CUNY Needs a Raise

CUNY Needs a Raise

On May Day, students, staff, and teachers are fighting back against budget cuts, despite the outdated Taylor Law. It’s time we bring back the public, working-class institution we once revered. 

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The Harvard of the proletariat.” That was the vision of CUNY that my masters supervisor sold me back in 2017: the vision that prompted me to leave Australia for New York City. Having heard the list of people who passed through CUNY as students or teachers—June Jordan, Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, Frances Fox-Piven—I didn’t bother applying anywhere else in the city. The prospect of being part of a public, proudly working-class institution, whose mission was to educate the children of New York’s laboring families, was enough to sell me.

But within weeks of starting my PhD in comparative literature at CUNY’s Graduate Center, I started to understand what it really means to be a public institution in New York City—a playground for the wealthy. Over the past five years, I’ve learned that CUNY has been a beachhead in a decades-long class war ranging from the 1960s until today.

In February of this year, the CUNY Board of Trustees announced a $100 million savings target for 2024’s financial year, before New York State had even announced its own budget. (CUNY’s new target means 5–6 percent budget cuts for every single CUNY campus.) In opposition to these unnecessary austerity measures, students, teachers, and staff are fighting back. In marches and protests planned for Lehman and Hunter colleges this May Day, we are holding up a vision of a “People’s CUNY”—a free, public, and radical institution.

This vision is not a novel one. CUNY, in fact, was once free for all students at the community and senior college level, so long as they passed a qualifying exam. In 1970, following several years of institutional struggle and a student strike in 1969, the university implemented an open admissions policy, removing all entrance examinations and other barriers to study. By 1975, CUNY was tuition-free and open to all, educating a quarter of a million students from a wide range of backgrounds. It boasted a growing staff of young teachers who pushed the institution to the leading edge of public pedagogy.

But public education had no place in the New York of the early ’70s. Our city, David Harvey reminds us, was ground zero for the neoliberal experiment in America. As the height of the civil rights movement was coming to a close, New York became a synecdoche for national events, culminating in what Harvey calls “a coup by the financial institutions against the democratically elected government.” The banks’ decision not to finance the city’s budgetary shortfalls led to state and financial institutions’ assuming responsibility for many budgetary measures, including much of CUNY’s operating budget. In 1976, the institution introduced tuition for all undergraduate students.

By the 2000s, CUNY centralized and expanded, with huge increases in enrollments. But between 2008 and 2016, the state withdrew 17 percent of its funding for CUNY. Around the same time, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill di Blasio both refused to fund the new contract proposed by CUNY’s union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), a decision that was revoked only when 92 percent of union members voted to authorize a strike.

When Kathy Hochul came into office, New Yorkers were optimistic about her support for CUNY. Her first budget vindicated this hope, allocating $1.5 billion to the university over five years beginning in 2022. But her budgetary proposal for the 2024 financial year, while better than any offered by Cuomo, has failed to keep up with her promised pattern. Alongside a miserly city budget from Eric Adams, CUNY now faces another spate of austerity measures, including tuition hikes.

If the problem begins with the state and city, CUNY’s Board of Trustees does not help. This governing body is appointed by New York’s governor and the mayor, and as of 2023, nine were appointed by the old enemies—Cuomo and di Blasio. Budgets inflicting the worst of measures are rubber-stamped without a pause, and the budgetary requests the board submits to New York State and City are rarely any better.

I came to CUNY in 2018, at the end of Cuomo’s gubernatorial career. Since 2019, I’ve taught in the English Department at Hunter College. Though the end of open admissions and the implementation of tuition has changed the class composition of most CUNY campuses, the majority of my students are from immigrant and working-class families.

Previously, I taught at NYU, and the differences between student populations couldn’t be starker. Where the worst issue I encountered from an NYU student was a scheduling clash between an exam and a family ski trip, Hunter students are regularly too exhausted from working 40-hour weeks to engage in class. When we transitioned to online learning during the height of the pandemic, many of my students refused to turn on their video cameras from their crowded family kitchens. Once a colleague of mine asked what Hunter students do for fun, to which they replied: “We don’t have fun.”

These are students that need and deserve support they are not receiving. Mentoring programs have been cut to the point of zero for many. Buildings around them are falling apart. Food services have only just returned to the college this semester.

As for their teachers, we are mostly adjunct lecturers. We make $5,500 per three-credit class. Even teaching just four classes a semester, we fall far below New York’s poverty line. I’m regularly lapsing into debt to my partner, and have been forced to take out loans from CUNY when my meager pay has been delayed. To boot, graduate students like me are expected to work far beyond our paid hours, preparing for courses, grading, and advising outside of class. In our last contract, our union won one paid office hour, but CUNY has tried to use this negotiation to increase our workload, making composition classes previously worth four credits now worth three, which increases work for full-time faculty and reduces pay for adjuncts.

In my spare time, I’m still a student. I’m coming to the end of my fifth year of study, so my stipend will soon run out. I will have to scrape together funding from various grants and teaching appointments. There is a notion that students should finish their doctorates in five years, but how is one to do that while living on poverty wages?

The history of the City University is an object lesson in the neoliberal assault on public institutions. It is also, however, a laboratory of struggle and militancy. Students, faculty, and staff have won huge victories in the past half-century. Open admissions was the prize for the 1969 student strike; the 1991 occupations of CUNY campuses forced Mario Cuomo to step back from his austerity program.

Our current labor struggle at CUNY is complicated by our school’s status as a public institution. On the one hand, PSC has to work within the frameworks of state and city funding. This means that we direct a huge amount of energy toward lobbying Albany and City Hall, a strategy contingent on the caprices of local politicians. On the other hand, the strange architecture of the Taylor Law—a labor-relations statute dating from 1967—forbids public higher-education unions from striking. Without this fundamental tool, our position at the bargaining table is hobbled.

Our labor union’s past victories with direct action inform our vision today. At the Graduate Center, union members, students, and staff have been collaborating since February on a campaign to “Reclaim the Commons.” Having occupied the dining facilities on level eight of CUNY’s 34th Street building, we rallied people around the lack of food on campus. Two weeks ago, we found out that the administration had caved to two of our central demands.

As for the PSC, our contract expired at the end of February. As we reenter negotiations in early May, our union is looking beyond bread-and-butter issues and toward a reformation of the university. The “New Deal For CUNY” proposal, a sweeping agenda of changes that would ensure investment in our university and eradicate tuition, has been costed into the union’s own state budget proposal. ND4C has political support among many state and city legislators, but so far Hochul has dragged her feet on endorsing the initiative.

On May Day, students, staff, and faculty will show Hochul and the board what we think of cuts and tuition hikes. This will be a student-led initiative, because it is illegal under the Taylor Law for the union to undertake such actions. It’s time, however, that we stop living in fear of this draconian legislation: PSC should take precedence for the brave comrades who authorized a strike despite the law back in 2016. We should also look to public-sector unions in Massachusetts and Michigan, who are facing similar legal restrictions but have nonetheless gone on strike in the past year and received huge gains from doing so. This is what we owe to New York: a city whose working class has a university where teachers make living wages, students receive ample support, and we all get a quality education.

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