CUNY Workers Against Austerity

At the City University of New York, academic workers have been fighting for a new union contract for over a year. They are resisting austerity and further corporatization of the university, pushed by politicians and university administrators alike.

Unionized faculty and staff of the City University of New York disrupting the CUNY Board of Trustees meeting held at Bronx Community College on May 20, 2024. (Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images)

From Columbia University to the University of Texas to the University of Southern California, a draconian new McCarthyism has sought to discipline campus activists protesting Israel’s genocidal onslaught on Gaza. This crackdown comes amid a long-simmering crisis in higher education: a growing proportion of academic labor is being performed by an underpaid, overworked army of contingent workers, while many institutions — especially public ones — suffer wave after wave of disinvestment, foisting higher costs onto students in the form of debt.

Among the public schools facing such cuts are those that make up the City University of New York (CUNY), the twenty-five-campus, quarter-million-student system that was once celebrated as the “Harvard of the proletariat” for its high educational standards and accessibility to working-class New Yorkers. Eighty percent of CUNY students are people of color, and half come from families earning less than $30,000 a year.

Austerity measures imposed by the city and state government, however, are now threatening the university’s standards and its accessibility to less affluent students. Once tuition-free, CUNY has become increasingly dependent on tuition to fund its operations. Meanwhile, the university’s faculty and staff work in increasingly precarious conditions for worse pay.

Academic workers at CUNY have been working without a contract for over a year. The Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY, American Federation of Teachers Local 2334) — the union representing thirty thousand faculty and other staff at the university — is asking for raises amounting to 19 percent over four years (against the university administration’s proposed 12 percent), pay equity between full-time and part-time workers, and the preservation of job security provisions that the administration is seeking to undo.

The attacks on CUNY, like similar attacks on public education across the United States, amount to a broadside against working peoples’ access to higher ed and on the labor that underwrites it. In this context, the university’s crackdown on campus protests highlights the widening chasm between the avowed interests of an increasingly business-minded administration on the one hand and those of students and faculty on the other.

“An Abusive System”

Since the most recent contract between the university and the PSC expired last February, both Albany and City Hall have proposed steep cuts to CUNY’s budget. In 2023, New York City mayor Eric Adams slashed funding for the university by $155 million (resulting in 235 layoffs). Earlier this year, New York governor Kathy Hochul proposed cutbacks amounting to $529 million, although these were ultimately held off thanks in part to the PSC’s lobbying and grassroots activism, including a public demonstration and phone-banking campaigns.

The result has been to push the university toward crisis. According to an analysis by the New York City comptroller, for CUNY to stay afloat, “The city must restore planned cuts and work with the state to establish more reliable funding streams for the university system.” The New Deal for CUNY, a piece of state legislation proposed by the PSC and the community-facing  CUNY Rising Alliance (and sponsored by Senator Andrew Gounardes and assemblymember Karines Reyes), “would mandate state funding to restore free tuition; lift faculty-student ratios; increase adjunct faculty pay; enhance mental health, remediation, and other students services; and renovate CUNY campuses.”

PSC president James Davis said the university is citing fiscal uncertainty to justify “maximiz[ing] managerial discretion and flexibility.” In practice, this means playing along with government budget-slashing and leaning more and more on the labor of adjunct professors and other casual workers. “It’s really an abusive system,” Davis said. “So few of the employees at CUNY actually have access to some form of job security, whether it’s on the teaching-faculty side or on the professional-staff side.”

Of the PSC’s thirty thousand members, eleven thousand are adjunct professors, who make up a growing proportion of the academic workforce. The PSC reports that from 2018 to 2022, CUNY lost over a thousand teaching adjuncts and three hundred full-time faculty — positions that the university has yet to refill, despite the PSC’s winning $53 million in state funding for more than five hundred full-time professorships.

Now CUNY is seeking to claw back provisions that have afforded those adjuncts a measure of job security. Most adjuncts across the country are hired on a semester-by-semester basis, trapping many in career-long insecurity. But under a pilot program launched in 2016, CUNY adjuncts who teach six credits (two classes) for ten of twelve consecutive semesters qualify for a three-year appointment.

The administration’s new proposal would shorten multiyear appointments to two years and increase the qualifying threshold to twenty-four straight semesters, or the equivalent of twelve years. About twenty-four hundred adjuncts currently enjoy multiyear appointments; under the new proposal, that number could shrink to as few as three hundred.

Meanwhile, in November 2022, CUNY’s Board of Trustees awarded executive administrators a collective raise of nearly $9 million. According to the executive compensation plan, the chancellor receives a housing allowance of $7,500 a month in addition to a maximum yearly salary of almost $750,000. In contrast, adjuncts earn $5,500 per each three-credit course, meaning that teaching a full year’s courseload brings home just $22,000 — a dramatic manifestation of the growing divide between administrators and academic workers.

