Association for Union Democracy

Refomers Seek to Amplify Rank and File Voices in CUNY’s Adjunct Union

Thomas Frank, the author of the political classic What’s the Matter with Kansas, consistently invokes the “Uberfication” of the world of work in the United States throughout much of his reportage on labor in America. American workers often find themselves liberated from the constraints of a consistent and secure job at one particular employer and are able to engage in piecemeal work in essential industries. Thus, workers at UBER, among others, can rather easily find work as contractors rather than true workers. While this has some advantage for the young and fit, it is also a pain for the labor movement in attempting to organize said workers.

The one notable exception has been adjunct teachers, particularly on the east coast. Adjuncts often find themselves in the same boat as their uberized contemporaries and work from semester to semester, paid by the course. What differentiates the adjunct from many of these other categories of part-time workers is their generally favorable attitude towards unionization. New York City adjuncts (both at public and private institutions) in particular have answered the siren call of unionization and often are as receptive as any industry to organizing.

Within the City University of New York (CUNY), adjuncts (both teaching and non-teaching) are represented by Professional Staff Congress (PSC), who bargain collectively on their behalf. Recently, within the PSC, a group of adjunct dissidents known as the CUNY Struggle Caucus have challenged the status quo of their leadership, seeking an increase in adjunct pay. Currently CUNY adjuncts make roughly $3,500 per course, often resulting in a yearly salary of less than $30,000: a barely substantial living wage in an increasingly expensive city like New York.

What these adjunct PSC members are protesting, in addition to CUNY’s policy itself, is their union’s leadership and its lack of decisive action on behalf of their membership’s demands. AUD co-founder law professor Clyde Summers, in his corpus of work on union democracy, always emphasized that dissent and even intra-union strife is necessary to bring the leadership’s attention to matters important to the rank-and-file. CUNY Struggle cites the prevalence of “slates” in PSC officer elections as being an impediment to getting voices and policy ideas outside the status quo heard and considered by both the leadership and the rank-and-file.

Summers often pointed to the act of constant agitation within labor unions by reformists and dissidents alike. Even if the fate of the particular campaign that the dissidents rally around is ultimately defeated, the act of defiance and simply making alternative voices heard lays the ground for future fights, future causes, and future dissidence. This agitation is not only a sign of a healthy democracy but, more often than not, provides an extra impetus for the leadership to go to the mat for its membership.

The PSC has long been a bastion of strength for college administrators in particular, but also for teaching staff. Indeed, many CUNY full-time professors (tenured and not) are members of PSC and play a special role in the union in advocating for membership rights. The beef the dissidents have with their union is not a lethal one, however. The leadership of PSC has made sympathetic noises in the direction of acceding to the dissidents’ demand that the union advocate more militantly for the interests of adjuncts, particularly when it comes to per-class pay. Both the loud dissidence and the willingness of leadership to at least hear out such calls speaks to militant nature of the PSC, CUNY being a longtime center of political militancy, going back to the famed Alcove 1 and Alcove 2 at City College.

Indeed, the United Federation of Teachers, PSC’s parent organization, has long been a center of union dissident and reform movements. Their struggles have often been reported in the pages of Union Democracy Review. Rather than this being an indictment of either of one of these unions, it is a sign of a healthy body politic avoiding what Summers called “one-party state” unionism.

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