- Interview by
- Charlie Muller
Last Wednesday, November 16, the union representing part-time faculty at the New School in New York City went on strike. ACT-UAW Local 7902 just saw its previous contract with the university expire and is in negotiations for a new contract. Striking workers say they’ve seen their real wages decline as pay increases fail to keep up with the rising cost of living; they’re also demanding greater job security for part-time faculty, who make up 87 percent of teaching staff at the New School but often receive teaching assignments just a few weeks before the semester begins.
The strike at the New School is happening while a massive strike continues on the opposite coast, with forty-eight thousand academic workers in the University of California system out since November 14 amid a broader uptick in labor organizing across the country. Jacobin’s Charlie Muller spoke with striking New School faculty about what they hope to win, how they’ve organized for the strike, and how students have been showing solidarity.
So, you’re on strike. How did you and your coworkers organize around the contract fight, and how did you get to the point where you’re on strike now?
The contract that just expired was in place for eight years. It was meant to be a five-year contract. It was extended just before COVID and then also during COVID. This was an agreement between the university and the union, understanding that everyone had to make some sacrifices and tighten the belt, if you will, during the pandemic. We saw administrators get laid off, some of the highest-paid staff and full-time faculty had to take pay cuts, and all of us on the part-time faculty side had our retirement contributions frozen.
I was elected, along with other members of the bargaining committee, earlier this year. We spent the late spring and summer planning our proposals and going over the outgoing contract as well as comparing contracts at other universities, to see what we liked, what some of the potential traps might be, what was not working in the old contract, and drafting that language. We reached out to the university to start bargaining over the summer, when a lot of us have more time.
The university stalled. The bargaining process didn’t start in earnest until the school year began, which started to be more of a burden for part-time faculty because we’re also teaching and doing our other jobs. And then, a couple of weeks into that, the university changed out their lead negotiator from an administrator to a lawyer from an outside firm that it’s retaining for these negotiations. I think that’s one of the frustrations our membership has had with that whole process.
Last weekend, our previous contract expired. That was also the deadline for our strike authorization. All sorts of voting and mobilization campaigns go on; we obviously emailed our membership. We were phone-banking and calling people trying to see if we got the votes.
But we got an overwhelming majority that we felt gave us a mandate. We had 97 percent yes and only 3 percent no, with about 80 percent turnout.
The more familiar I became with our contracts, the more I noticed practices within the university that tended to identify and exploit loopholes. I saw colleagues of mine not reappointed for their courses because they would have reached the threshold to qualify for insurance or the threshold for a certain level of job security that we currently get after eleven semesters teaching.
There was very exciting work that was happening in curricular development in the program that I teach in, which is a BFA program. We spent five years of committee work developing what we thought was a really strong structure to educate these young artists, and because of top-down decisions, a curriculum was implemented that had very little to do with that work. Major swaths of the curriculum were displaced.
The experience of the faculty was one of solitude and of being put in a position to fill gaps institutionally in terms of the student experience, community building, support, mentorship, onboarding new faculty, and curriculum. It took its toll, because we’re only paid in our contracts for what they call “contact hours,” which are the hours that we spend in the classroom with the students, which doesn’t even begin to cover creating syllabi, lesson plans, grading, or, as I teach playwrights, the reading and evaluation and feedback that goes into the multiple hours of work that we put into multiple drafts of a student’s work.
That’s all uncompensated labor. And it’s labor that we love doing. It’s instruction that we love giving. My experience has continued to sour semester by semester, feeling like I was being held hostage by my care for my students, because the alternative would be to disappoint them.
We were still on the extended emergency agreement with no annual raises, no contributions to retirement benefits, and further asked to fill in the gaps, to be in the classrooms with students, to be in studios. We’ve had to look our students in the eye and tell them we don’t have the resources to provide the education that they enrolled for.
It’s exhausting and deflating to have to look my students in the eye and tell them that. I think for myself and a large percentage of the part-time faculty, not just in my department but across the university, that pressure, that burden, became too much.
What are the primary issues that faculty are concerned about and want to win? What’s the gap between what you’re trying to fight for and where things are right now?
We have five main pillars of what we’re fighting for. I would say that there’s very much the material negotiation of salary and access to health care and things like that. Then, there’s a moral and strategic negotiation about how we shift the paradigm about part-time labor at the New School.
