Combating the Neoliberal University With a Strike

By Gordon Barnes.

Capitalism and the University

In a capitalist society, tertiary education serves two essential purposes, with universities functioning as their quintessential vehicle – they reproduce social relations prevalent in a given society, and they produce knowledge that perpetuates dominant ideologies. The first occurs through knowledge transmission from professor to student in conjunction with the cultural conventions inherent in a capitalist society. The second results from research agendas that serve ruling class interests. Though there has been productive pushback against these agendas, it is not enough to transform higher education into an emancipatory social endeavor. Moreover, the increasing neoliberalization of higher education in the U.S. since the 1970s is an additional rampart that must be destroyed if post-secondary education is to produce human social emancipation rather than capitalist mores and ideologies.

Neoliberalization is in full swing at CUNY where the management has not offered a viable contract to workers for nearly a decade. The Professional Staff Congress which represents professors, adjuncts, HEOs and graduate students but, has been without a contract for six years. The District Council 37 represents over 10,000 myriad other workers at CUNY, maintenance, janitorial, and a variety of other public sector workers, but has been one for seven. At the same time, CUNY has employed some of the most repugnant socio-political forces advocating U.S. imperialism, including David Petraeus as an “adjunct” at Macaulay Honors College. And, arguably, there is still collusion between CUNY administration and the NYPD in a domestic spying program aimed at Muslim students. Exemplifying this neoliberal character is the seizure of Morales/Shakur Center by CUNY administration in October of 2013, the brutal attack on student protestors initiated by CUNY security and the NYPD at Baruch College in 2011, and the proposed ban and curtailment of the democratic right to protest on CUNY campuses. These developments are truly a litany of moves and maneuvers by CUNY administration and government officials to further the neoliberaliztion of a university once known as the “Harvard of the proletariat.”

How then do we combat the university’s neoliberal turn in the immediate moment? And what strategies can transform and retool the capitalist university in the long term to serve the socio-economic interests of the working classes and the oppressed? Given the multiple crises at CUNY, we are on the cusp of being able to adequately address the problem of neoliberalization in order to reconstitute the institution. There have, of course, been various struggles to this end; yet, none have been able to fundamentally reverse the neoliberal trends. The potentiality of a strike by the PSC, DC 37, and other unions in conjunction with broader support from labor and student activist movements can begin to assuage the current crises in addition to lay the foundation for future struggles.

The Crisis at CUNY

In The Advocate’s last issue, Conor Tomás Reed’s “CUNY’s Largest Crisis in Forty Years,” succinctly lays out the catastrophe at CUNY and how the neoliberal turn continually exploits adjuncts, students of color, and the wider strata of CUNY workers. The problems inherent with university education under capitalism, including but not limited to the aforementioned issues, have been plaguing tertiary education in this country generally, and CUNY quite acutely. The most pressing issue at hand is the impasse CUNY management has claimed in response to the ongoing negotiations with the PSC. The PSC has called for a strike authorization vote, and though this vote would be to prepare for a potential strike, not for an actual strike, it is an escalation which should be viewed as progressive and necessary.

CUNY’s administrators have cited the planned strike authorization vote as the cause of turning labor arbitration over to the Public Employees Relation Board (PERB), a gubernatorially appointed body that also enforces the Taylor Law. The Taylor Law is a New York State statute, which makes strikes by public employees illegal, to be penalized with docked pay, fines, and imprisonment (the most recent imprisonment of a labor activist was during the 2005 MTA strike). This anti-democratic law is held as a looming threat over public employees and offers management a significant advantage during labor negotiations. More confounding is that the governmental organization which implements this law, the PERB, is also the agency, which oversees negotiations when such an “impasse” arises.

The case of CUNY and the PSC is no different. Simply put, in turning over arbitration to the PERB, CUNY management sees no viable path to negotiating a “fair” or “equitable” labor contract. Moreover, CUNY management has not so tacitly alluded to the potentiality of “serious negative consequences” if the PSC does go on strike. This should convince anyone who maintains the view that continued dialogue with CUNY administrators is necessary to achieving radical transformations at the university, or even broadly defined progressive labor relations, that such engagement is predicated on a tremendous dichotomy of power. Bargaining in “good faith” wasn’t and won’t be on the table. If anything, the latest assaults on the rights of workers at CUNY beyond the issues of the contract negotiation “impasse” and the nearly decade long period without a contract only prove this.

In recent memory, Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic Governor of New York acquiesced to the popular demand of a $15 USD minimum wage at the State University of New York. This galvanized substantial protests at CUNY, and while the workers of the City University have ostensibly won the minimum in the aftermath of the protests, the timetable for its implementation is lamentable. In all actuality, by the time CUNY workers (and other workers, both public and private sector) receive the increase to $15 USD per hour (between 2018 and 2022), it will be the proverbial “too little, too late.” This paltry remuneration, when one considers inflation projections (1.6-2.4% increase in consumer price inflation over the next five years), means nothing. It is in fact a tactic being used by Democratic politicians to preempt and quell any potential labor unrest.

