Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 25, 2017

CUNY Struggle

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

In the two decades I spent working as a programmer at Columbia University, I used to read the Chronicle of Higher Education to keep up with trends in information technology but also consulted this trade publication for its coverage of issues relevant to my Marxist politics such as the “culture wars” on campus and more recently the status of adjunct professors. I had more than a passing interest in the latter since I have become familiar with their plight through my own close connection to someone who started out as an adjunct and now is a tenure-track professor.

Every time I hear about adjuncts getting shafted, I feel like getting my hands on a rocket launcher as that old Bruce Cockburn song goes. Can you imagine what it is like to spend 8 years getting a PhD and only to become what amounts to contingent labor with zero benefits? In 2013, an 83-year old adjunct professor named Margaret Mary Vojtko died of a heart attack. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette written by a United Steelworkers lawyer read like something Victor Hugo might have written:

Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct professor who had taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, passed away at the age of 83. She died as the result of a massive heart attack she suffered two weeks before. As it turned out, I may have been the last person she talked to.

On Aug. 16, I received a call from a very upset Margaret Mary. She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress. She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity — a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court.

As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.

Meanwhile, in the past year, her teaching load had been reduced by the university to one class a semester, which meant she was making well below $10,000 a year. With huge out-of-pocket bills from UPMC Mercy for her cancer treatment, Margaret Mary was left in abject penury. She could no longer keep her electricity on in her home, which became uninhabitable during the winter. She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

My interest in the plight of adjuncts motivated me to attend a panel discussion at last weekend’s Historical Materialism conference titled “CUNY at the Crossroads: A Discussion of Campus Organizing”. It was truly an eye-opener.

Andy Battle, who is an adjunct at Hunter College, spoke first on “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Austerity’?” He put CUNY’s various problems, including its fiscal difficulties, into the context of a capitalist economy in decline. At one time NYC was a virtual Scandinavian type social democracy with subsidized or public housing (much of it upscale like the Ruppert-Yorkville Towers I live in), rent control, powerful trade unions and—most of all—a City University system that was not only on a par with elite private institutions but totally free.

All that changed as NYC’s tax base eroded and a series of presidents, including Democrats, abandoned New Deal principles in favor of neoliberalism. The crowning moment was when Gerald Ford told New York to “drop dead”.

Despite attempts to marginalize CUNY, it remains integral to the social and economic fabric of the city and is particularly attuned to the needs of the city’s working class, minorities (majorities perhaps?) and immigrants. Battle cited some highly revealing statistics. 77% of the 250,000 undergraduates were people of color, 36% were immigrants and 60% came from families in which the household income was less than $30,000.

Just as such working class people face ruling class attacks on the job and on the streets from the cops, so do they face cutbacks and rising tuition at CUNY. Ideally, the students and the professors, especially the adjuncts, should share a common class outlook. It is unfortunate that the CUNY union—the Professional Staff Congress—has not fought to unite these various sectors despite having union officials and tenured professor supporters writing papers on austerity and even giving talks at the HM conference.

Next was Erin Cully speaking on “Teaching in a Gig Economy”. Cully is a PhD student in the Graduate Center and teaches American History at Brooklyn College. Her focus was on the unwillingness and the inability of the PSC to fight for the rights of adjuncts. This is related to the class prejudices of tenured professors who denigrate adjuncts and who can’t see past their own narrow professional interests even though CUNY’s decline is a threat to their own well-being. In a very real sense, the PSC has evolved into a business union despite the radical backgrounds of some of the top officials and the union’s founders such as Stanley Aronowitz.

Her talk was a kind of prelude to the talk on “Challenging Business Unionism in the CUNY System” given by Jarrod Shanahan, who is a PhD student and part-time instructor like Erin Cully. Like her and Andy Battle, he is a member of the CUNY Struggle caucus that ran against the New Caucus in the recent PSC election. The New Caucus has been entrenched in the PSC for a long time and functions like any business union officialdom. While the CUNY professors are better off with a union than without one, it has failed to act as unions did in the 1930s when they were a social movement.

I was startled to learn that the left was divided over the PSC election that takes place in 3 days. ISO’ers and others on the left formed a caucus called the New Caucus and Fusion Independents (NCFI) that tried to straddle the fence between the New Caucus and CUNY Struggle. Penny Lewis, a NCFI candidate and author of “Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory”, wrote about why NCFI was competing for votes with CUNY Struggle. Apparently, NCFI had more “accomplishments”:

Where we’re different from CUNY Struggle is that we are successfully accomplishing what we stand for. We’ve been pursuing an effective strategy of rank-and-file engagement both within the chapter and in joint action with other chapters and groups in the union that has been making a real difference: starting the chapter here, bringing GAs [Graduate Assistants] into it, creating real alliances across titles and chapters who share our vision.

