- Interview by
- Charlie Muller
On Saturday, December 10, ACT-UAW Local 7902, the union representing part-time faculty at the New School in Manhattan, reached a tentative agreement (TA) with the university for a new contract and ended its three-week strike. Part-time faculty members complained of declines in their real wages as pay increases have failed to keep up with the cost of living, no compensation for hours worked outside of the classroom, and a lack of job security.
Rank-and-file union members will now vote on whether to ratify the proposed contract. In the wake of the strike’s conclusion, Jacobin’s Charlie Muller spoke with several New School faculty members about the walkout and what it accomplished.
The New School and the part-time faculty union just reached a tentative agreement. What did you win in this contract?
There’s a lot that we won. And we fought for everything we won. There’s this tendency of the university to say, “We gave you this, and we gave you that.” But it was a really hard fight for at least six-months’ worth of pulling teeth, to get them to give us the respect we deserved for the first time — and they fought this, to the very end — to actually acknowledge us for out-of-classroom work. We spend a lot of hours outside of the classroom.
There were pay increases across the board that were pretty hard fought for. But at least on my part, there’s a real feeling of exhaustion at this moment. While I’m happy that we’ve gotten to this point, I think that there’s also a sense of disenchantment with the work.
I keep saying that I just want to be able to pay my bills and do my job. While I do consider myself to be a radical, this wasn’t a circumstance where I set out to be doing radical things. We’re just professionals trying to pay our bills. So, the fact that that’s controversial, somehow, is really antithetical not only to the values of the institution but to the purported values of the country that we live in. That’s something that we’re going to have to reckon with, not only with ourselves but with our students now. I’m trying to figure out what I am going to say to my students after this whole month of a fight.
What we were trying to do is reduce the precaritization of part-time faculty. We all have suffered under not having much job security until you have worked there for a while, and people being let go, even people with seniority, who are suddenly deemed not eligible to teach a course, because the university changes the rules.
So, we’re trying to reduce faculty precarity. We managed that; we reduced the amount of time that you have to work in order to get what’s called “annualization,” which is kind of like a guarantee of a course load. We also have gotten the university to increase the base course load, or to commit to making its best efforts to, because in order to get health care you need a certain number of hours or courses. Many of us are freelance outside of our New School teaching, so we rely on the health care.
Acknowledging out-of-class labor was something that the administration did not want to do, and we had to drag it kicking and screaming into this. We had to pull out all the stops, and this is a message to other part-time faculty elsewhere: they’re not going to give you anything. You have to shut the institution down; you have to have full solidarity; you have to inflict pain.
It’s unfortunate, because at the beginning of the bargaining, I thought, well, maybe we could go with the German model and sit down with management and have a reasonably civilized conversation about what we want. We thought we could have this sort of kinder, gentler process, but they went and got a corporate lawyer, and they went into total attack mode in order to marginalize us and to take away things we had in our last contract.
So, it took a lot of work and a lot of solidarity, but the community came through, and we got some serious gains that will set a bar for other workers
One of the things that we won that hasn’t been one of the big talking points — but I imagine will make a difference in so many people’s lives — is up to twelve weeks of paid family leave.
Back in 2018, my daughter was involved in a car accident in Ohio where she was in college. I flew out and had to stay with her for four months while she recovered. When I let the New School know that I wouldn’t be able to teach my classes, I was off payroll. If I had had paid family leave at that point, it would have made that situation a little less overwhelming. I think that’ll be a huge thing for a lot of people.
Before this contract negotiation, I was aware when new contracts were being negotiated and sort of happy when we got a contract with a few minor gains. But the open bargaining that we had in this situation let me see how the sausage is made. Now, I know how much of a struggle it is to get anything, to get any of these gains — even the most miniscule.
How do you and your coworkers feel about this tentative agreement?
I’ve been teaching at the New School for so many years. As the years progressed, I felt that there was no one who I could really go to who would represent me, or the students. I had many conversations with various students saying, “Who do I talk to? How do I get what I need? Where is everyone?”
I think that was one of the biggest things that came about from this tentative agreement. In the beginning, we were like, “Let’s shoot for the moon.” At this point, not everyone is going to be satisfied. Not everyone is going to be happy. Not everyone is going to understand the full impact. But I think this tentative agreement is groundbreaking.
So, the process now is that the union rank and file are going to vote on this. We, the bargaining committee, are going to endorse the agreement. It’s not perfect. It was a battle; it was a slugfest to get everything, and there were some losses. One of those things was grievability of issues like discrimination and harassment, which doesn’t cost the university any money, but to have a union lawyer present if you’re grieving is very powerful.
So, we lost on some of those nonfinancial things, and they hurt. We did not get as much money as we hoped. We did pretty well, but as Liz said, we shot for the moon. So, there was very much a lot of realpolitik, a lot of horse trading, to get to where we were.
I think most members understand it, because open bargaining allowed them to see how we make decisions as a bargaining committee. They could see how we decided in caucus, how consensus was gradually created through differences of opinion and a productive creative process. It wasn’t top down; we were always trying to aggregate people’s opinions on how things were going.
