Drawing on experiences with Occupy CUNY, the Adjunct Project, and teaching an ‘Occupy Class’ at Brooklyn College, Steve M. shares insights into the conditions for organizing around universities today. In the face of the challenges of divisions of race and class between students and workers, and across the segregated city, Steve highlights the potentials for bringing militant co-research into coalitions and into classrooms themselves.
On the Adjunct Project, Occupy CUNY, and Occupy Wall Street
CW: How did you get into radical organizing, particularly in relation to universities?
Steve: I sort of got radicalized in college, partly through my own reading, Chomsky and stuff like that, and a couple left-wing professors, one in particular that was a mentor to me and was active in union organizing on campus among the clerical and food service workers. He was someone I stayed in touch with even after college, someone that was very influential and inspirational in my life. I did a master’s degree a few years after that. I wasn’t too active on the campus there, although there was a failed graduate student union drive that was happening during my first semester. I wasn’t too active although I had a few friends who were, and I thought about students as workers in a new way because of that.
By the time I got to CUNY, I had been back in New York City for four or five years, and I had gotten involved in some anarchist groups that were doing various things around the city. So, I had my politics pushed in that direction and developed a lot over those years. Just as I was getting to the CUNY Grad Center, there had been a flurry of autonomous activity there, including a CUNY Social Forum that some folks organized in my first semester. There was a lot of energy on campus and across the university, which has 18 or 20 campuses. That sort of dissipated, and I wasn’t enough of an insider at the time to figure out why, but most people attributed it to difficulties between anarchists and cadre organizations. There’s a whole alphabet soup of groups on the left in New York City that are active in CUNY, and some have been for years or decades. I think a lot of people felt at that time it was just impossible to work and these groups were sabotaging things.
Then, I got active in The Adjunct Project, which is sort of an arm of the student government at the Grad Center that organizes part-time adjunct faculty. There were a few of us that were active and did some things over those years. I think, in the past year, with Occupy kicking off in New York CIty, that really coalesced a lot more people and adjunct and student stuff in general.
CW: Are you still involved in The Adjunct Project?
Steve: Yeah, it’s kind of gotten folded into the Occupy CUNY Graduate Center General Assembly (GCGA). Most of the Adjunct Project paid staff and most of us who are active with it kind of organize through the GCGA now, but there’s still stuff going on. Our union’s been sort of stalled in dormant contract negotiations for over a year now, kind of waiting it out for a better time to come to an agreement. So, we haven’t been too active on that front, but there was a big fight last year over preserving adjunct health care, which looks like it will be preserved in one form or another. So, yeah, the Adjunct Project is still going.
CW: Could you give a brief update on the Adjunct Project and these contract negotiations? [follow-up on 4/30/13]
Steve: This year there has been some organizing in response to a new set of fellowship packages that incoming students will get, with 40% more money and half the teaching load. This will create a division between students with the current fellowship packages and incoming students. The packages were announced in an interview with the Grad Center’s President Bill Kelly who referred to his efforts to challenge the “roach motel” model of graduate education, and to his efforts to use “carrots and sticks” to get students to finish degrees faster. Recently two of the paid Adjunct Project organizers were told they would not be rehired for next year by representatives of the student government– it is not clear what form the Adjunct Project will take after that, or the relationship of the AP to CUNY organizing in general. The CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein stepped down last week and will be replaced by Kelly. Contract negotiations are still at a halt, though the union seems to have designs on playing Democratic mayoral candidates off one another in hopes of securing a better contract that was achieved by SUNY unions.
CW: Could you tell us more about the work you’ve done with Occupy?
Steve: Yeah, I was only peripherally involved at Zuccotti [with Occupy Wall Street]. I started going down on the second weekend, the march when the two young women got pepper-sprayed. I remember thinking that day that there was a lot going on, a lot of new faces. It wasn’t the same old folks that I’d been seeing around the New York City scene for years. It just felt very fresh. So, I started going down. I went to a few working group meetings here and there. But I never got involved with Occupy as such, although I went to the big mobilizations and defenses of the park. It was more through the Graduate Center GA, Occupy CUNY, that I got active this year.
