With CUNY underfunded, union takes militant action
Nearly 300 PSC members gathered in front of Baruch College to protest the December 10 CUNY Board of Trustees meeting. The demonstration ended in 17 members being arrested for a civil disobedience action blocking the entrance to the college.
The message of the rally was clear – the main chant was “demand the funding CUNY needs.” While the board stalled on making a budget request to the city and state, the union demanded that the budget request include a fully funded CUNY budget that includes raises for all and $7,000 per course for adjuncts. PSC Executive Committee member Steve London told the assembled crowd. We’re demanding justice for the faculty and staff of CUNY. And your presence here tonight has made that possible. When we’re together, when we’re united, we are strong.”
TAKING A STAND
Rebecca Ibanez teaches in the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP) at City Tech. Her position, as well as others’ in the program, was converted from part-time to full-time as a result of union pressure in the last contract. She told Clarion during the rally, “I’m here for solidarity because I know what it meant for us to get that full-time line. A lot of these adjuncts are moms, dads that have kids, and they can’t afford basic things, like their kids’ childcare.”
The action was an escalation of the ongoing campaign for a fair contract. Linking arms in front of the door, each member was arrested one by one, and each spent several hours in central booking. All 17 arrested members will make a court appearance on February 11 to face misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct.
PSC members risked arrest to show the city, state and trustees that the faculty and staff are willing to take a stand for the quality of education at CUNY. Below, several members who participated in the civil disobedience reflect on the experience.
Collective action is why the PSC won back-pay in the last round of bargaining, and why in previous contracts we won sabbaticals at 80 percent pay, junior faculty reassigned time, the HEO salary differential, paid office hours for adjuncts, adjunct health insurance, graduate employee health insurance, paid parental leave and more. None of those gains against the Board of Trustees’ austerity regime came without a fight.
At Baruch, hundreds of members cheered and chanted, “CUNY trust ees, do your job. Demand the funding CUNY needs!” We lined up in front of the doors where the Board of Trustees was meeting, moving to block the doors of the building.
And dozens of police appeared, playing a recording that warned us we would be arrested if we did not move. Could it be more Orwellian?
A version of this entry appeared on Shepard’s personal blog.
This was not a light decision for me, but I didn’t know what else I could do. I began the semester begging the campus president to publicly call on the CUNY Board of Trustees to request an appropriate budget. I even shared private details about the fact that my family depends on public assistance since the adjunct wages my partner and I make are insufficient to care for our baby and living expenses. I also helped collect 1,500 signatures of students and faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which didn’t move my president to speak boldly for adjuncts who teach most of the courses. I have also shared the same intimate details at previous Board of Trustee meetings and PSC CUNY actions to no effect. With mounting personal debt, and no dignity left, I had nothing left to lose.
I wasn’t scared about getting arrested, but it was rather emotional for me because I am a recent, naturalized citizen who could have easily faced deportation if this arrest came just over a year ago. As an activist involved in various actions for issues including fair wages for adjuncts, I have come close to arrest several times before. This time I was more than happy to put my body on the line.
Adjunct Lecturer Africana Studies
John Jay College
Since our contract expired over a year ago, the PSC has demonstrated on several occasions at trustee meetings and offices. Those more civil actions did not result in management’s placing an economic offer on the bargaining table. So the time had arrived to push the envelope further.
Unstaged arrests typically don’t receive media attention. In contrast, civil disobedience events, like the one we held on December 10, necessarily have to be staged for effectiveness.
The whole point is to communicate communal discontent to a large audience. Otherwise, such public misbehavior would be pointless.
Being in jail meant sitting on hard wooden seats in the cold. Worse, it was excruciatingly tedious. The strategic response unit took well over four hours to fill out the paperwork for 17 people, because little of the process has been touched by modern science. Traveling in a time machine back to the 1950s would likely reveal bureaucratic procedures very similar to what we experienced on December 10. Adding icing to the cake, the police failed to return my driver’s license.
John Jay College
Witness to carceral state
I knew it was time for me to take physical action to stop “business as usual” and cause disorder, to publicize our demands more and to publicly shame CUNY and the governor. This form of civil disobedience was just one step in escalating our struggle. I think we need to be prepared to take more risks and to increase and broaden our militancy.
Even in the most privileged and safest of circumstances, being in jail is terrible. It was humiliating and infuriating to lose bodily autonomy, to literally be in the hands of the NYPD. It was also educational, because I understood that my own brief, mild experience of dehumanization and physical discomfort was only a glimpse into the real terror and violence of our carceral state.
I was not eager to get arrested on the eve of my labor-management meeting and my last full day of teaching this semester. But I took part in the civil disobedience because it is a dramatic way to call attention to the one-year mark since our contract expired and the failure of CUNY trustees to submit an adequate budget request to the state legislature. Besides, the protest was happening on my doorstep and the Baruch chapter needed to be represented. My members are frustrated by the canceled job searches, suspension of research release time and other austerity measures.
Protests like these are planned, deliberate, calculated efforts to win a contract by demonstrating our strength and unity. The activists are trained. We all know the drill. But anything can happen during a demonstration, so there is a certain amount of risk involved. The greater risk is that your actions will have no effect, but that way of thinking will keep you on the sidelines forever.
The most surprising thing about being in custody was that our arresting officers wanted to talk union. They have been working without a contract for two years. They wanted to strategize about how to get a decent offer, given that neither of us has the right to strike.