Is the agreement perfect? No. But it’s a good platform for the future. There’s things in there that can be built on with the next contract, like the out-of-class hours. That’s huge. And we know that the union is powerful — we’re not going to put up with any shit. That’s huge. And I think our members know this. I think the administration now knows this. Don’t fuck with us. We will stand up for our members.
As far as the gains for compensation and other matters go, am I satisfied? No, I’m not. I don’t think we were shooting for the moon, so to speak. We’re expecting parity with our neighbors. I carry both my NYU and my New School IDs; they’re literally right next door to one another. The idea that there should be such a stark difference between teaching at the institutions is just ridiculous.
At the beginning of the semester, there was parity between the two institutions. NYU just went through its own process of contract negotiation. That’s part of what made this so disappointing. Just looking at the difference between these two processes is such a horror show. Same union, in a lot of instances, same space. For me there’s a real sense of disenchantment. I don’t know what the future holds.
The fact of the matter is that we’re living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Inflation is a thing. And we’re all trying to survive and thrive. I’ve been a working artist in New York City since 2009. There are certain things I don’t do anymore, right? I’m not going to share an apartment with five other people anymore, I’m not going to have a debate over who’s going to buy the toilet paper, and I don’t work for free.
I appreciate all the work that has been done to get us to this point, and I have worked with institutions without a union. I know what it’s like to feel disposable and to feel like nobody is fighting for me. To work at an institution where there is a union is amazing — to know that there are people I can talk to and there are processes that I can turn to if I feel like something unjust is happening. So, it’s really a mixed bag. But we’re building, and that in itself feels great. There’s a foundation here.
The union fought hard and won, and that’s so satisfying. I give all props to our new union leadership; I don’t think this would have happened before these new union leaders were in place. But also, we had such strong allies in the students and in the full-time faculty, and I don’t think this would have happened without them behind us. And I expect it to be reciprocal going forward. I don’t think that those alliances are going away, and I think that that’s going to make all the difference for the university community in the future, that we’re going to have each other’s backs.
How did you win? What is the relationship between power at the bargaining table and power outside of the bargaining room?
We won through solidarity. We won through striking; it would not have happened if we did not go on strike. None of us wanted to go on strike. Who wants to go on strike? It puts your livelihood, your health insurance . . . it puts everything at stake. We took that chance, and if we didn’t, I don’t think we would have gotten anything close to what we got right now.
We won by not giving in. There were moments where concessions were made by the university, and it framed those concessions as huge. It might have been easy to divide us along certain lines: those who use health insurance versus those who don’t, those who are already highly paid [versus those who aren’t]. I learned so much from the leadership of the bargaining committee and the union leaders, where everyone was always in the loop — everyone had a chance to voice their concerns. That made us feel like part of a larger group, so it was easy to get the strike vote. There weren’t factions that were bigger than the ultimate goals of the group. I think that was a big part of how we won.
Teamwork and numbers, right? There are a lot of us; that means that we can tap in and tap out. Oppressive forces rely upon exhaustion. Somebody being able to say, “Actually I don’t have it right now,” letting somebody else step forward, is incredibly important because that gives you the stamina to be able to wait the employer out.
This is, I think, historically unique to have a digital version of opening bargaining where hundreds of people [were] logging in, observing the bargaining process, and having some agency. We weren’t just shut away in a room somewhere. It was very interesting. It was difficult at times, but it also gave people this real sense of engagement in bargaining. So, by the time we got on the picket line, we had this built-in solidarity already, through this process of open bargaining. I think this is something that will be very transferable to other labor struggles so that the rank and file is kept involved.
We’re also a unique bunch of faculty. A lot of us are creative professionals, and we like “sticking it to the man.” We’re independent thinkers; we can come up with creative solutions. A lot of us come from working-class backgrounds. This institution has a lot of “professors of practice”: people who have done stuff outside of the academy and then got jobs as a part-time thing, but they have some other kind of labor history in terms of their own life. So, that brings a proletarian mindset, which is very helpful. It’s not a hard sell to have a union at the New School.
How did the strike transform your union and you personally?
In a strange, counterintuitive way, it reaffirmed my connection to the New School. It’s made me feel a sense of possibility for change that I didn’t feel before, and reevoked all of the feelings that I had as a student and early on as a faculty member, to have been proud to be associated with the New School and its progressive history. It’s made me want to stay more involved in that.
I’m questioning what’s next. I think that I came in this semester and thought, “I can do this for a long time.” Now, I’m not exactly sure if I can do this job for a long time. I think that it’s actually not up to me — it’s up to the administration and the institution. They have to decide whether they value [us] and whether they want to retain us. It’s going to be a process of reflection; I do think that there’s going to be some fallout and restructuring in the university, and I’m not talking about the faculty. It’ll be interesting to see who quits or gets fired — who decides this isn’t for them.
The strike brought us closer together as people on the picket line, but also in terms of our sense of our interdisciplinarity . . . I didn’t really know very many people from fashion, I didn’t really know many people from music. We’re in our little silos. We have our own little problems and go to work and teach our classes and go home.
So, this sense of like, “Oh, what’s your life like?” — this intersubjective experience of being on the line with people from a vast range of disciplines, yet we had this class solidarity, which was so warm and wonderful. We realized that we were experiencing this sort of alienation from the institution, collectively, and yet we were all suffering individually, until we started to share that suffering.