CW: Could you say more about how Occupy CUNY got started and what’s been going on with that?
Steve: Very quickly, within a month after things started happening downtown, there was a call for folks to get together and have a general assembly, and we started meeting in the cafeteria, which is one of the few public spaces in the Graduate Center building. It’s on the top floor in a big open space with a skylight. So we started meeting Friday evenings, and it quickly ballooned; the biggest assembly we had was about 120 people. Adjunct Project meetings had tended to be anywhere from six to twenty people over the few years before that. So, this was way more people than we’d seen getting active. This fall, there was a vote over whether to increase the tuition or not, so that brought out some big demonstrations in November, including one where some students were arrested and sort of roughed up by some cops on the Baruch campus where our Board of Trustees meets. So, there was a lot of activity: a big march one day, where students from CUNY, NYU, and the New School all met in Union Square. There were a couple thousand: the biggest student mobilization I’ve seen, and speeches going on in the north end of Union Square, and then a big unpermitted march through downtown, that included the New School occupation there. Then, we joined up with the bigger march down on the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. So, that sparked a lot of activity. People were getting involved in doing jail support, outreach to media, there was a group doing a lot of street theater, holding impromptu political theater performances in the cafeteria, satirical weddings of the Chancellor of our university with corporate interests, and things like this. People were plugging in in different ways, creatively. Putting a lot of writing skills, web skills, all of this together. It was a really exciting time, a lot of people who hadn’t been active before got involved and stayed involved. It was cool to see people come up to speed quickly on consensus process and facilitation, setting up working groups and everything.
M1 March in NYC at Brooklyn Bridge (via)
CW: What kind of collaboration and coordination has there been between Occupy CUNY and other Occupy things going on around the city, like the main OWS but also the other Occupy offshoots at other schools?
Steve: There was a big all-city student assembly going on in Washington Square Park on a weekly basis for awhile, and I think people are trying to reconstitute that now. That was mainly NYU, New School, CUNY, and some Columbia students as well, and maybe some Fordham students and some other schools around. So, there was some coordination going on there. A few of the people who are most active on the Grad Center campus are also plugging into the general assemblies and other working groups down at Zuccotti. So, I think there was a lot of overlap in terms of who was involved in what. So, there was a pretty broad coordination among students.
One of the first things Adjunct Project folks did was to hold a one-day teach-in, sort of pop-up university thing, down at Zuccotti. I think that was a pre-cursor to the first Grad Center general assembly. People were teaching on things like student debt down in the park. So, there was a lot of back-and-forth. Students would come out everytime that word would get out that the park was threatened with being cleared out by the police. Students had email chains going around and would be down there pretty quickly.
M1 Radical Lunch – Political theater at the CUNY Graduate Center on March 1, 2012 Day of Action for Education (see more pics here)
Inter-linking Occupiers: Across the Education System, Policing, and Housing
CW: Considering how the education system has vertically stratified levels—between primary, secondary, and colleges—what kind of organizing has happened to connect with the lowers levels of the education system?
Steve: There were a few groups challenging the Department of Education in the city, which has become increasingly vertically oriented, with the mayor controlling everything. Up to about ten years ago, there was a board of education with representatives from districts, closely connected to parents, and teachers having more of a say. Most recently, the Department of Education has moved to close some schools that they consider under-performing according to standardized test scores. So, there are some really rowdy and big protests at these PEP meetings (Panel for Education Policy), which was the board that rubber-stamped these school closings. So, the Occupy movement got involved in that. A bunch of us went to marches in Brooklyn, and this one high school Brooklyn Tech that’s got a big auditorium where most of these things happen. A few times, the folks who were occupying these meetings were able to drown out and really disrupt the proceedings there.
There’s also a sort of division within CUNY between the Graduate Center and the other colleges. When you get higher up in our university, the make-up of the students and the faculty too looks less and less like New York City, demographically speaking, racially speaking. So, there’s some disconnects between Grad Center students, many of whom tend not to be from New York, tend to be whiter, wealthier, or from wealthier backgrounds than people in the community colleges or in the four-year colleges. So, that was a challenge, trying to coordinate efforts between grad center students and undergrads.
