CUNY Adjuncts Vs. Everybody

Things are heating up at CUNY, where a campaign to double the wages of adjunct instructors has pitted a group of adjuncts and their supporters against both the university administration, and the leadership of their union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC).

The “$7k or strike” (7KOS) campaign is a grassroots effort to secure a $7,000 per course wage for adjuncts, who currently top out at roughly $3,500 per course. In fact, the $7,000 demand has, at least nominally, been adopted by the leadership of the union, as a result of pressure from below. The PSC is currently in negotiations with the administration (the last contract expired in 2017). What is in contention is the “…or strike” part: 7KOS proponents feel the wage increase can only be won if the union calls a strike vote. The union is so far refusing to do so, citing among other things a ban on public sector worker strikes in New York State, called the Taylor Law. That refusal generates skepticism about their real commitment to fighting for $7k.

Things have escalated to the point where union leadership and 7KOS supporters are openly griping with one another, if not trying to undermine one another. In March, the PSC executive circulated an open letter denouncing the campaign as “subterfuge” skirting “democratically-elected leadership” and chastising proponents for “insulting, confusing and alienating” membership. This came in response to 7KOS supporters inviting union members to sign unofficial “strike pledge” cards and disrupting numerous PSC rallies and meetings with chants of “$7K or strike!” and 7KOS posters.

The 7KOS campaign has also managed to pass pro-7KOS resolutions at union chapter meetings. When they did so at John Jay College – the only meeting with quorum where they succeeded – the Chapter Chair resigned in protest. In his resignation letter, Professor of Political Science Daniel Pinello brooded, “Unlike British Prime Minister Theresa May, I fully appreciate having lost a vote of confidence in my leadership.”

Full- and part-time faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice vote on whether to endorse the 7KOS campaign.

The three-way fight at CUNY is worth looking at in detail, not only because it is an example of an increasingly common phenomenon – union members feeling frustration with their leadership – but because there are lessons to be drawn about why each actor is behaving the way that it is, and what can break the stalemate.

Context: Adjunct exploitation

Perhaps the easiest piece of the puzzle to understand is the adjuncts’ predicament. Adjunct exploitation has been well documented. These instructors teach and get paid in a piecemeal fashion, one course at a time, from one semester to another, without job security, sabbaticals, research budgets, or the protections of tenure. Their extremely low rate of pay forces them to cobble together multiple jobs, meaning that they are both financially insecure and overworked. When total work hours, including class prep and grading, are taken into account, adjuncts make near the minimum wage, despite having advanced degrees – and these are usually people saddled with five- or six-figure educational debt.

The work is highly precarious. Carol Lang, an adjunct instructor in history at Bronx Community College, notes that “If a course is insufficiently enrolled, it gets cancelled. And you don’t know if it’s going to be cancelled, so you don’t have time to find another job. And you don’t get compensated for the work you’ve already done.”

Adjuncting captures graduate students and recently minted MAs and PhDs, eager to apply their professional qualifications, and in need of teaching experience to make them competitive, and traps them in an extremely high-workload, low-prestige gutter that prevents them from doing the research, conferencing and networking required to advance in their field. Rebecca Smart, an adjunct instructor in psychology who teaches at multiple CUNY (and non-CUNY) campuses, relates that “When I started as an adjunct in 2010, I thought, ‘great, I’ll get my foot in the door, they’ll see how great I am, I’ll get hired on here as a [full-time] lecturer in no time.’ And that just didn’t happen.” No matter how much seniority they acquire, adjuncts generally never make the leap to the tenure track, and never earn more than poverty wages. Jane Guskin, an adjunct instructor in labor studies at Queen’s College, explains why: “people are exhausted, and they can’t keep up in their field, they can’t work on their academic [research] work, and they can never become competitive for a FT job because they are stuck in this rut.”

The exploitation reaches levels of life and death. In December, an adjunct instructor at City College CUNY died from complications of asthma, having put off going to the doctor while without health insurance, and then apparently hesitant to use it due to its high costs.

For Smart, that hits home. “My arm hurts. And it’s getting worse and worse. And I don’t want to spend $50 to go to an urgent care, and I don’t have time to go. I can’t afford to have them tell me I need to strap it down. If it’s bad, I can’t afford to find that out right now.” Smart teaches six classes per semester. Most tenured faculty teach two or three.

