I am one of the many doctoral students at CUNY who was accepted but not offered a reliable funding package. I have financed my studies with a combination of adjunct teaching, one-off fellowships, borrowing and other waged work.
In conversations with senior faculty, I occasionally hear the argument that because they worked briefly as adjuncts in the 1970s and ’80s, they have firsthand experience with the conditions adjuncts face today. A judicious historical comparison reveals this is not the case.
I recently saw an adjunct appointment letter from 1981 that showed a starting salary of $1,487.70. This may not sound like a lot, but when we adjust for inflation, it comes out to over four thousand in today’s dollars, anywhere between a fifth and a quarter higher than the present starting salaries for adjuncts. Moreover, the cost of living in New York City today drastically outstrips anything our colleagues knew in the 1970s and ’80s. I recently conducted an oral history with someone who told me that in 1970 he rented a four-room apartment in Greenpoint for $83 a month, or around $550 in today’s dollars. Today, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Greenpoint is $2,600.
In other words, the financial pressures on CUNY adjuncts have worsened dramatically over the last several decades, both inside the workplace (in terms of pay) and outside it (in terms of the cost of living).
The Graduate Center
The real problem
John Krinsky’s op-ed [Clarion, April 2019, “In Defense of Fusion Voting”] conveniently omits the real role fusion voting has played historically in undermining attempts to build an authentic working-class party. In the 1930s and 1940s, following the Communist Party’s turn to its “popular front” strategy, the American Labor Party provided its line to the Democratic presidential candidate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At the time, particularly during the mass strike wave of 1934-1937, there was immense support and momentum for a democratically controlled party of workers. The same forces that undermined the drive for a Labor Party in the unions also did so in the electoral arena by providing a way for workers to vote for the thoroughly capitalist-controlled, and then Jim Crow, Democratic Party.
Likewise, the so-called Working Families Party (WFP), of which the PSC is an organizational member, uses fusion voting to shuttle votes to an even more discredited Democratic Party while appearing not to. In reality, those checking the WFP box end up providing support for the Cuomos and other capitalist politicians who have carried out a social counterrevolution over the last four decades, reversing the minimalist reforms of their predecessors.
The WFP and PSC’s fusing with the Democrats has not produced politics that can push back against austerity and inequality. Instead, the ruling class becomes further emboldened as WFP’s partnership politics undermines efforts to build a real movement, including forging its own political arm that could mount a serious challenge to the class war from above. The utter failure of WFP/PSC politics is particularly evident at CUNY in the form of the decades-long expansion of sweatshop academic labor, skyrocketing tuition and collapsing facilities.
Finally, Krinsky attributes the emergence of the WFP and its politics to the “union movement” and “organizations based in working class communities of color” in New York. Well-compensated, strike-phobic union officials, often decades removed from the shop floor, and foundation-funded nonprofit operatives, are somehow coterminous with a “movement” and organic voices of the multiracial working class. Indeed, a real movement is emerging among the working class, but it is one that aims to upend the failed, top-down, anti-democratic, class-conciliation politics pursued by the PSC at the negotiating table and by the WFP in the electoral arena.
College of Staten Island
John Krinsky responds: Jay Arena raises key strategic questions for the left: about the centrality of electoral politics; the structural possibilities open to electoral third parties, absent fusion; and the relationship of reforms to more revolutionary politics. I have neither the space nor the desire to debate either his historical or contemporary analysis point-by-point. In any case, it’s usually good to listen, rather than dismiss, voices to one’s left. At the same time, I made no representations for the WFP’s radicalism or effectiveness, though I also do not dismiss it, our union, or many nonprofit groups as hopelessly and only compromised; they are all contradictory. Yet, what a democratic movement of the working class looks like today – and how to best to build it and a world in which it will not be stillborn – is critical, and Arena does a service by raising these questions with such vigor.
There is much discussion among the Brooklyn College faculty of the weak transfer students that are perceived to increasingly populate the college. Undoubtedly, this has a racial aspect, as black students disproportionately comprise students with low GPAs. Rather than falling into the trap of “blaming the victims” and perpetuating white supremacy, we should see these racial disparities as a sign of implicit bias, which was the approach of the Obama administration.
We must take more seriously the recent direction of the college’s Center for Teaching to incorporate social justice curricula, including notions of intersectionality. When Mitchell Langbert, a Brooklyn College associate professor of business, wrote a piece that trivialized sexual assault, Brooklyn College Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Anne Lopes noted that it was not only offensive but caused harm to Brooklyn College students. If this harm comes from pronouncements online, think how much worse they are if they are made in class.
Provost Lopes has also provided leadership in another important way: requiring faculty on appointments committees to have an implicit bias workshop before beginning the hiring process. Without controlling these impulses, many otherwise qualified black candidates would not be hired. Given the dearth of hirings and the need to combat disparate grading, the provost should extend the requirement for implicit bias training to the entire faculty.
We should embrace another national trend: requiring faculty coming up for reappointment or tenure to annually submit a statement that indicates what actions they have undertaken to further diversity, equity and social justice. According to UCLA guidelines, the extent to which a professor promotes equity, diversity and inclusion is a key factor in making progress on the tenure track. This statement is part of the faculty review process at four other California universities, University of Washington, University of Pennsylvania and others.