Broad goals for labor
As a faculty member at LaGuardia Community College, it was distressing to see CUNY’s top administrators, including the president of LaGuardia, a school with many immigrant and working-class students, stump for a union-busting company, Amazon, that does business with ICE and threatened to accelerate the gentrification of our communities. Like many, I was overjoyed that people power was able to score a rare victory over a corporate giant when Amazon said, in response to community protests, it would not build a new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens. In taking stock and holding up the work of community groups and activists who won this fight, this victory holds powerful lessons for us as union activists.
For too long, progressive activists have been on the defensive, assuming that we will voice our objections and then the powerful will get their way. Unions in this defensive posture too often limit themselves to the immediate needs of their members rather than engage in broader community struggles for the working class. This victory underscores the need to strengthen our relationship with community groups and immigrant-rights activists on the front lines of struggles for housing justice, worker’s rights and immigrant rights – challenging, labor-intensive work that doesn’t always bear immediate fruit and requires us to think more broadly about the power structures that harm our school, our lives and those of our students.
True social movement unions have great potential right now to fight a broader struggle against austerity and on behalf of robust, well-funded and inclusive public services.
LaGuardia Community College
CUNY students and faculty have been at the center of the grassroots movement to oppose Amazon’s proposed HQ2 corporate development in Queens, organizing alongside a coalition of anti-gentrification and immigrant-rights groups.
Of particular concern is Amazon’s highly profitable role as the technological backbone for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) surveillance network.
Through a series of government contracts and partnerships with corporations such as Palantir and COPLINK, Amazon Web Services (AWS) allows ICE to aggregate, distribute and make searchable vast amounts of personal data on individuals. Amazon has received pushback from their own employees about the sale of biased facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies. These technologies pose a direct threat to our communities and our students. A corporation conducting this kind of work should not receive billions of public dollars in incentives from a city that claims to be a sanctuary.
When the HQ2 deal was first announced, the CUNY Board of Trustees pledged to “commit our considerable college assets to ensure that Amazon has a strong pipeline for talent, ideas and innovation.” The details of this proposed pipeline were not fully elaborated, and the board refused to answer questions from students.
Amazon has since withdrawn from the HQ2 deal, but it pledged to retain and expand their existing presence here, which includes a hub for AWS cloud development. It is not clear what aspects of a CUNY-Amazon partnership might remain in place.
Part of CUNY’s mission is to increase the social mobility of low-income and underserved communities, and we must take the economic futures of our students seriously. But a job that contributes to the technological surveillance and targeting of our city’s immigrants and communities of color is not a good job, no matter how high the salary. A job that contributes to gentrification, housing shortages and transit crises in the neighborhoods where our students and faculty live is not a good job. A job that undermines worker unionization, locally owned small businesses and community input is not a good job. A good job is a just job, and the CUNY community must use our collective resources to advocate for socially responsible, community-based models for economic development.
Editor’s note: See the president’s message on Amazon on page 12.
The $7K or Strike campaign is a rank-and-file movement of PSC members and allies working to make the $7K per class demand non-negotiable. We fight as members for a more militant approach to contract negotiation by advocating for a strike authorization vote. We are doing this because, in our view, the PSC leadership has focused on lobbying lawmakers to the detriment of building grassroots militancy. PSC leadership says we have to ask for more money before we organize a strike, but we say organizing a strike stands a better chance of pressuring lawmakers to come up with the money, as it did for striking educators in Los Angeles, Oakland, West Virginia and elsewhere. Our goal is not to stymie the union’s leadership. Rather, our primary targets are CUNY management and the city and state government, who have so far refused to allocate the funds necessary to eradicate adjunct poverty and transform the university into a dignified place of teaching and learning. The $7K demand is a long overdue step in this direction.
To build the campaign, we have organized a public conference, multiple campus grade-ins, tabling, office visits, chapter meetings, one-on-one dialogues, picket line solidarity with other unions and coalition meetings. Hundreds of members across all titles – knowing full well that $7K or Strike is not yet the official position of the entire union – have signed pledge cards and solidarity letters calling on the leadership to hold a strike authorization vote. Statements in support of $7K or Strike have been passed at 10 PSC chapters and counting, at meetings – historically sparsely attended – that have drawn large numbers of newly activated members.
Building the threat of a strike infinitely strengthens the position of PSC officers at the bargaining table. But denying and diminishing the efforts of the campaign has the opposite effect. The union’s leadership has thus far chosen to rebuke members for acting without their permission. This is a strategic mistake: the $7K or Strike campaign provides PSC officers an opening to build up militancy while providing legal cover to the union. They should embrace it. And to members: remember, we are the union, and the leadership only represents our will.
Conor Tomás Reed
PSC President Barbara Bowen, First Vice President Andrea Vásquez, Secretary Nivedita Majumdar and Treasurer Sharon Persinger respond:?
PSC is proud of its militant history in fighting for its members. In 2016, we held a strike authorization vote, trained hundreds of member activists, and won that vote by 92 percent. For this contract, in defiance of a deeply reactionary political climate, we have forged ahead with our most ambitious demand, $7K per course for adjuncts – a demand that carries the potential of transforming the university and its structure of funding. We are in negotiations and are building pressure for all our demands through actions on campuses, in the streets and in Albany.
We are not calling for a strike authorization vote at this time, but it is not off the table. If we were to consider a strike authorization vote, we would do it seriously by first holding union-wide one-on-one conversations on the possible gains and risks of a strike. Our Delegate Assembly and Executive Committee would then vote on it after careful consideration. We welcome the energy and the commitment of all our members. Our open letter was addressed to a small group of activists who have tried to actively mislead the membership about the union position, which was reached through democratic decision-making by those elected to represent all members. We once again call on them to stop the distortions and instead unite in the struggle to win this historic demand.