“A Disposable Workforce”

Many of those academic workers, at CUNY as elsewhere, are finding themselves in ever-more precarious positions. Daniel Casey has been a CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP) instructor at the Bronx’s Hostos Community College for seventeen years. (Offered at nine CUNY colleges, CLIP is a low-cost program for admitted students whose English and academic skills need polishing up.) Casey said most CLIP instructors’ employment status is so precarious that they seek additional employment outside of CUNY. Unlike adjuncts, CLIP instructors are appointed yearly. Casey said reappointment time, typically in June, sparks a “flurry of intercampus emails” among colleagues awaiting word that they will have work come the fall. “It’s so stressful,” Casey said, “and frankly, it’s demeaning.”

Casey said he needs to have expensive dental work done but is reluctant to schedule an appointment with his dentist until June, when he will know for sure whether he will be reappointed — and whether his employment-tied insurance will cover the cost. Still, because CLIP instructors are covered yearlong by their benefits, he said he is better off than adjuncts whose benefits are conditioned on their teaching six credits a semester.

Derek Ludovici, a PhD candidate in anthropology, has been an adjunct lecturer at CUNY for ten years, primarily at Brooklyn College. He said problems with classroom infrastructure are pervasive, from missing projector cables to malfunctioning Wi-Fi. One classroom Ludovici taught in recently at Brooklyn College is located above a pool; he said moisture seeped up through the floor to the point where he had trouble breathing. (An Instagram account, @cuny_brokelyn_college, is dedicated to documenting the state of disrepair at “Brokelyn” College.)

Graduate workers and adjuncts face similar hardships. Zoë Hu is a PhD student, a graduate worker, and the PSC chapter chair at the Graduate Center. Hu said the baseline annual pay for graduate workers with funding is around $29,000 (although some ninety graduate students each year are admitted without funding), and most take on adjunct work to supplement their earnings.

Hu said the primary concern among graduate students is compensation. Combined with the high cost of living in New York City, she said low — and systematically late — pay means too many end up taking on debt, getting evicted, or going hungry. “Not that long ago, the Graduate Center held a workshop on how to sign up for food stamps,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with being on SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program]. But this is what the Graduate Center is doing rather than raising our pay and compensating us for the work we’re doing.” Austerity is producing a university, it seems, that isn’t ashamed of relying on paying its grad students poverty wages.

Whose CUNY?

Tensions between university administrators, on the one hand, and academic workers and students on the other have boiled over in the past few weeks, as student encampments have cropped up at colleges across the country in protest of their institutions’ complicity in Israeli apartheid and occupation — and as administrators have sought to disband them by force.

On April 25, students at City College (CCNY) set up their own Gaza solidarity encampment. The encampment recalled CUNY’s legacy of student activism, including the 1969 occupation of the same campus by black and Puerto Rican students, who redubbed it the “University of Harlem” and demanded the college commit to racial justice reforms on campus. The following day, several PSC members picketed near the encampment. “We want to show that we stand with students, and also that our struggles are linked,” said Hu.

On April 30, college administrators called in the New York Police Department (NYPD) to clear encampments at Columbia University and City College. Police violently arrested 173 protesters at the latter and dozens more at the former.

City College demonstrators saw a connection between their demands and the PSC’s contract fight. Before it was swept by the NYPD, the encampment had called on CUNY to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s war machine; boycott academic partnerships with Israeli institutions; protect students’ and workers’ speech; reinstate faculty fired for expressing solidarity with Palestine; and bar the NYPD from CUNY campuses, among other demands — including the establishment of “A People’s CUNY”: “Restore CUNY’s tuition-free status, protect the union, and adopt a fair contract for staff and faculty.”

After the encampment at CCNY was cleared and City College protesters arrested, for its part the PSC released a statement condemning the arrests and calling on CUNY’s chancellor “to urge the district attorney to drop the charges against the CUNY students and employees arrested the night of April 30 during the NYPD sweep of the CCNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment.” The union also decried the “excessive force” police used against protesters.

CUNY’s objection to the encampment’s disruption of business-as-usual betrays a certain irony. As with Columbia, not only has the legacy of City College’s 1969 occupation been cautiously absorbed into institutional memory, but the administration itself is no stranger to disruption. As Dennis M. Hogan writes in Jewish Currents, the question is not whether anyone has the right to “disrupt” campus life, but who does. In recent years, a growing and increasingly militant academic labor movement has sought to counter college administrators’ disruptive tendencies as universities have moved to casualize their workforces, defund departments and programs that do not obviously serve the interests of employers, and remake American higher ed in the image of a corporation.

As contract negotiations between CUNY and the PSC have ground on, university administrators have refused to compromise on pay and multiyear appointments. They have also proposed bylaw changes that would shift academic authority away from department chairs (who are peer-elected PSC members) and toward college administrators, and reclassify college presidents as “chief executive officers” instead of as “principal academic officers.”

Amid the university’s bargaining with the PSC, administrators’ response to campus protests points up how CUNY students and academic workers are struggling against a top-down, corporatized, and politically sanitized vision of the university, in favor of one that serves the interests of working-class New Yorkers and lives up to the universalist ideals of a liberal institution of higher learning. The outcome of this fight will depend on the ability of students, educators, and the broader public to successfully organize together against repression and austerity.