The university administration’s position

The university, for its part, has no interest in paying adjuncts more. It sees itself as permanently trapped in a budgetary crisis, and shifting teaching from full-timers to cheap adjuncts is one of its main coping strategies. It is true that both the city and state have a decades-long pattern of starving CUNY financially. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo doesn’t like contributing money to something over which the state ultimately doesn’t have total control. He wants to eventually roll CUNY into the State University of New York (SUNY). NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio low-balls CUNY because he wants the state to fund it. The tug-of-war is almost beside the point: both levels of government (and both parties) have other budget priorities – protecting millionaires and real estate developers – and little interest in propping up an entity that does nothing other than provide a low-cost education to New York’s working class, especially blue-collar people of color.

The budget constraints are real, but it’s also true that CUNY is implementing neoliberalism as gleefully as every other university, imposing austerity for students and low-level faculty while growing a top-heavy administration with blush-worthy salaries. Even when budgets are restored, CUNY slashes programs for students, raises tuition, and shifts teaching over to adjuncts.

Finally, CUNY has no incentive to raise adjunct salaries when the floor in the industry is so low. There is a glut of graduates looking for jobs, and pay for adjuncts is just as bad elsewhere in New York City and across the country, if not oftentimes worse.

The PSC’s position

Now for the union’s position. The PSC actually represents multiple constituencies: in addition to adjuncts, it also includes full-time (tenured) instructors, as well as other academic staff like librarians, College Lab Technicians (CLTs), and Higher Education Officers (HEOs).

It is unusual for part-time or adjunct faculty to exist in the same union as full-time faculty. But as critics point out, that doesn’t mean adjuncts at CUNY are any better served: their salaries fall below others in the Tri-state area.

In fact, it is quite clear the full-time faculty are privileged within the PSC. They enjoy the most robust salaries and benefits within the contract, but also the most attention from the union. This is not a conspiracy theory: Cecelia McCall, who served as Secretary of the PSC from 2000-2007, noted in a 2016 interview that

Though they’re [adjuncts] the majority, you know, we still feel we have to represent them as a part-time working force. They are a part-time working force, and we want to maintain that difference between them and the full-timers while trying to give them parity and as much representation as possible and as much security as possible. But it’s still a part-time working force, and we see them as such.

On the one hand, prioritizing full-time faculty makes some sense. The full-timers, enjoying tenure, are perhaps the most stable tranche of the workforce. They also have a higher subscription rate to the union (in the Janus era, where union membership and dues payment are not automatic) than adjuncts, who are a more transient population and who — vicious circle — feel the union doesn’t really go to bat for them. Full-timers also have the most cultural prestige, sitting atop the academic hierarchy.

On the other hand, serving that full-time constituency at the expense of others makes no sense as a strategy for the PSC, when the balance of adjuncts to full-time faculty keeps shifting further towards the former. Already, adjuncts far outnumber full-timers, 13,000 to 7,600. By continuing to focus on full-timers, the PSC is narrowing their relevance and betting against their own future, not to mention the future of academia as an institution: shifting course load to overworked adjuncts and eliminating full-time lines undermines departmental research as well as student mentorship. By clinging to that hierarchy, the union is abetting the administration’s own divide-and-conquer strategy, at everyone’s expense, including their own.

As for the PSC’s bargaining strategy for this contract, by its own admission, it is heavily focused on lobbying city and state governments, which has yet to prove effective – as mentioned, both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio keep recommending funding cuts for CUNY. The PSC’s lobbying strategy has now expanded to lobbying for a change to the Taylor Law covering public sector workers, working through the New York State United Teachers, with which the PSC is affiliated.

Is that law actually preventing the union from calling a strike? During the last round of bargaining, in 2016, the union did in fact hold a strike authorization vote, which, as it pointed out then, “is perfectly legal” and different from actually calling on members to walk off the job. They took pains to clarify: “the union leadership has explicitly not authorized a strike or other job action, and no members should attempt such actions on their own.”