CW: How about connecting these education struggles with struggles happening in marginalized communities? Particularly thinking about how, at the lower levels of education, students are pushed out through disciplinary mechanisms. Through tracking and segregation of schools, they’re prevented from moving on to the higher levels, and they’re pushed out into neighborhoods where there’s heavy policing and pushed into the prison-industrial complex. Are there any attempts that you’ve seen through this Occupy kind of organizing to connect organizing around education struggles with organizing around those sorts of issues?
Steve: Not as much as I’d like to see. There are a few Grad Center students who are active with youth organizing in Queens and Brooklyn and other places, and a few folks who were involved in some high school walkouts to protest school closings and that were youth-led. This ‘Stop and Frisk’ issue, it’s been a big thing in New York where hundreds of thousands of time a year, mostly young men of color are stopped by the police for no particular reason and asked to empty out their pockets and show identification. It’s a big linchpin in the pattern of racial profiling. There’s been a movement to bring that to an end and stop some of those practices. Grad Center folks have showed up to marches and things but there hasn’t been as deep a connection as I’d like to see.
The Free University that was done on May Day touched on issues much broader than just the university, issues of policing and others. But I don’t think those links have been made fully enough as they could be.
May Day Free University in Madison Square Park (May 1, 2012) – with Professor David Harvey speaking in front of the statue (see more pics here)
CW: Do you have thoughts on what the challenges are to making those links?
Steve: It’s hard to say. There’s so much going on and we have our hands full. You could devote your whole life to fighting against all the terrible things going on within our university. I think it’s difficult to make those connections. At least at the Grad Center, there’s also the issue that many of the people aren’t from these neighborhoods that are affected by things like Stop and Frisk and don’t have real personal connections to how terrible it is. So, there’s a natural tendency to prioritize things that affect you like student debt. That’s another division. A lot of grad students come into the program with tens of thousands of dollars of student debt. But many undergrads—CUNY is still relatively inexpensive—can get out without taking on any debt at all. So, a lot of Grad Center students are active in the anti-student debt struggles, but it doesn’t really kindle the undergrads in the same way.
CW: I imagine that the anti-student debt issues doesn’t really kindle the passions of people who are pushed out of high school and don’t have much of a chance to go to college.
Steve: Yeah, there are a lot of divisions there. There’s an interest in connecting up these struggles, but we haven’t quite figured out how to do it. I think the space of Zuccotti was so wonderful, partly in that way that people interested in a whole host of different issues could come together and start to build those connections. So, I think that space is really important in that way. We haven’t figured out quite how to take space again in a way that was as powerful.
There’s also been some housing struggles. A lot of friends have been organizing around stopping foreclosures, occupying homes that are in foreclosure, trying to fix them up. That’s going on in pretty far-flung neighborhoods and working class neighborhoods across the city.
CW: That sort of organizing, Occupy Homes stuff, seems promising to me, because it’s shifting the space where the organizing happens into neighborhoods where marginalized people live. It seems like Zuccotti Park might have been pretty far from where people in marginalized communities could travel to regularly. But doing that kind of home eviction defense stuff, you have to go to the neighborhood and build relationships with people around houses, and maybe through that kind of relationship-building, you can connect with the kinds of networks of cooperation that already exist in those neighborhoods.
Steve: Yeah, I only participated once or twice in those kinds of things, but it seemed very exciting. I can remember one big march when an occupied home was announced publicly—they had been doing repairs covertly for a couple weeks and they kind of came out that day. There was a big march in East New York and people in the neighborhood were out and seemed very excited to see stuff going on. It was a cool moment.
The Occupy Class: An experiment in occupying our education
CW: Let’s step back and talk about the class that you and J. did, the Occupy class. Could you tell me all about that – how did it start, what did you do in it?