To go over the five main pillars, one is real raises that reflect the work we do. The two main sub-pillars of that are recognition of unpaid work, because we’re currently paid by the contact hour, which is the time we spend in class in the classroom or on Zoom. Polling some of our members, we find some people are making minimum wage or a little bit over if you count all that unpaid time.
Then, there’s just an increase in hourly rates, to take into account inflation since our last raise — we’ve encountered about 15 to 18 percent inflation. So, there has been a net decrease in our real wages.
The second pillar is affordable and more accessible health care: basically, lowering the threshold for which part-time faculty would be eligible for health insurance sponsored by the university and trying to control costs.
The third pillar is about meaningful input into our departments, programs, and curricula. That’s about compensation as well as power. We’re 87 percent of the teaching staff at the New School. But obviously, the full-time faculty represents the management positions within different programs and departments. But we are hired for our expertise; the students come to the university because of our expertise.
The fourth pillar is real recourse against harassment and discrimination, which has to do with giving part-time faculty the right to independent counsel that would be paid for by the union in case of harassment or discrimination. That would work parallel to the Title IX processes that already exist at the university. For us, this is both a justice issue at a “social justice” university but also one of equity, because the grad student workers who negotiated their contract recently have this right and currently we don’t.
Finally, we want stronger job security for part-time faculty, both longtime and newer faculty — basically decreasing the time to annualization. Typically, when part-time faculty first start in their probationary period, they’re only getting appointments to teach classes a few weeks before the semester begins. It’s very hard to plan your life around this stuff.
I’m at the point where I’ve recently become annualized, which means, as of this school year, the university had to give me my appointments a few months in advance, and I know what my teaching assignments are for the year. That’s really just the floor, not the ceiling.
I’m interested in one of your last points about the transformation of the nature of the job, like asking for more security. Is there a vision for changing the general arrangement of how part-time faculty works?
We want to change the nature of job security, making sure people have a little more stability about which contracts they’re working under, which classes they’re teaching, and knowing the future and having some commitment to becoming annualized.
That’s part of the paradigm shift I was talking about earlier. One time the lawyer hired by the university was saying, “This part-time teaching labor is not meant to replace full-time faculty.” We kind of agree, right? But this is about making it more sustainable for part-time faculty to do what we do. We have members who have been teaching for twenty, thirty, forty years even, being squeezed out. They want to keep teaching, but they’re looking at the real wages and the increase in cost of living, and they’re saying, “What the hell? Despite my decades of service to this university, how are we being treated?” It’s an issue of compensation but also dignity.
One of the things we’ve been bargaining about is the university allocating some full-time slots for part-time faculty who do want to be full time. Not everybody necessarily wants to be full-time. But is there a pathway to it that benefits people in terms of job security and compensation?
What’s the plan to win? Where do you see your power in being able to force the employer to concede on these issues?
I think it’s a combination of what happens at the bargaining table as well as what happens online, in the streets, and in our organizing.
There’s also the organizing where we’re reaching out to prominent or famous alumni. We’ve had the support of elected officials. Ron T. Kim, the state assembly member, is also part-time faculty of the New School. So he tweeted in support, saying he wasn’t going across the picket line to teach his class. [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] shared one of our photos from our picket line. And there was an open letter among city council members and state assembly members that’s being drafted and asking for people to sign on right now.
How is the strike affecting the operation of the university? What’s the impact of the strike right now with classes being canceled?
We are united, not just among the part-time faculty, but other university groups have shown their support, including the University Student Senate and the Faculty Senate, which is mostly made up of full-time faculty at the university. A majority of full-time faculty at the university has signed off on a letter of support and solidarity with us.
Students are not crossing the picket line, digitally or physically, and are out there on the picket lines with us. Parents, so many of whom pay very high tuition for their children to attend the New School are upset, and they want to know where their tuition dollars are going if not to the professors that teach their students.
Our faculty at the School of Jazz, who are part of a different unit, are also out of contract and are not crossing our picket line. Our staff and administrators — although it may not be popular in the meetings and rooms — support us. Many entire departments and majors at the university have completely suspended courses. Until the resolution of this matter, public events are being canceled and suspended. The public is with us.
Our plan is to take the vast energy of the vast majority, not just of our unit, not just of the part-time faculty, but of the entire New School community, into the bargaining room with us, into that Zoom meeting, and ask the university what its plan is — if it’s ready to take the opportunity to reconnect with the New School’s founding values.
The people are energized and strong. We have more people joining the pickets every day, students joining the pickets, more people joining our open bargaining sessions and hearing the way that we are treated by the folks that say they respect us so much.