Another recent affront to the wider body of CUNY faculty, staff, and students has been the proposed $485 million USD budget cut. Linked to purported anti-Semitic activities, speech, and agitation, the NYS Senate voted to slash this funding to senior colleges. The allegations of anti-Semitism are largely baseless. While there are surely individual anti-Semites on CUNY campuses, there exists no organized or concerted effort to espouse anti-Semitic politics or propaganda. In spite of their problematic political and tactical positions, Students for Justice in Palestine are correct in their assertion that there exists a conflation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. And for good measure, SJP is also quite correct to agitate against the scourge of Zionism. This conflation, willful or otherwise, has led the state government to enact such draconian measures. In effect, the CUNY administration is at the beck and call of the government (both Republican and Democrat) in instances such as this, and at others, in apparent collusion–as was the case with the NYPD spying program. Again, this relation to capitalist politics is not an anathema, but rather how the capitalist university is supposed to function, particularly so under the auspices of an unsavory agenda of neoliberal restructuring.

As Reed rightly pointed out in his article, the path which CUNY is traversing is not solely due to Chancellor James Milliken, the Board of Trustees, or the plethora of administrative cogs at CUNY Central and across the twenty-four campuses. The Democratic Party represented by Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and variegated private business concerns also have vested interests in maintaining the general course the university is currently on. Therefore, the struggle against the neoliberalization of CUNY as well as the larger struggle to transform higher education under capitalism cannot be provincial in nature. Put another way, the object of our collective ire must not be simply CUNY administration or the Board of Trustees, if we are to effectively challenge the status quo. Rather, combating the structures of capitalist education in addition to winning internal battles at CUNY is the only viable way to transform the university. In order to gain any lasting social or economic improvements at CUNY, and in order to avoid ephemeral and piecemeal reforms (which will be invariably whittled away once won), the rank-and-file (adjuncts, students, HEO’s, professors, and other campus workers) must be able to wield its social power. It remains that the most efficacious way of mobilizing the social power of those who have only a modicum is the strike. Only through a strike, in the short-term, will the neoliberal variant of the capitalist university be effectively challenged.

A Question of Social Power: CUNY Struggle

CUNY workers, as they relate to management, have very limited power individually and in small groups. However, collective action opens up an avenue for real, tangible changes. A smattering of different groups with varied political agendas and philosophies have continuously been engaged in agitating and propagandizing in an effort to foment some sort of collective resistance to the recent neoliberal trends evident at CUNY. The most recent manifestation of this was the formation of CUNY Struggle, an amorphous grouping of leftists, primarily students and adjunct professors. Its inaugural meeting on 12 March at the Graduate Center resulted in the adoption of sixteen “demands.” While some of the demands are necessary and even radical–the abolition of the Board of Trustees, an end to the two-tier labor system, an open admission and tuition free university, as opposed to a conciliatory call of a tuition freeze as advocated by the University Student Senate)–there was little concrete discussion on tactical or strategic aims beyond the formation of these ostensibly democratic bodies.

While well-intentioned, these bodies, if they do end up constituting something beyond the politically infinitesimal, seemingly offer little in the course of finding tangible solutions to the socio-economic problems currently encumbering CUNY. The demands were borne out of grievances discussed in smaller groups, removed from the larger body. These grievances, as well as quite a few of the demands, have been well documented and respectively advanced over the preceding years by various other groups including but not limited to Class Struggle Education Workers, CUNY Contingents Unite, and the Adjunct Project. Such meetings are often ones of consensus and, in fact, have the potentiality to be detrimental as they belie the sharp political, tactical, and strategic differences of the various forces which are involved. In lieu of debating differences, CUNY Struggle has attempted, quite successfully, to engage in the stereotypical and self-defeating strategy of social-democratic “lowest common denominator” politics.

While this tactic of popular frontism is apropos at times, it does nothing in regards to the present crisis at CUNY except have purported leftists patting each other on the back for “being on the right side of history.” Discussion of the PSC’s strike authorization vote as well as discussion of a potential strike – and what this would mean and could materially accomplish at CUNY –  was barely part of the program. The majority of the tactical and strategic portion of the discussion (everyone at the meeting was already largely aware of the grievances and the demands going in) centered upon organizing students and to a lesser extent, adjuncts. And while this is important, critical even, in combating the neoliberalization of CUNY, any successful campaign must tap into the the broader labor base at CUNY, many of whom are disaffected with both the management and the bureaucratic PSC leadership. All this is not to say that CUNY Struggle has surreptitiously attempted to derail any practicable pathways in combating the neoliberal university. However, the lack of focus on the question of labor and the power of collective labor actions has already attenuated the professedly radical impulse of the fledgling organization.

To be clear, this isn’t to say that student activism is not imperative to successfully combating the neoliberal university. On the contrary, it is. Nevertheless, students are too imprecise a category of people to singularly focus upon. Furthermore, students, as a body, do not have the requisite social power in and of themselves to take on CUNY management. The workers of CUNY do. This includes the PSC rank-and-file, members of DC 37, UNITE HERE, and other unions, which have significant representation amongst CUNY workers. It is only through the combined struggle of workers and students that anything will be won. And again, to beat the proverbial dead horse, it is through the strike that any such victory would have the potential to be lasting rather than temporary.