I thought that Andy Battle did the right thing by emphasizing the class differences between CUNY Struggle and NCFI:

Another difference between the two slates is reflected in their endorsements. It is telling that those who have formally endorsed the CUNY Struggle caucus—including Sonam Singh, a key player in the recently-concluded Barnard struggle that won $10,000 a course for adjuncts—are connected to the grassroots and identified with the most contemporary trends in fighting for academic workers, whereas those who endorse NCFI are professors perched at the absolute highest tier of academic labor at CUNY, who make between eight and ten times what I do as an adjunct, and as far as I can tell are uninvolved in union politics or the academic labor movement at large in any sense beyond the rhetorical. This says a lot about the priorities of the respective caucuses.

You can get an idea of who supports NCFI from the endorsement of Frances Fox Piven, who has given 10,000 talks about the need for militant working class struggles but not when it comes to the PSC.

People like Frances Fox Piven and Stanley Aronowitz are just too materially detached from the lives of adjuncts to relate to them politically. Aronowitz, who like Piven fancies himself as a tribune of the working class, wrote an article for Social Text in the Summer of 1997 that would give you an idea of the class differences between him and the people of CUNY Struggle. Titled “The Last Good Job in America”, it detailed the cushy existence that Aronowitz (a former steelworker) enjoyed as a full professor:

It’s Wednesday, one of my writing days. Today, I’m writing this piece for which George Yudice and Andrew Ross have been nudging me for a couple of days. Our daughter, Nona, will return home about 3 P.M. and it’s my turn to get her off for her after-school music class and prepare dinner. As it turned out, she brought a friend home so I have a little extension on my writing time. I couldn’t begin working on the piece yesterday because I go to CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center on Tuesdays. Even so, after making her breakfast and sending Nona of to school every other day, reading the Times and selected articles from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and checking my e-mail, I usually spend the morning editing my Monday writing. But yesterday our Nona was home with a stomach bug and because Ellen, her mother, had umpteen student advisements at NYU, it fell to me to make her tea, minister the puking, get some videotapes, and commiserate. Anyway, Monday morning after my usual reading routine, I finished an op-ed for The Nation on the future of the Left. Otherwise, I would have started this article a day earlier.

What do they call this? The aristocracy of labor?

Although I try to keep up with political divisions on the left, including those that impinge on the PSC election, I had hardly any clue that it was having major ramifications such as those between CUNY Struggle and the New Caucus, with NCFI functioning as a divisive centrist bloc . Jarrod Shanahan spoke about how polarized the divisions had become with PSC President Barbara Bowen using Jacobin as a platform for the New Caucus. No big surprise there.

I invite you to visit the CUNY Struggle website and particularly see the statement “Toward a Renewed CUNY Movement” that encapsulates the spirit of the IWW and the CIO of the 1930s. If there was ever a need for a renewed trade union movement, this is a good place to start:

A CUNY movement capable of fighting back cannot be built on the basis of subordinating one group’s demands to those of another, or telling the most exploited members of the community to just wait their turn, as the PSC has done with adjuncts and students. Instead, we must be honest about what divides us and what unites us as a means of building a concrete collective power, not just empty statements of solidarity. We must ask ourselves hard questions about how and why it came to be that imposing austerity on CUNY is like taking candy from a baby for free-marketeers like our governor, who will slash public spending wherever it is easiest, and for our Board of Trustees, who are accountable to nobody so long as they do not fear a CUNY movement that could oust them altogether. We must ask why so many PSC members we talk to see no reason to authorize or support a strike believing it will have no bearing on their material situation. And we must ask why there is not broader support in NYC for a university system on which so many New Yorkers have relied for education and employment. And we must also ask why there is not more meaningful, material solidarity with other public sector employees, or other public educators waging similar battles. To the point, we must inquire, in theory and practice, how can we reverse this tide, and put ourselves in a position to not simply wage defensive campaigns in isolation, but go on the offensive for free public education and secure well-paying jobs for all in the CUNY system.



  1. The adjunct who teaches online has a tremendous workload and gets paid bupkis. There are also institutions where you are observed by persons secretely enrolled in your class (OK, I know it sounds paranoid) who are paid to ferret out remarks you make that are in contradiction with the ideology of the institution. This is mostly true of the privately owned institutions often allied with a particular religious denomination. Thus, both myself and a colleague got “teaching excellence” bonuses, but then written up as heretic, in my colleagues case, fired. There is pressure to pass students,, often allowing them to take tests over and over until passed, so as limit profit loss via student attrition.. There are exceptions to these atrocities, and the truly dreadful online programs account for perhaps 1/2 of the digital crew. That is my ballpark figure. However, in terms of total enrollment, the awful joints are some of the biggest higher ed institutions.

