlook reproduces important aspects of bourgeois ideology, reflecting capitalist society’s division between manual and mental labor. This, in turn, overlaps (very notably at CUNY) with multi-tiered hierarchies of social status within the academic population itself. That is even more the case when it comes to academics’ relations with non-academic sectors, in which job title divisions strikingly overlap with racial/ethnic and gender oppression, immigration status, etc.
No struggle by adjuncts can win without taking this on and overcoming the insularity that capitalist academia encourages among education professionals who – though presently downwardly mobile and often driven into penury – are nonetheless awarded a much higher social status than those who clean the floors, change the light bulbs, do the typing and filing, cook and serve the food, etc. To even begin to overcome such obstacles is not possible without the hard work of assimilating and consistently practicing the principles of real working-class solidarity and the fight to bring the power of the multiracial working class, including its crucial immigrant component, into the struggle to uproot all forms of oppression.
In contrast, recent developments have given a stark object lesson of what happens when “organizing” work is carried out on a basis that disdains clear principles gained through the hard-won experience of the workers movement, and lacks any real orientation to the working class that makes this city run. The principle of workers democracy, for honest debate to hammer out a strategy to win, is, moreover, counterposed to the kind of unprincipled factionalism whose guideline is that anything goes in the service of “getting” those who dare to disagree.
“CUNY-Wide Conference” Wrecked by Anti-Red Ban
As John Jay College’s ban on “7K or Strike” signs [proclaimed by the campus administration in late March] vividly exemplifies, censorship of CUNY activists’ materials is an attack on the rights of us all.
Yet as noted, an outright ban on leftist literature was imposed on the “7K or Strike” organizing conference held on March 2 (a conference we had originally initiated and intensively built). When, at a February 1 “Adjuncts for 7K” meeting devoted largely to conference plans, a motion was voted to uphold the right of all in the left and labor movement to express their views at the conference, including through their literature, CUNY Struggle, joined by a few other red-literature-ban enthusiasts, found itself defeated in the vote. It went on to push hard for embracing and imposing the literature ban anyway.
The means to achieve this end were as flagrant as they were absurd from the standpoint of the most basic practices of labor-movement democracy. When the ban was then imposed on (against) the conference, the CCU and others unwilling to go along with this censorship, and the terrible precedent it would set for organizing at CUNY, were forced to withdraw from the conference.
Pushing through the anti-communist ban on leftist literature was connected to narrowing and denaturing the conference. As a now safely leftist-literature-free zone, it would better serve as a venue for liberal happy talk avoiding serious discussion of strategy; of how to overcome the real obstacles faced in the struggle and what happens (e.g. in the  NYU strike) when that is not achieved; evasion of the question of the Democratic Party; promotion of illusions that the Taylor Law is little more than a paper tiger; etc. It was to be walled off from the hard but essential debates needed for working out a serious strategy to mobilize the union ranks and CUNY students, linked with the power of the city’s working class, oppressed and immigrant communi-ties, in order to be able to confront and defeat CUNY’s hardline management, the city and state bosses that stand behind them, and their Taylor Law, in order to win.
What does the embrace of (and in the case of CUNY Struggle and bloc partners, gleeful enthusiasm for) such bans, censorship and prohibitions show? Selling out the rights of CUNY adjuncts and undergrads for a pittance – a “nice space” to hold a conference – is the action of union bureaucrats in training. Yet more than that was displayed by reactions to those who challenged or questioned the ban on leftist literature, notably the seven immigrant workers signing a letter on behalf of Trabajadores Inmigrantes Clasistas that explained, on the basis of their own experience and struggles, why they could not accept being censored at the conference, which they had previously agreed to attend and speak at.4
Wielding social attitudes and methods that are inimical to working-class democracy, struggle and class consciousness, “CUNY Struggle” is an aggressively anti-communist, middle-class liberal organization. What that means in the fight for 7K is reinforcing practices, illusions and outlooks that stand in the way of achieving the class-struggle mobilization needed to win the 7K demand in conjunction with those of the rest of the CUNY workforce, and workers and oppressed throughout NYC....
La lucha educa
The CCU bulletin highlights the motto of the militant mass strike waged by the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation a decade ago; and in the series of combative student strikes and campus occupations at the University of Puerto Rico: “La lucha educa” – struggle educates. The same slogan was raised in the series of combative student strikes and campus occupations at the University of Puerto Rico. In Mexico, El maestro luchando también está educando (roughly: The teachers struggle is part of education) is one of the most popular chants. Our comrades of the Grupo Internacionalista have been heavily involved in the heroic strikes and struggles of education workers, as well as mass protests against the abduction of the Ayotzinapa 43 teachers college students.5
Today in the U.S., the bulletin notes, “the ongoing wave of teachers strikes (Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, North Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia...) not only shows the willingness of education workers to struggle, but provides crucial experience, both positive and negative, that must be studied and – as genuine solidarity demands – critically assimilated.” It goes on:
“It is very important that in our present struggle we collectively learn from education strikes not just here in the U.S. but internationally, like that 2008 strike of the Puerto Rican teachers; those of militant education workers in Brazil, in Mexico, particularly in Oaxaca; and elsewhere. This experience also includes large-scale university student strikes, such as those at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in 2010 and 2018; in Quebec in 2012; and at the National University of Mexico (UNAM), where students together with campus workers occupied the huge ‘University City’ for 10 months in 1999-2000, and, with the aid of ‘workers defense guards’ from Mexico’s City’s electrical power workers union, defeated the attempt – ordered by the World Bank – to impose tuition.
“The lessons of all this broad experience are there for us to learn and use. The last thing we can afford to do would be to think that we can go it alone. Who will educate the educators? This is something we must do ourselves, but not on our own; en la lucha, inseparably from the struggle of all the exploited and oppressed, if we really want to win – which we must.” ■
- 1. See, for example, “CUNY Adjuncts Won’t Take No for an Answer” and “What’s What at Walmart U,” Revolution No. 5, September 2008.
- 2. If you would like to receive the CUNY Contingents Unite bulletin on the 7K struggle, or find out more about the CCU, write email@example.com.
- 3. The Modern Language Association “Recommendation on Minimum Per-Course Compensation for Part-Time Faculty Members” (May 2018) now actually calls for a minimum of $10,900 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course. That would be a 240% increase from $3,200. What this proves is not that our demand for $7K is “nuts,” “unrealistic” or anything of the kind, but that expecting us to continue living on 29% of the recommended minimum is nuts, unrealistic and intolerable. And don’t even try telling us the money isn’t there, in the world center of finance capital, with the ruling class rolling in dough.
- 4. Letters from Trabajadores Inmigrantes Clasistas, CUNY undergrads and others are reproduced as an appendix to the CCU bulletin on 7K, but when faced with explanations by black and brown activists of how the prohibition of leftist literature directly affected them, the only color the ban enthusiasts saw was red.
- 5. Among the many Revolution articles on these struggles, see “Victory to University of Puerto Rico Strike!” in Revolution No. 7, April 2010; “University of Puerto Rico Students, Faculty and Workers Under Siege,” Revolution No. 14, January 2018; and “Oaxaca Teachers Speak at Hunter College” and “CUNY Activists’ Forum at UNAM: In Mexico, Revolutionary Internationalism Up Close,” Revolution No. 13, November 2016.