Labor Struggles at The New School: Strike, Wildcat, Occupation

Arvind Dilawar, an independent journalist, reports on three different labor struggles at the New School in New York City during the month of May 2018, each using a different combination of direct action and formal negotiation. 

On May 1, a hundred students entered the cafeteria of the New School’s University Center facility and declared it occupied in support of thirty-two recently terminated cafeteria workers. On May 8, 800 student academic workers organized with Student Employees at the New School (SENS), affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW), began their own strike, picketing entrances of New School buildings. They were joined by a dozen student advisors, who although not formally unionized, walked out on a wildcat strike. At that moment, almost a thousand members of the New School community had come together to oppose the university’s administration.

Unfortunately, that solidarity did not last. On May 10, the cafeteria workers’ union, UNITE HERE, released a statement declaring victory for their members, who would retain their jobs. On May 12, despite reaching no agreement with the university, SENS called off its strike. The student advisors soon followed suit. On May 16, the occupation decamped. The SENS and student advisor labor disputes remain unresolved, likely to flare up again during this new academic year.

I had the opportunity to speak with a member of each group involved in the May actions: cafeteria workers, occupiers, student workers with SENS, and student advisors. These interviews–edited for clarity and brevity–were all conducted in person at the occupation on May 8, except for the student advisor’s, which occurred over email during the following week. These discussions offer two primary insights: 1) the university administration’s main tactic in suppressing the struggles was to divide and conquer; 2) when taken together or examined independently, the struggles had fault lines that caused them to splinter.

A recurring theme throughout all of the interviews is the administration’s attempts to pit various New School community members against each other. The sacking of the cafeteria workers was framed as a means of creating new employment opportunities for the student body: the school was ending its contract with Chartwells, the catering company staffing the cafeteria, and replacing those unionized workers with students working under the Federal Work Study program. The university administration claimed, falsely, that the administration had already reached a deal with the cafeteria workers.  Meanwhile, students who were not covered by SENS were emailed false messages about their unionized classmates refusing to bargain. And student advisors were told that their benefits were being cut out of fairness to other student workers, who did not receive the same “privileges.”

This propaganda was best rebuffed through solidarity. By occupying the cafeteria, students dramatically showed that they did not want jobs at the expense of the cafeteria workers’ livelihoods. When the administration tried to undercut the occupation by telling students the dispute had been resolved, occupiers went door-to-door in the dorms, telling their classmates that the struggle was ongoing. Similarly, when SENS was able to address students outside of the bargaining unit face-to-face, they found many to be supportive. And it is doubtful that anyone, student or otherwise, would fall for the line that student advisors’ benefits should be cut out of fairness to other workers.

The second theme that becomes apparent from the interviews below is that there were divisions among the various groups that were not bridged, or sometimes even unacknowledged. While appreciative of the occupiers, the cafeteria workers and their union had a goal on which they were united: cafeteria workers retain their jobs and benefits, period. The occupiers misunderstood this, describing the workers as unhappy with UNITE HERE and pushing them toward self-management. For its part, SENS was divided from without and within. While some SENS members were occupiers, the union never resolved whether these were two independent struggles or one larger struggle —  at least partially because the UAW did not want to get directly involved in the legally dubious cafeteria occupation. The internal SENS-UAW split also divided the student workers between those wanting an indefinite strike and those settling on just four days. Once the cafeteria workers had claimed victory and SENS declared their strike over, the student advisors–the smallest of the groups–could do little more than pack it in.

Questioning these divisions is where planning for future actions should come from. How did occupiers misunderstand cafeteria workers? What was preventing cafeteria workers and SENS members from combining their struggles? How did an occupation, which was most likely illegal, outlast a protected strike? Why can’t student advisors join SENS? What would have been the result if all three disputes were unified, with the occupation, strikes, and pickets continuing until every worker was satisfied?

The Cafeteria Occupation

Michael Brown is a chef at the New School cafeteria. In May he was technically an employee of Chartwells, a third-party provider of dining services to universities. Brown is also a union member of UNITE HERE.

AD.: What was the response of UNITE HERE to your firing?

MB.: They’ve been great. They’ve been with us from day one. I’ve been with that union for twenty-six years.

AD.: What is UNITE HERE pushing for?