One problem now is, you cannot use the same tactic – or really, the same bluff – twice. The union has stated clearly that, as far as it is concerned, the Taylor Law is standing in the way, which is for all intents and purposes a way of signaling that it is not worth risking the associated penalties for an adjunct raise. Those penalties include fines, jail time for union leadership, and losing dues-checkoff. Nor, presumably does PSC leadership have confidence they would win a strike mandate from members (it would have to include the whole unit, including full-timers, HEOs, CLTs) over the issue of adjunct pay, and if they did, it would be narrow. There is perhaps no worse scenario than getting 51% of the membership to vote to strike: it’s a recipe for putting your own weakness on display and further dividing the unit.

Let us also say, charitably, that the PSC’s bargaining priorities for adjuncts have been structural things like health benefits and job security, with pay to be addressed down the road. Last round of negotiations secured three-year contracts for eligible adjuncts: those who had taught a minimum of two courses per semester for five years could secure a three-year appointment with a guaranteed minimum income. However, as Rebecca Smart, the psychology adjunct, points out, “Out of twelve thousand adjuncts, only 1,200 were eligible. People who had been teaching there for twenty years didn’t get them because they had to take a break recently to get back surgery. If you take one semester off, the count starts over.”

Likewise, the health benefits leave something to be desired. Smart points out “If I wanted to put my daughter on my health insurance, it would cost one thousand dollars a month. And they won’t even let you take it out of your paycheck because they know how little they pay us. We have to give them our bank account.” Carol Lang says she qualifies for benefits, but uses Medicare instead, which has left her in a predicament: “I just got two hearing aids. Medicare doesn’t pay for hearing aids. I can’t get any benefits from the union because I have Medicare. So I am in this netherworld. I just spent three thousand dollars on hearing aids – to hear my students.” She makes $3,500 per course.

7KOS’s position

It is understandable why the 7KOS contingent is frustrated. It sees the austerity killing adjuncts. It knows the university is not prepared to offer $7k without a fight. It sees the dead-end strategy of soft political lobbying. It knows how much more effective labor disruptions can be. And it is experiencing the union’s intransigence first-hand.

For example, the PSC has a Committee for Adjuncts and Part-Timers (CAP), but adjuncts report that it serves more to transmit strategies from the leadership down to members than to collect ideas from members and transmit them up. Lang notes that a plan for a demonstration passed at the CAP was moth-balled and never brought to the union’s Delegate Assembly. Jarrod Shanahan, who teaches criminology at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), says that “We quickly discovered those meetings are designed to disorganize adjuncts. They get people together, and they’re so pissed, and some paid union staff who is taking notes in the corner will stand up and say, ‘That’s why you need to sign this postcard to governor Cuomo.’ They just steer everything back into the hamster wheel.”

7KOS was originally hatched by a group Shanahan is a part of, CUNY Struggle. It is a left-activist, anti-austerity group centered at CUNY Graduate Center. It predates the 7KOS campaign: its original intention was to orient students and others to the long history of class struggle at the university, from the fight for open enrollment in the 1960s, which racially diversified the student population (and was ended not long after), through the increased policing of campuses in the 2010s. As Shanahan puts it, “There’s been a lot of struggle at CUNY, and the institutional memory of it [among students and faculty] is short, but the institution’s memory of it is long.”

The 7KOS campaign began around the time the last contract expired. It driven by the idea that adjuncts are perfectly entitled to work outside official union leadership to advocate for themselves. As Shanahan explains, “We don’t need permission to make a flyer, or a have demo. These are our working conditions. These are our coworkers. What more do you need to have a workers’ movement than that?” It has since taken root more broadly, including among many individuals who are not members of CUNY Struggle. Its approach ranges from organizing parallel structures outside of the PSC, to very much working within it, for example by signing adjuncts up with union memberships and trying to pass pro-7KOS resolutions at chapter meetings.

Jane Guskin explains that, after seeing how PSC leadership tries to assert top-down control, she and others started QC Adjuncts Unite, which has abetted both the union’s official 7K campaign, and 7KOS. “I wanted us to be able to take collective action around an issue if we needed to, and have autonomy.” They began by working on a PSC-approved campaign called “Press the Presidents,” gathering signatures for a petition to deliver to the president of Queens College, Felix Matos Rodriguez. The PSC helped mobilize adjuncts for an in-person meeting with Matos to deliver the petition. Instructors held “7K” posters and described the financial hardships they suffer. The event was covered in the PSC newspaper, The Clarion. Matos said there was not much he could do. (He later accepted a promotion to CUNY chancellor, with a $670,000 salary and $7,500 monthly housing allowance.)