Steve: In November of 2011, J. was offered to teach this class in political science at Brooklyn College. He was not able to do it himself (that amount of work at the university) according to his fellowship for that year. So, he had the idea to throw it out to the list and to see if anyone was interested in collaborating, maybe getting somebody else’s name on the class and we could teach it as a group. I think about eight of us met up in December to start planning. Two of those folks ended up stepping back from it before the semester began. So, six of us continued on planning it, and we came up with a syllabus over the winter break. We were each coming from different areas. One guy, A., has a lot of political economy and economics background, and he came up with some lesson plans and readings for that. J. also did some stuff on Marx, on capital, and on the creative economies and on the appropriation of radical imagery. We had four sociologists, one geographer, and one environmental psychologist: people of different research interests, different expertise. We got together and hashed out readings for the first half of the semester, and figured that we’d collaborate with students on figuring out the second half of the semester’s syllabus.
A few of the people teaching were really interested in pushing the pedagogy beyond lecturing and the standard discussions. R.—who is one of the teachers who ended up stepping back from the course after a month or two—was really hip on Augosto Boal and Theater of the Oppressed, and we worked some of those exercises into the syllabus. For awhile, we were doing one exercise every week. We put together some great readings, some things we were familiar with and wanted to share with others and other things we had heard about and wanted to read ourselves and to discuss with the students.[Download the Syllabus for the course here: First Half (by the instructors) – Second Half (by the students).]
So, we took it from there, and it attracted sort of a core of the main organizers on the Brooklyn College campus. So, that was great to see. We wanted to give them a venue to talk through some of these ideas and think through their organizing and how they could take what they had done further. Then there were about 24 students registered, and of those, maybe half were pretty active on the campus, and another quarter of them were sympathetic but not necessarily too active, and then there were a handful of students who were apolitical or even Republicans. So, we had a whole range of people in the class, but I think with that the core of activists gave us a sort of shared ground for a lot of good discussion. [Read a Tumblr blog with some class discussions here.]
CW: How did the student collaboration on choosing the readings for the second half of the class go?
Steve: It ended up being kind of disappointing to me. We did a general assembly style mid-way through that was designed to be the venue where we’d figure out directions for the class. I don’t think we devoted enough time for it, and some of the students weren’t really up to speed on the process, and we didn’t cover as much ground in the class as we had hoped to. It ended up being a little more rushed and authoritarian than I think some of us would have liked. There were also some students who were pushing for a more conventional pedagogy, who were uncomfortable with what they saw as disorganization or they felt like there was not security of knowing what assignments were going to be due when and being able to plan out. I think we responded to that kind of vocal minority of students who wanted more conventional stuff by setting aside some time at the beginning of class for some more straightforward lecturing. So, that was a little disappointing. I’ve had experience with some of these student-led classes at the Grad Center, and as much as I wish that a good syllabus and a good direction can emerge from a fully democratic process, I think the better experiences I’ve had were the ones where someone had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish in a semester’s course and a syllabus, and kind of put that forward, with some room for flexibility but with kind of a through line and a gameplan that could be modified according to people’s wishes.
So, some of the problems that we saw with the militant research class that we had done as students at the Grad Center among ourselves kind of popped again in this class. What we hoped would be a more egalitarian and democratic process of deciding what the course is all about, ended up getting a little messy, and we kind of pulled back and took a more ‘we’re the teachers so we’ll figure it out’ kind of direction.
CW: Do you feel that there could have been ways you could have prepared the students more for that egalitarian, student-controlled kind of approach?
Steve: I think so. If we had devoted more time to it, that would definitely have been possible. I think it might also have been a good idea to just have an assignment be for students to develop a session’s worth or half a session’s worth of readings and activities for the classroom, rather than making it ad hoc so that if someone wanted to have input, they could, and if they didn’t want to, they didn’t have to. So, I think it would have been better to have the whole semester sussed out from the beginning, and then open it up to shifts if students wanted to. If there was something that we weren’t covering or ways we weren’t doing it, then we could change it. But, I think it would have been good to have the full plan from the beginning.
CW: What sort of projects did the students do in the class?
Steve: There was a range. We had one group who did a project as an action on the day after May Day, which was a sit-in at the college president’s office.
CW: How did that go?
Steve: It went well, although one of the students in the class was arrested, which was no fun for her, but it did draw some attention to what was going on. I think that they overall felt pretty positive about the day. Other students did a media project documenting that day of action. They videotaped the sit-in and the college president’s response to it. She happened to be in one of their classes giving a presentation later that afternoon. They did a great video exposing what the college president’s attitude towards student protest and student input on the university was.