MB.: For us to keep our benefits and deal with Chartwells, for now.

AD.: What was your response to the occupation?

MB.: Oh, it surprised me. It was like Moses parted the sea, it was amazing. They just came in, sat down, got on their bullhorn and said, “This cafeteria is closed.” There was nothing else to talk about. They tell us they’re here for us, we tell them we’re here for you all.

AD.: What does the union think of the occupation?

MB.: They love it, of course. The more help that we can get, it’s a plus.

AD.: What do you think of the SENS strike?

MB.: We’re here for the same thing: a contract. When they were out there picketing, we were out there with them.

AD.: Where do you see the occupation going?

MB.: Hopefully, tomorrow, I can wake up and get the call that everything is good and go back to work. But that doesn’t mean we’ve won, because I still worry about the students. We want them to have theirs too, because if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have won.

AD.: People are proposing worker-student control over the cafeteria. What do you think of that?

MB.: All of that sounds good, but that’s a whole ‘nother negotiation in and of itself. That right there will be long, drawn out. We’re not even thinking that far. Something as simple as us getting our jobs back is difficult. Now you’re talking about something else totally different.

Mia Halsey is a student of political science at the New School and was one of the cafeteria occupiers.

AD.: What are occupiers fighting for?

MH.: Most basically, we’re here until the cafeteria workers receive a contract which they consent to and which they think is fair, and that has yet to happen.

AD.: What has happened thus far?

MH.: On May 2, David Van Zandt, the president of the school, sent out an email which promised that the cafeteria workers would all retain their jobs, that they would receive the same pay, and that they would hold onto their benefits. They were very grandiose promises about all of our demands being fulfilled. The day after that, between UNITE HERE and the administration, the administration backed out on all of those promises. The administration refused to negotiate until September, meaning the cafeteria workers would be working with no contract until then, leaving them entirely vulnerable to any kind of treatment from the administration, with no legal protection through UNITE HERE, and, secondly, that when they were to start bargaining, it would be entirely in the hands of the administration. The administration would decide wages and benefits, which are the two biggest things that we are fighting for. The administration tried to sedate the occupation and placate the student body, convincing us that they were working in the interest of the cafeteria workers, when they didn’t actually promise them anything and refused to even negotiate with them for months.

The second event was that the student body received a joint email from UNITE HERE and the administration, which basically was another attempt to find a loophole in our demands.

AD.: What was the reaction to that?

MH.: The cafeteria workers largely felt betrayed. The email said that the cafeteria workers would have their contract with Chartwells renewed for a year and then after that year they would start bargaining. With the occupiers, the general feeling was that this was an attempt to put off bargaining until there was no longer student organizing happening, until it can happen behind closed doors, so that they have more freedom to do whatever they want–and likely fuck over the cafeteria workers in the same way that they planned to originally.

AD.: What’s been the relationship between the cafeteria workers and occupiers to the SENS strike?

MH.: The strikers are also occupiers. A lot of the student workers have also been involved in the occupation. It’s generally been a relationship of collaboration and mutual understanding that the struggles of the cafeteria workers and the student workers are connected and show the administration’s attempts to exploit workers.

AD.: What’s been the response of the student body to the occupation?

MH.: Students don’t know what’s happening. They are receiving misinformation from the administration. After May 2, I was talking to people down in the lobby, asking, “Do you know what’s going on with the cafeteria workers?” And they were like, “Oh yeah, I received the email, it’s over, it’s been resolved.” And I was like, “No, it hasn’t.” After that, me and a few people from here made a concerted effort to go to all the dorms, knock on everyone’s door, and actually talk to people, hand out reading material so that they know what the administration is telling them is lies and not representative of what’s actually happening. The sense that I got from doing that was that a lot of people are really supportive.

The SENS-UAW Four-Day Strike

Noah Shuster is a student of political science at the New School, as well as a teaching assistant. He is a union member of SENS.

AD.: Was the SENS strike predicated on the occupation?

NS.: It’s entirely a coincidence, a very lucky coincidence. I mean, one could say it’s a reaction to administrative policies, maybe, if there’s anything that unifies it. The occupation started on May 1. UAW had a planned rally that day in front of the University Center, so a bunch of SENS members were immediately involved in the occupation. But the UAW officially cannot endorse this occupation, cannot officially tell people to be part of the occupation. I think they’ll go as far as releasing a statement of solidarity, something like this, but they won’t concretely interweave the two.

