PSC members march with other labor and community groups on International Workers’ Day, May 1.
The PSC has a long list of resolutions expressing international solidarity. Our union has protested TIAA’s investments in land grabs in Brazil, offered support for student protesters at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India and condemned a government-armed raid against students at the State University of Haiti. The union has stood in solidarity with the people in Cuba, denouncing sanctions and has come out against a new Cold War with China.
These actions do have their detractors, who claim these resolutions are a “distraction” from the “bread-and-butter” issues facing a New York City labor union.
We are witnessing a time of great global political turmoil, so it may be time to reappraise what role internationalism should play at the PSC. What balance should be struck between bread-and-butter union demands and political outreach to groups in the global struggle against imperialism and exploitation? There is a material imperative for unions like ours to foster international solidarity because there are concrete ways in which CUNY is implicated in American imperialism.
The belief that solidarity is outside the purview of union activity derives from the “business union” model of organization. In this model, workers in a particular sector, or in the case of the PSC at a particular employer, mark their ultimate goal as the settlement of relations with management through a process of bargaining and compromise. Such a model of collaboration predominates in American unions, and generally, in unions in the west.
While business unionism in America has helped construct in the last 75 years a kind of “accord” between labor and capital, this accord has been stacked gradually in favor of capital since the 1970s. Real wages have stagnated, and even started to fall, as corporate profits continue to climb. Union membership across the country has declined, and right-to-work laws have proliferated. At CUNY, thousands of adjuncts were laid off during the pandemic and many lost their medical insurance.
The problem with the business union model is that it prioritizes collaboration between capital and labor, ultimately denying that the power of the union is based on the political power of workers as a class. The working class’s unique tool is the withdrawal of its labor, the ability to bring the boss to the table by threatening to bring production to a halt. If we give this up, we consign ourselves to playing to the terms of the capitalist class. We learned last year that higher education worker solidarity across New York was vital for the victory of strike movements. The PSC played its part, showing solidarity and refusing to scab on striking Columbia University graduate student worker teachers at the end of 2021.
Local solidarity, however, is only part of the picture. Workers have no nation, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels said. Neither does the ruling class have a country, as shown by the readiness of corporations to coordinate at an international level. Take, for instance, NAFTA, a free trade agreement signed by the United States, Canada and Mexico, which went into effect in 1994 and was designed to ensure that American industrialists could outrun local labor by successfully offshoring production wherever possible. In America, this led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. In Mexico, where the flight of capital depended upon the continued existence of low wages, the poverty rate actually increased in the decades after the agreement came into effect.
It is in contexts like these that solidarity unionism comes into its own. After the signing of NAFTA, independent unions like the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) started to collaborate across the border with Mexico’s Frente Auténtico del Trabajo, a group of independent unions. This collaboration eventually became the Tri-National Solidarity Alliance, which helped labor activists in Mexico to pressure the Mexican government into changing labor laws through a campaign of international union pressure.
In the world of farmworkers, solidarity unionism has produced some incredible results that otherwise would have remained out of reach. In the 1980s, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), based in North Carolina, was able to use ties of international solidarity to secure a wage raise in the tobacco picking industry. FLOC leader Baldemar Velásquez, after being told by farmers that they could not compete with Mexican growers, contacted friends in the Mexican labor movement and encouraged them to pursue higher wages in their negotiations. When they achieved this, it lowered the price differential between Mexican and American crops and it brought the American growers to the table.
In both these cases, international solidarity wasn’t a distraction from bread-and-butter issues, it was the bread-and-butter issue.
CUNY AND EMPIRE
What role can an education union like the PSC play in building the power of the global working class? CUNY, which is an institution that is meant to serve the city’s working class, is deeply embroiled in the global network of capital and American global hegemony. The growth of the power of the capitalist class also has a direct impact on the lives of our members and CUNY students.
CUNY regularly signs agreements with major corporations who have track records of terrible working conditions. The most recent example is the agreement to funnel students into Amazon’s workforce through CUNY’s Amazon Career Choice program. Amazon uses strike-breaking tactics and its international logistical chain circumvents worker organizing. CUNY is transforming itself into a pipeline for students to be funneled into unstable and anti-labor workplaces, despite the fact that PSC members at LaGuardia Community College were part of the successful community campaign in 2018 and 2019 to stop a proposal to build a highly subsidized Amazon headquarters in Queens.
Amazon’s program at CUNY, however, is not the most nefarious. In 2017, CUNY signed a memorandum of agreement with the CIA (then run by Mike Pompeo) to participate in their Signature School Program. Among other things, the CIA were invited onto campus to conduct on-campus interviews and workshops. CUNY was targeted as a recruitment site for future CIA agents.
LABOR AND IMPERIALISM
One doesn’t have to go too far into the CIA’s history to learn about its role in undermining workers’ democracy abroad. What is, perhaps, less known is the AFL-CIO’s historic role, since ended, in the CIA’s international operations. The PSC is affiliated with the AFL-CIO through its national parent union, American Federation of Teachers. During the Cold War, the AFL-CIO, through its American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) program, helped to uproot left-wing unions, orchestrate the disappearing of unionists, and even topple democratically elected regimes.
CUNY also plays a direct role in American military expansion by investing in excess of a million dollars in weapons manufacturing through shares in Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Electrical. Meanwhile, America’s military allies often collaborate with security forces within the United States to perfect the techniques of repression used against our very own students. As Clarion has frequently reported, the anti-Muslim fervor reached CUNY when the NYPD monitored Muslim students at CUNY as recently as 2014.
This May, the Research Foundation of CUNY is hosting a “defense and intelligence research forum” meant to, according to its promotional material, “expose faculty to the [defense and intelligence] research landscape of the federal government with the aim of increasing awareness of the projects funded by these agencies.”
If we are serious about building our own power, we must resolve to build the power of the international working class. We must connect the indifference of CUNY management toward its workers’ well-being to its transformation into a corporate entity whose direction is set by capital. Our work is internationalist by default; and if we fail to see solidarity as a bread-and-butter issue, then we give away the strength of our position. We must pursue divestment from weapons contractors and abandoning CUNY’s relationship with security agencies. We must continue to show solidarity with all oppressed peoples.
If we turn our backs on the world, we leave them exposed to a truly global enemy.