This is the most creative and most resilient community I have ever been fortunate enough to be a part of, and we are just getting started. So, hopefully, we are able to resolve this quickly, but we are ready to continue for as long as necessary.
The university, for its part, has sent out memos encouraging a digital version of crossing the picket line — there’s an email saying, “If you don’t feel comfortable crossing the picket line, hold your class off campus or do it on Zoom.”
I don’t know what’s happening with individual professors’ Zooms. But part of our strength is seeing — and personally, this is really inspiring for me — students get involved, joining us on the picket line. We’ve seen the student newspaper, the New School Free Press, cover us in their print and online articles, as well as on their social and with short videos and things like that.
So there’s that, and then, they’re getting their parents involved. We had a parent write a letter about his concern who said that we could circulate it; we’ve posted that on our Twitter account and that’s going around.
Where the university said the quiet part out loud was when their lead negotiator referred to students as customers. That’s a framing that, I think, is pretty offensive, even if it is a mostly tuition-driven university. It shows the lack of an understanding of what a university is and what higher ed is.
You and your fellow organizers have been bringing more of your coworkers in the union into participation in organizing the strike. What does that look like?
The way that we got here was through one-on-one conversations, through personal relationships with colleagues, through shared stories of similar experiences within our departments and between departments — to see and hear that what was happening in the College of Performing Arts was also happening at Parsons, Lang, and the School of Public Engagement. Through each other’s stories, we’ve been able to identify and acknowledge the systemic injustice that was happening not just at our expense but at the expense of the students. The more we spoke to each other, the more we realized how alike our experiences were.
The thing that I’ve heard more than anything else on the picket lines, in our bargaining meetings, in the hallways, and in the Faculty Center, from people coming up to me that I have never met before, is that they’ve “never met as many of their colleagues.” That’s what they say to myself and my colleagues — that they’ve never been as close to their coworkers and felt more a part of the community than they do now.
That’s the way to fight back for what we’re worth: through these conversations. through these personal connections, through community. That’s the most powerful thing I think we’ve done here.
We’ve had both open bargaining and open caucusing, which means that members of the bargaining committee can make decisions through consensus and deliberation. Sometimes, we’ll take straw polls among ourselves to vote; our membership is welcome to join our conferencing sessions, and we leave the Zoom chat in those sessions open so people can express themselves; and we have a WhatsApp group that has three hundred or more part-time faculty on it where people can chat. So, they have our ears.
Our bargaining with the university is also set up on Zoom, so our members can join as well. When the university’s lawyer breaks and talks to us like we’re errant children, our members can see that, and that spreads through word of mouth as well. So, in some ways, that’s been in our favor.
It would be in the university’s interest to characterize the union as it’s done in its public relations: as another entity, as a third party. But the people sitting at the bargaining table are the faculty of the New School.
What I’ll say about involvement in the union is the barrier to entry is low: all you need to do is care and want to get involved. What’s been so heartening is to see is an influx of newly energized folks. All you need to do is step in and want to help and start doing it. Because the union isn’t something other than us.
I think the more that folks realize that, as they have been doing, the better off we’ll be as a community within the New School as a society, because we’re not just fighting for each other and we’re not just fighting for ourselves. If we’re able to raise the bar for what people in our field are paid and what people who are working-class people in New York City, one of the most expensive and difficult cities to live in, are paid, that means that it raises the standard for other workers.
That means that other units that are not yet organized might be inspired to organize. The other units that are in contract negotiations might demand that they be taken seriously. The folks that work in other fields, who might have been on the fence about organization, unionization, or involvement in a union that exists will take that next step and invite their friends. There are so many of us that are so disadvantaged by those that choose to exploit us, and all we need to do is get together; all we need to do is stick together.
What does it mean to the students and for the students for this strike to happen? And how are they participating?
It’s been tremendous. I think it surfaces some of these issues of the unsustainable nature of part-time faculty roles. Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions. If we’re only compensated for our contact hours, and a part-time faculty member has to rush across town to teach in another school or go to a gig or freelance thing, we can’t give our full attention to our students. Even if we want to, we can’t afford to do so, and so that affects the education that students receive from us.
Before we even went on strike, there was a group of students in solidarity with part-time faculty; they organized a rally and then marched to the president’s office. This was in reaction to the framing, from the university side, of students as customers. They reappropriated that and wrote some “customer complaints” to the university president and administration. That’s a really powerful force, to see so many students on our side.