AD.: Is that because of legality?

NS.: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know what kind of legal situation this is, but UAW is nervous about it. It’s not the kind of thing that they usually would do. Late last night there was the final meeting before the strike and the debate at the forefront was whether we’re a part of a broader struggle, whether we should be working directly with the occupation, expanding the occupation, or whether this is just about SENS reaching a contract and we don’t want to muddle it with other campaigns.

AD.: What’s been the response from other students to the strike?

NS.: A lot of people are supportive. There is the question of how long the strike will last. The UAW is comfortable with a four-day strike. Some people say that would just not work, so we don’t want to commit to that, we want this to be indefinite. There’s kind of a constant push back between UAW and the student workers.

AD.: Has there been any response from the administration?

NS.: I think that they were honestly totally shocked to find students really cared about the cafeteria workers’ jobs. The way they tried to pitch it was, “We’re going to give these jobs to students,” and tried to play people off of each other. There was a really direct rejection of that.

I was just talking with a Teamster. A lot of our clerical workers, transport workers are all Teamsters, and they have a pretty good contract with the administration right now, so they’re reluctant to commit to everything that we’re doing. But they also recognize that SENS is another union, it is on strike, and legally, they’re protected from not crossing the picket line. But at the same time there’s also SENS people, just like there are Teamster people, that are pushing back and saying, “Don’t complicate our message, we’re just trying to get a contract.”

There’s been some really aggressive emails that have been sent out by the administration against SENS and against the strike, claiming that they’ve made all of these good offers. Something that really upset a lot of people was that they made a claim that SENS had walked away from the bargaining table, which was not founded on anything. The SENS bargaining committee never walked away and definitely kept bargaining.

There’s been a lot of debate around who can access whose email address. We can access certain listservs to get out information about what SENS has to say, for example. But the administration have, and retain exclusive access, to all of the emails in the school. So when they send out one of those blasts that contain a lot of anti-union propaganda, it gets to a bunch of people who are not going to get SENS statements. It’s a deliberate attempt to circulate misinformation and divide people from the strike.

The Student Advisor Wildcat

Ibrahim Shikaki is a student of economics at the New School, as well as a student advisor.

AD.: What was the genesis of the strike by student advisors?

IS.: More than a month ago, we received a document explaining the benefits for next year, and they excluded fee waivers, health insurance, and the ability to hold other jobs in the department [which we had previously been entitled to]. While never explained to us in the beginning, after we requested to attend a meeting between the dean and the chairs of all New School for Social Research departments, we were informed that this development was a result of the university having to go over records of all student workers at school and found the “anomaly” with student advisors–that we were the only student workers who were offered these “privileges.” As such, they were forced to take these privileges away.

We thought about the strike since the very first time we met collectively to address these new developments. We attended several meetings with the dean, the chairs, and Academic Affairs, but we did not feel any urgency [on their part] in responding to our concerns.

While there was no concrete or official arrangement with SENS and the cafeteria occupation, many student advisors were active in both efforts. And we collectively agreed to send a letter with our position and our demands and time the strike during the same week in order to mount pressure on administration to act accordingly.

AD.: What was the reaction of both the administration and the student body to the student advisors’ strike?

IS.: The students, faculty, chairs, SENS, and cafeteria occupiers were all extremely supportive. We were always offered a platform to speak about our concerns and possible strike. After a few days of the strike, the dean sent us an invitation for a two-hour meeting with all the chairs specifically about this issue. While there were very little concrete outcomes from that meeting, we were offered an apology by the vice dean on how things were handled and an assurance by the dean, in front of all the chairs, that this is will receive the urgency it deserves. The dean did offer some alternative possibilities that most student advisors and chairs found unsatisfactory, and we set another meeting two weeks later.

The student advisors decided to break the strike then and send a revised letter of demands that takes into consideration the inability to deal with some concerns immediately. As such, student advisors would agree to a temporary contract for one year that resolves some of the issues and “freezes” some other issues. During the next year, we will have an ongoing discussion about the student advisor position and how to resolve all of our concerns in a satisfactory manner.

AD.: What was the administration’s response to the revised demands?

IS.: We are waiting.