We had a couple students who did a sort of video performance art piece about gender. They researched feminist video art from the 70s and 80s. They made a video of themselves shaving their head, and did some writing about how walking around with a shaved head affected them and the way people reacted to them.
We had a few students who did more conventional research papers. One of them was on the Spanish Civil War and the Spanish anarchists. Another was on the Internet and popular protest over the last few years. We had a student who did some interviews with craftspeople, carpenters, who were active in the Occupy Housing movement. Another videotaped a bunch of the Occupy Wall Street marches, and did some interviews and media analysis about the way the Occupy movement was being covered in the news. That was one of the best projects. Another student did some work on a curriculum for an afterschool program she was designing, looking at radical history and black history, and figuring out how to present that to high school students. We did presentations over the last two days of the course. So all of the students got to see what the other students had been working on.
CW: So, do you feel like these projects and what the students learned was useful for them in their organizing? Do you think they carried on some of these projects? In what sense do you think the effects of this course were symbiotic with their own organizing?
Steve: We didn’t get formal evaluations. The department doesn’t require them or didn’t give them to us. So it was just sort of informal: some of the students giving testimony at the end of the semester on how it affected them. Talking informally, we had a little barbeque for the class after the semester ended. I think a lot of them felt it was a good space for them to think through ideas. One student said in class that it was like the reading group she had always wanted to do but was never able to make the time for. She had a chance to read and discuss some theoretical stuff, which when they’re organizing were usually given over to whatever upcoming actions were happening. So, I think that was something that I was hoping would happen, and I was glad to see.
I think one of our co-teachers was a little disappointed. I think he wanted some kind of political basics put out, to make sure everyone had a fundamental background, and I think he was a little disappointed in that. Or felt that it was less organized than he would have liked to see, or not as much straight content delivered. But, overall, I felt like it was successful. A few of the less political students seemed to feel like they had been given a window into some of this thought and some of this activity that they hadn’t seen elsewhere and were more sympathetic because of that.
CW: Was this a good teaching experience for you? Would you do it again?
Steve: It was. It was actually my first college teaching experience. So, it was great to sort of have that kind of supportive environment, offering a class with friends. I had a slight fear of being up in front of a class and teaching that way, so for me it was a great way to get my feet wet and to try some different things. I felt more confident about teaching after it. I feel like I learned a lot. A few of the co-teachers have been teaching for awhile, so I learned a lot about kind of the nuts-and-bolts of putting a syllabus together, lesson-planning and stuff. I was a big proponent of some of these Augusto Boal games, which I’d like to see worked into my teaching elsewhere. They made some people uncomfortable, some people felt like the classroom wasn’t the place for it, but a lot of the other students really responded well to them, and felt like it opened up a connection for them that they didn’t often see in the classroom. It ended up being a lot of work. We may have had the idea that five of us teaching would mean one-fifth the workload of a normal class, but it ended up being more because of all the communication it required, every time a student came up a with a question or a complaint, we’d sort of have to discuss amongst ourselves what sort of response we were going to make. Figuring out each week or responding to the many crises as they came, it took a lot of time. If we did it again, it might be with fewer people. The money was low, but I don’t think any of us were doing it for the money. We were splitting an adjunct salary, essentially. It ended up being only $400 or $500 for each of us. But, it’s definitely something I’d do again. Students were asking, ‘are you guys going to be doing something next year?’ So, hopefully sometime down the road we’ll be able to continue it in some form or another.
CW: Did you do anything with that in relation to the Free University teach-in?
Steve: We didn’t do anything with the class as such, although many people came to the Free University and a few of the students were active in organizing. So, there was some connection there. It seems to have some momentum.
Actually, that’s a good example of some of these connections you were talking about earlier. There’s a group of Free University people who are setting up a kind of pop-up university in a park in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn over the summer , and touching on a lot of the issues, Stop and Frisk and housing, that we were talking about earlier. So, it’ll be great to see how that progresses.
CW: You mentioned that militant research class that you and others had done before. Can you say a little about that and how that went?