    Comment by Peter Myers — April 25, 2017 @ 9:24 pm

  2. Many full time profs who retire are replaced by adjuncts.

    Comment by Peter Myers — April 25, 2017 @ 9:25 pm

  3. I spent a year as an adjunct at the University of Virginia after getting screwed, along with quite a large number of other teaching assistants out of a teaching fellowship in a Saturday Night Massacre orchestrated by sycophants of E.D. Hirsch. Hirsch’s eccentric and self-contradictory ideology about teaching writing (despite some brilliant insights) provided the pretext for a thinly disguised purge of left-wing and other dissident and nonconformist elements geared toward appeasing the ever-circling Virginia reactionary right while promoting the careers of the saved. The conspirators waited like Roman assassins until the chairman of the department was out of town, then called a meeting of the Teaching Committee, which promptly fired everyone on a long list that Hirsch and his acolytes had been compiling for two years. On his return, the chairman saved a few of us, including me, by carving up unused Instructor and Lecturer positions into part-time adjunct positions for a year. Needless to say, this greatly discomfited Hirsch and his reactionary cadre of pseudo-revolutionaries.

    Eventually one of the worst arselickers–now deceased–became Chairman of the UVa Dept. of English during a period of especially precipitous decline from the undeservedly elevated standing it enjoyed during the 1970s and early 80s. Many of the others–particularly the gay ones (despite one or two prominent “out” faculty, the U.Va Department of English harbored a powerful and barely concealed current of homophobia–to the extent that it was a known career move for male graduate students who could afford the dinner-and-tennis circuit with the senior faculty to prove their straight virility by seducing the wives of their rivals)–were themselves eventually purged in the Ph.D, holocaust then in progress. This was one of the great undocumented atrocities of petty-bourgeois life in the late Seventies and Eighties, and helped pave the way for the current godawful nightmare of exploitation and repression in the university.

    The man who returned, crowing, to climb the much-diminished U.Va. English Dept. dunghill claimed fame mostly because, together with Wayne Booth at the University of Chicago, he had assisted in pulling together a mediocre website devoted to the teaching of writing, called “The Little Red Schoolhouse.” As a graduate student, despite obesity, he used to play softball for the English Department, and was reputedly known among the senior faculty as “a good long ball hitter.”

    I imagine residents near the reputed Hell’s Mouth near Cumae in Italy can still, on a quiet night, just hear faint howls of torment punctuated by the cry, “But, but. but …. Wayne Boooooooooooooooooooooooooooooth!” Ha ha.

    Three hundred or so people entered the U. Va. graduate Department of English in 1972 when I did. Roughly twenty of those “proceeded” to the doctorate, and of that cohort, perhaps four or five eventually wound up with tenured jobs somewhere. The rest have vanished like the snows of Kilimanjaro. And this was more than forty years ago–back in what many now regard as the “good old days” of Academia.

    It has always been a brutal , drunken, lubricitous, and abusive business–but apparently, as bad as it was then, nowhere nearly as brutal as it has become, for most of its victims, in the Age of Trump.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 26, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

  4. Excellent piece, Lou. I would note that, among adjuncts, there’s a tendency to embrace meritocracy as a way to resolve fights over limited adjunct jobs. Unfortunate!

    Comment by Hinch — April 27, 2017 @ 12:39 am

  5. Within the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, the current New Caucus’s predecessor, the Unity Caucus, was – from the 1970s until 2000 – a group of business unionists. And they could be counted on to help CUNY’s management cut labor costs while protecting a small and diminishing coterie of tenure-stream full-timers.
    The Unity Caucus achieved two remarkable things:
    1 – kept 20,000 CUNY workers in the PSC’s bargaining unit, while being damned sure of keeping 12,000+ of those workers in the bargaining unit *off* of the union’s membership rosters
    2 – implemented new, lower-paid salary steps for new hires, while failing to win raises that would match or exceed inflation for everyone, including the tenure-stream full-timers
    The Unity Caucus red-baited New Caucus in the 1990s, prior to losing in 2000. New Caucus immediately did a very honorable thing, and worked to enfranchise the entire bargaining unit, including low-paid adjunct college laboratory technicians and adjunct lecturers. Despite this new enfranchisement, the PSC’s New Caucus leadership saw who exercised real power within CUNY’s departments and within the PSC: tenure-stream full-timers. They still do.
    In 2007 the PSC’s Vice President quietly explained to me, a mere adjunct assistant professor, how he didn’t have 10,000 members willing to strike.
    While the membership numbers may be much improved, I’m sure CUNY’s Vice Chancellor for Labor Relations keeps a very sharp eye focused on the number of workers in the PSC’s bargaining unit versus the number of workers on the PSC’s membership roster.

    Comment by townsendharris — May 1, 2017 @ 5:15 pm

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