Guskin says she isn’t surprised that the petition and meeting accomplished little, but felt the exercise was worthwhile anyway. “It was useful to take that step and see he didn’t give us the response we wanted. Otherwise some people would never quite believe that it wouldn’t have worked to just meet with them.”

QC Adjuncts Unite then pivoted to other strategies. Finding it difficult to get adjuncts to meetings – due to their variegated work schedules – they began organizing “public office hours,” where instructors could hold their office hours for students in a shared public space. The events allowed adjuncts to meet one another and be a more visible presence on campus (along similar lines, adjuncts at several other campuses organized “grade-ins” – sit-ins where they would grade student work together while bringing attention to the $7K demand). QC Adjuncts Unite used the opportunity to sign adjuncts up with the PSC, and to ask them to sign the unofficial strike pledge cards.

Grade-in at Brooklyn College | Image courtesy of CUNY Struggle

Guskin says they make sure adjuncts are never forgotten by either management or PSC leadership: “We have a presence at labor management meetings, and chapter meetings, so basically no one can have a meeting without there being adjuncts in the room.” They hand out both PSC-generated “7K” posters and 7KOS ones. Again, they maneuver between official union strategy and rebellion.

Other 7KOS tactics have included organizing day-long conferences, which have brought in veterans from other successful education struggles. They hand out flyers, they set up literature tables. “We have a number of campus-based chapters that have a regular presence in the physical spaces of the campuses,” says Shanahan. He says there is also a listserv and a city-wide coordinating body that meets twice per month, drawing 20 to 40 people. The coordinating body, he notes, “is not a clunky democratic apparatus. It’s just a hub for practical shit. ‘here’s something we did. Here’s something we’re doing. We need five people who can help us.’ And 5 people raise their hands.”

There is a long history of upstart activist groups at CUNY challenging administration and even PSC leadership, often with protests and marches. Amusingly, PSC leadership is now borrowing tactics from that tradition, organizing demos and even getting leaders deliberately arrested. It does not appear to be swaying 7KOS.

The 7KOS campaign has a particular focus. It believes the only way adjuncts will secure their pay raise is with a strike. Guskin says she got involved in 7KOS because “We need to have power. I spent three years negotiating with my previous union. You sit in the room and you make all these arguments about why you should have x, y and z, and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. What matters is your power.” Striking, she feels, is their only hope of securing $7k. “If it required a strike authorization vote to get the last contract, why wouldn’t it take one to get this contract, which has as [ambitious] of a demand as a doubling of pay for adjunct faculty?”

The PSC’s position, at least in part, is that not enough support exists for a strike, especially since it would have to include the entire unit, even full-time faculty, and staff like HEOs and CLTs. Right now, they are not wrong about that lack of support, but 7KOS organizers are understandably frustrated that the PSC is not doing anything to change that.

7KOS are also frustrated at how little the PSC is doing to organize adjuncts in general. Rebecca Smart, the psychology instructor, has some first-hand insight into that: she also serves as an adjunct liaison for the PSC. It is a paid position that involves signing adjuncts up with PSC memberships. In fact, she finds it difficult to meet her quotas, because of the structural difficulty of reaching them: their schedules mean “They’re never in the same place.” She notes that organizing them successfully would take a lot of resources, which she doesn’t see the PSC devoting. Meanwhile, she says, 7KOS are doing the best they can, but they don’t have the resources. That’s why they want PSC help. “My problem is the PSC says, ‘there is a lot of work to do’ and doesn’t do it.”

Smart was recruited to serve in the PSC by a chief steward, and holds a couple of union positions, including on the BMCC chapter’s executive committee. She found the 7KOS campaign organically, and believed in it. Now she feels betrayed by how the PSC leadership has denounced it. “I feel like I’ve really worked hard for the union and for my colleagues, and then the PSC sends out this letter saying people working on 7KOS are deceitful. It was really disheartening and emotionally draining and demoralizing. To have them just piss away the work we had been doing. We have been organizing circles around them.”