Steve: I think there now have been three iterations of it. I participated in the first two, and I think there have been one a year. It was three years ago that the first one was, and that was the one that was most clearly organized from the start. M. had put together a syllabus on Italian autonomist thought and stuff connected to that, and it included a ton of great readings. There were probably twenty of us who participated in it in one form or another, and a core of eight or ten who were there most weeks. We set it up on a rotating presenter basis, so each week two people would figure out how to work through the readings in the class, whether it would be some presentation or some visual aspect to it. So, I think a lot of us got a lot out of it.
The next year we did it again, and this was set up in a way so that there was no professor in the room but it was an official class, so if you needed the credit you were able to get it. I forget how we did the grade each time, but I think it was basically you gave yourself the grade you wanted, either that or everyone got As. The next year we did it in a kind of more informal way, which I felt ended up being problematic. I think a few of us came up with a kind of skeleton syllabus with a few possible things to do in several of the classes, and we kind of opened it up to everyone who showed up on the first day. There were probably twenty-five people who showed up who we thought were going to participate, and almost everyone had some input into what the syllabus was going to be, but then it turned out that many of those people who were there on the first day weren’t regular participants. So, sometimes on days that had been planned out, it ended up that no one who showed up was particularly interested in discussing what that day had been planned for. So, I think that disorganization was disappointing to a lot of people. The attendance wasn’t as consistent. There were some days when almost no one showed up and some days when there was a pretty good turnout. That was a much less focused course. We were touching on everything from radical pedagogy to popular struggles in Bolivia and Mexico and student movements and really all over the map. A lot of great texts and great discussions, but a lot of people felt it was diffuse and didn’t have that through-line that the first iteration of the course had.
I think that the one this past semester, although I haven’t participated but just from what I’ve heard, has had similar problems of people feeling like it hasn’t lumped together as well as it might have.
CW: Did any sort of collective militant co-research projects emerge out of any of those classes that happened?
Steve: No. We keep sort of throwing out ideas about that, but I don’t think anything emerged formally.
CW: Do you think they are useful for your own research projects?
Steve: I think so. I think it’s probably informed a lot. Many of us who were in those classes are really involved in what’s going on lately.
CW: Can you talk about that in relation to what you’ve been working on?
Steve: My own research is historical. It’s not really collaborative research. I do work on the history of union halls in the US labor movement.
Some of the Adjunct Project stuff has been informed by militant research, looking into the way the university is run. Some of the projects that come out: people have done these posters. There’s one, Occupy the Octopi [small version; 11X17 version], which has an image of an octopus in the center of the poster, which is supposed to be the corporate university, with tentacles reaching out and with facts and figures about the Graduate Center and CUNY in general, in terms of salaries of the top administrators and changes in tuition over the years since it was free in the 1970s. A lot of that kind of investigation of what the university is and how it works—and thinking about how that information can be presented in a popular way—I don’t know if I can say that it was directly inspired by the militant research class but I think it was in the same vein.
CW: I think it’s interesting that you’re interested in militant research but you’re doing a more traditional kind of research for your academic work while you’re also involved in organizing outside the university that’s somewhat separate from your research. That reminds me of a critique I’ve heard of militant research, or generally of attempts to integrate scholarship and activism, that it can be a way to recuperate or co-opt movements for careerist, academic purposes. That person also argued that we should engage in university struggles and also engage in movement struggles, but see both of them as sites to be changed, and to be really careful about mixing them. Do you have any thoughts on those tensions?
Steve: I don’t have a strong position on those. I guess I haven’t seen any work being done under the name of ‘militant research’ that I would feel is parasitic on movements going on at CUNY. I was talking to someone the other day saying that I was surprised I haven’t heard of anyone write a PhD thesis on Occupy. So many of us spent a lot of time down there over the last year, and it would have seemed like a natural project for an anthropologist or a sociology student.
