The Borough of Manhattan Community College’s library occupies the fourth floor of its TriBeCa campus. It has a beautiful view in the middle of a neighborhood that was long ago ceded to the elite by way of inflated property values, and it belongs to students whose families are likely to make less than $20,000 a year. Pleasing scenery may seem utterly superfluous to education, but as evidence of actually existing democracy on an island largely governed by real estate speculation, it is priceless. BMCC, like other City University of New York campuses, are reminders that people without money don’t just deserve some job training; they deserve a good education that might even involve some superfluous knowledge, the luxury of a well-appointed library, and a sunset over the river.
Until 1976, CUNY was free. Since then, tuition has steadily risen. Given New York City’s unprecedented fiscal crisis in the 1970s, charging tuition in order to make up for a shortfall in public funds seemed to make intuitive sense. The same logic, though, would dictate that fiscal abundance would mean a return to a tuition-free CUNY. This, of course, never happened because austerity measures seldom have any real relationship to the availability of funds. Since then, tuition has risen, state funding has declined, and adjunct wages, when adjusted for inflation, have decreased. Moments of crisis pass, but the sacrifices made by the public sector are never temporary.
When Covid-19 began to shut down campuses across the country, cash-strapped public universities as well as their obscenely endowed private counterparts aggressively slashed departmental budgets, instituted hiring freezes, fired contingent faculty, and laid off staff. The speed with which these measures were put in place was dizzying and the ease with which they passed troubling. The logic of austerity has been so thoroughly internalized that defunding public services seems like a natural and inevitable side effect of economic uncertainty.
In July 2020, 2,800 adjuncts were told they would not be reappointed. By the beginning of the fall semester, 2000 adjuncts and part-time staff remained without work. Non-teaching adjuncts who work as librarians and other crucial instructional staff were put on month-to-month contracts. Adjuncts at Medgar Evers College who had been eligible for the much talked about one- and three-year appointments won in the 2017 contract were laid off. When enrollment turned out to be higher than expected in the fall, rather than reappointing contingent faculty, class sizes were increased.
This pandemic is real and unprecedented, but it is dangerous to think of the campaign against public universities as the singular product of exceptional times, even worse to operate under the assumption that its effects are natural. What is happening at CUNY is not a natural disaster; it is the logical conclusion of years of austerity-minded decision making by CUNY administrators and steadily decreasing state funding (which accounts for 60 percent of senior colleges’ operating budgets).
We can, and should, blame some of this on Andrew Cuomo’s indifference to CUNY’s well-being. State funding has decreased 5 percent during his time as governor and the legislature withheld 20 percent this fall. But we can, and should, also blame union leadership that has implicitly endorsed a de facto two-tier wage system by neglecting the needs of contingent faculty, failing to bargain over things such as class sizes, and leaving its membership vulnerable to severely degraded working conditions.
The university seems to believe this neoliberal narrative of economics as a force of nature and they are acting accordingly. As Ben Lerner noted in The New York Times, CUNY has become so used to its sacrificial role that it began attacking itself in anticipation of budget cuts. The Professional Staff Congress (PSC)—the union that represents CUNY faculty and staff—filed a lawsuit against the university following the mass firing. (Disclosure: I am a CUNY employee represented by the PSC.) The injunction sought alleges that the university violated the terms of the CARES act, not the contract. The PSC is also pursuing class-action grievances on the part of adjuncts, such as those at Medgar Evers, who were denied one and three-year contracts by the university in spite of department recommendations for approval. Rather than rehiring adjuncts the university increased class sizes, to which the PSC initially responded with petitions and calls for socially distanced protests. Media visibility and proof of grievances are not nothing, but they are decidedly not a demonstration of power—something that professors, librarians, and other educators still hold. A legal victory may benefit some workers in the distant future and a formal grievance filed on behalf of a small fraction of laid off adjuncts, but these actions fail, crucially, to build or demonstrate worker power. Legal and legislative avenues—the preferred strategy of the PSC—are simply not a replacement for organizing. On November 23, the union acknowledged that it needed to prepare for “a new level of emergency in 2021” and the delegate assembly voted to pass a resolution to prepare for strike-readiness—the union-wide organizing effort that necessarily precedes a strike authorization vote.
Chapters of PSC have passed resolutions at several campuses calling on the union to hold a strike authorization vote. If we are going to repair any of the damage that has been done over the past nine months and prevent a recurrence of this crisis, we need to leverage our collective power by demonstrating our willingness to strike over the quality of education being provided to our students—which is intimately bound up with the quality of our own working lives.
We also need to be very clear about what it is that we are striking for. CUNY has recently announced that it will be significantly delaying contractually guaranteed raises. The explicit contract violation might produce a strike authorization vote, but the strike cannot be about a 2 percent raise. It needs to be about working conditions. The next contract needs language about class sizes, adjunct job security, and compensation—monetary or otherwise—for the increased workloads. Contingent faculty need much more than the small raise pegged to a productivity increase that came with the 2020 contract. As we saw with last semester’s mass firings and increased class sizes, the precarity of CUNY’s second-tier workers and the conditions that make good teaching possible—or not—are directly related: The ability to eliminate 3,000 members of the teaching faculty with no notice is the cause of ballooning class sizes. Ignoring the needs of adjuncts is a race to the bottom for students and instructors alike.
No one saw this coming; the absence of pandemic-specific language in the 2020 contract is no surprise. But the slow drift away from physical classrooms was already well underway and we should have been thinking about the particular challenges posed by remote learning—the specific differences that this technology inserts into the job of teaching. If this disaster has taught us anything, it is that technology is part of working conditions and that technological change is something we need to bargain over. As a result of the transition to remote learning, adjunct and full-time faculty alike were forced to participate in what amounted to a university-wide speedup: doing far more work for the same wages. Now that faculty have done much of the work of overhauling their courses, they are subject once again to a speedup in the form of increased class sizes. They are also paying for the universities’ physical plant in the form of electricity and internet bills, computer maintenance, and new equipment purchases. It is the union’s job to make sure that we receive raises, but also to safeguard against the many ways that wages are lost.
Demoralized and over-extended workers cost companies money through productivity losses. When the “product” is education, this demoralization translates into a degraded experience for students. For online teaching to work, classes need to be smaller than they usually are and teachers need more support, not less. Online classes cannot be allowed to become significantly cheaper versions of their physical counterparts through mushrooming class sizes and extra work smuggled in via technological changes.
The Ivy League will return to campus when this is over, but CUNY and other public universities that serve populations who society has deemed undeserving of anything but the bare minimum are going to need to fight for their existence. Believing that the worst outcome is inevitable is cynical. But thinking that this will be solved through the polite pressure of a petition is naïve. Militant collective action is both hopeful and our only hope.