Adjuncts, the PSC, and the Question of a Strike

If we are to challenge the neoliberalization of CUNY in the short-term, and its role within the wider apparatuses of finance capitalism in the long-term, then social power must be mobilized. As has consistently been advocated throughout this article, the immediate strategic concern to this end is the strike. Reed’s article outlines five tactics of immediate political action: pledging to support a potential strike, which centers on adjunct as well as student demands; creating a strike fund that protects the most economically vulnerable; compiling and disseminating propaganda highlighting the crisis at CUNY; putting pressure on Graduate Center central-line faculty to advocate for the strike; and developing solidarities with other union workers at the Graduate Center. Of the five areas that Reed suggests for concerted action, let us focus on the first. In particular, the secondary clause regarding centering a potential strike in line with adjunct and student demands.

It is unclear whether or not Reed supports a strike pledge and potential strike only if the PSC will center its demands around students and adjuncts. This is an important distinction as there are certain elements within the PSC and CUNY, which have actively and tacitly voiced opposition to the strike based on the failure of the union to adequately represent the rights of adjuncts. This critique is not only valid; it is quite accurate. The PSC and its bureaucratic and often conciliatory leadership – represented by Barbara Bowen and Steve London, President and First Vice President of the union respectively – do not, and will not advance the cause of adjuncts in the foreseeable future. In fact, the union bureaucracy is very much complicit in CUNY’s continual and expanding reliance on adjunct labor. The PSC’s abject failure to bargain on behalf of all of its membership, particularly for those who are most oppressed, plays into the management’s neoliberal designs of bolstering the two-tier system of labor.

Those who are wary of a potential strike are rightful to be so given the deleterious relationship between the union’s rank-and-file and the leadership. However, and despite the problems in the PSC, the calls for a separate “adjunct strike,” as some have made, only serve to segment the union, and by default, weaken collective social power. An adjunct only strike would indeed play into the hands of CUNY management if an actual strike by the PSC is to go through. Furthermore, such division within the union could actually result in adjuncts being utilized as scab labor in the course of a strike. For example, let us say the PSC strike authorization vote passes and a subsequent strike ensues, if contingents of adjuncts reject the strike due to the failure of the PSC to represent their interests, the strike will inevitably be defeated, and resoundingly so. A struggle must be waged within the PSC to oust the bureaucrats in order to have leadership representative of the rank-and-file, and thus in a more advantageous as well as the desirous position of advocating on behalf of adjunct laborers.

The struggles within the PSC to either reconstitute the leadership or to push them in the direction of actually advocating on behalf of both adjuncts and full-time professors are ones which must be waged continuously and in conjunction with the drive for a “Yes” vote in regards to the strike authorization vote and during a potential strike. Any organizing outside of the PSC – as it relates to the strike question – can, and likely will, lead to the evisceration of the union by CUNY administration and state government. Therefore, the calls for separate strike pledges, “strike authorizations” outside of official PSC channels will consign the most effective method of struggle against the neoliberalization of CUNY to defeat. All this is to say that in spite of the PSC’s deficiencies, which are many, it is only through the union that any significant measure of social pressure will be exerted in counteracting the neoliberal agendas of CUNY management in particular, and the role of CUNY in U.S. capitalism more generally.

Agitate for a Strike, Smash the Taylor Law

The PSC has never been on strike in its history. We have a historic duty to agitate for both the passage of the strike authorization vote at hand and an actual strike. The existence and likely implementation of the anti-democratic and draconian Taylor Law should give us pause, but it should not shutter our resolve. The law needs to be smashed, destroyed. A strike has the potential to do this, if properly prepared and organized. Given the PSC’s problematic bureaucracy, it is not sufficient that such a strike be localized to the constituency of the PSC. In other words, solidarity and cohesion is imperative to any potential strike. The workers of DC 37 should also be propagandized to go on strike simultaneously. Furthermore, linkages with the broader labor movement in NYC invariably add weight to the wielding of social power.

Any pretense that the PSC can’t advocate for the broader membership must be shed. Any moves to impinge upon the strike authorization vote or a potential strike both from within and from outside the union must be quashed. CUNY management and state government will deploy political subterfuge and more coercive measures if necessary. Yet we mustn’t give in to the machinations of those who currently have stewardship over CUNY. The time to go on strike is nigh. Preparedness, both within the PSC and across unions and other labor advocacy groups in New York, is essential. The neoliberalization of CUNY will not be willed away, rather it will be forced away. And any “progressive” aims emerging out of these struggles are most effectively achieved by wielding social power, particularly collective working class power. Open admissions and free tuition, a cessation of racist campus policing, ending reliance on the two-tiered labor system, the abolition of CUNY administration and the Board of Trustees, and a plethora of other virtuous transformations at CUNY will only come once collective social power is mobilized and deployed in such a fashion so as to reconstitute the university – not as simply non‑neoliberal for neoliberalism is merely a symptom of the disease – but as an anti-capitalist institution founded upon equitable labor practices and formulated in the interest of the working classes and all oppressed and marginalized social groups.


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