Shanahan puts a finer point on it: “It seems like half the work they do at 61 Broadway [address of the PSC’s offices] is staying on top of what we do and trying to neutralize it.”

What now?

All of this keeps re-raising the question: should 7KOS try to move union leadership on the issue of adjunct pay and striking, or should it work around the PSC? For as much as the campaign irritates PSC leadership, all of 7KOS’s organizing efforts seem effectively oriented around bolstering the union, signing adjuncts up with membership, using union channels like chapter meetings, and pushing leadership towards calling an official strike vote, to influence union contract negotiations.

Guskin, for her part, believes 7KOS should “make strike readiness a fact on the ground, to the point that the union leadership would say, ‘wow, this is already happening.’” But even then, she says, she doesn’t think union leadership would move forward with a strike. Neither does Smart.

In other words, there is increasing pessimism that union leadership can ever be moved. This has led to somewhat of a division within 7KOS. Lang says she believes in town hall meetings and pushing for a strike vote, but she acknowledges there is another side in 7KOS which “thinks union leadership is hopeless and needs to be sidestepped. So we need to just grow bigger and bigger. And then…?”

What about a reform caucus strategy? CUNY Struggle in fact ran a reform slate for PSC leadership at Graduate Center in 2017. They secured about a third of the vote, and then rolled their efforts over to the 7KOS campaign. Shanahan now says, “CUNY Struggle’s position is not necessarily union reform, but working inside the union to the extent it can build a dynamic movement.”

It’s worth noting that the current PSC leadership was itself originally a reform caucus, called the New Caucus. It grew out of an upstart activist group, Concerned Faculty and Staff, formed in the early 1990s in response to budget cuts threatening full-time teaching staff. It too was dissatisfied with how union leadership was approaching university administration. The New Caucus’s platform included organizing part-time (adjunct) instructors into the PSC. At the time, the PSC was entitled to dues check-off for all instructors, including part-timers, but only organized full-timers into the union, even putting obstacles in the way of part-timers joining. The New Caucus’s platform included raising the status of part-timers and reducing if not eliminating inequality between full- and part-timers.

In some ways, it has followed through on this mission. In other ways, the New Caucus is behaving exactly as the previous leadership did, the City University Union Caucus (CUUC). At the time the New Caucus defeated the CUUC, the latter was described as “demobiliz[ing] membership… discourag[ing] collective action… refus[ing] to organize the burgeoning part- time instructional work force or build solidarity among the ranks.” 7KOS describes current New Caucus leadership in exactly those terms. One might say the more things change, they more they stay the same. Or, one might argue that union leadership is constrained regardless of their original ideological motivations.

Shanahan says that, where the PSC is wavering in relation to the administration, by introducing “or strike,” 7KOS organizers “came along and introduced clarity. A clear demand and clear consequences if it’s not met.” But while there is a genuine willingness to walk, among many adjuncts, he and other 7KOS organizers admit that there is not yet a majority strike mandate — which is why they want the PSC’s help.

If the union leadership doesn’t change its mind, what then?

Like any good revolutionary, Shanahan envisions “a CUNY-wide strike of students, faculty and workers, capable of bringing the university to a halt, and taking the streets of New York and shutting down key strategic points of New York’s circulation, with the immense people power that we have.” It’s hard to imagine any union leadership in the world (at least in the Wagner, Janus, Taylor era) leading such a plan. Which leads back to the conundrum of waging a pressure campaign on PSC.

It is likely that the administration will turn down the demand for $7k. It is also likely the PSC leadership will recommend the membership vote yes on whatever contract emerges from the bargaining table. However, all is not lost.

What the 7KOS efforts so far have shown is that it is difficult, but not impossible, to organize adjuncts. Organizers have put together incredible efforts, and built a groundswell, with virtually zero resources. If the PSC and university administration do not yield, there is nothing to say that the organizing thus far need go to waste, or stop. Adjuncts face a host of issues on campuses, from inadequate offices to course cancellations. Contacts that have been acquired through the 7KOS campaign can continue to be used to mount direct struggles over these issues, and victories can be built upon for further expanding the campaign. Even towards a strike.