Just as an aside, I thought of another militant research kind of thing. This is just starting getting off the ground. We found that the Kroll group, the private security firm, was hired to do an investigation of the beatings and arrests of the students at the Baruch campus that I mentioned earlier, outside the board of trustees meeting in November [see video here]. This was the same group that had been hired by the UC campuses, the students who were pepper-sprayed when they were sitting down. So, we sat down and did a little research, and one of the guys doing research found some corporate ties. Kroll was owned by a holding company that had investments in privatized education. That didn’t make it into any sort of official reports that anybody did, but I think that some of the information that emerged from that wound up in some of the street theater that people were doing around the corporate university and how it’s corporatized.
So, the tensions: I don’t feel strongly either way. I think I would take things on a case-by-case basis, on whether the realm of your research should be separate from the realm of your activism. I don’t have a broad statement to make about that.
Organizing across Divisions and Academic Cycles
CW: Okay, now for a big question: what do you see as the biggest obstacles and limiting conditions to radical, anti-capitalist organizing at and around universities today?
Steve: I think there are some that have always been there. One is the short time-span of most people’s engagement in the academy. Some of us grad students have been at it a long time—I might be in the 25th grade or something. But most people are on a campus for four years and it probably takes them a year or two to get grounded and make connections with people and to get set and know what’s going on and what buttons to push to make some change. They’re probably on their way out, and often there will be a wave of really hardcore organizing and people doing radical stuff, and they’re focused so much on what they’re doing that they may not bring along the next sort of mini-generation of students. That sort of cyclical nature of things is a challenge to overcome. Then, on the CUNY campus, apathy is a big thing. Students feeling like, ‘hey, I’m only here for a couple years. Even if there is a tuition bump by $250, it’s still a pretty good deal. Is it worth my time to get involved?’ The administration has a very long view of things, and it’s pursuing the privatization of our university very gradually, very piece-by-piece, picking its battles in a very strategic and systematic way. The students and adjuncts are getting pushed around and stepped on piece-by-piece, and it’s hard to see the whole picture in the way that the people controlling the university do. A challenge is to make a response to that and to build solidarity where people may not be affected by one terrible thing going on somewhere else in the university. Can they connect it up to some terrible things that might be coming down the pipe to them?
A particular thing at CUNY is a lot of the race and class divisions. I don’t think we’ve figured out a way to bridge those. A lot of energy is devoted around those at the Grad Center and places like Hunter. Actually, I think our class was a really nice way of bridging Brooklyn College, the undergrad organizers, and the Grad Center, and I think a lot of strides were made in making those connections on a kind of personal and social level, building trust there. I think that’s been good and hopefully that will be extended—maybe doing a class like this at Hunter and maybe elsewhere in the university would be a good step.
CW: Taking up a few of those points—how to deal with the problem of the cyclical nature of organizing, and also building solidarity across different groups—what about the question of connecting with other kinds of workers on campuses and around campuses, like staff, service workers, maintenance workers? Consider how, traditionally, those who were in unions at least had more long-term investment in the place and more historical memory, and also seeing the connections across the student-worker division. Consider how students can see workers engaged in waged exploited labor and think, ‘oh that’s my future. I’m becoming a worker.’ Do you have any thoughts on that kind of student-worker relationship building, if in your organizing experiences there that’s been attempted or what you see as challenges to that kind of solidarity building?
Steve: I haven’t seen that much of it. There have been a few campaigns at Hunter College, maybe two years ago. There was some action going on amongst cafeteria workers, and there was limited support for them there that emerged. Most of the clerical staff are also in our union, so there’s kind of a natural link-up there. The issue of security guards is a trickier thing. They’re the ones that we see pushing us around at demonstrations. The university has been trying to cut back on their costs for security lately, and moving towards non-union contractors and things like this, and I don’t think we’ve responded in an organized way.
There’s a student who just left the grad center who was active at the University of Washington at Seattle. And I think they had an effective campaign about two or three years ago linking up their janitorial workers organizing with students and adjuncts. That seemed to emerge out of some small organizations that were really committed to that, and a few committed activists really making personal connections with workers.
CW: Yeah, I talked with some folks at Washington about that. I heard that up in Quebec as part of the student uprisings, one way that some of the organizing has happened has been through these assemblies that happen on a department-by-department basis, and that includes faculty and students. I’m not sure if staff are involved in those also, but I was thinking it would be awesome if possible to have general assemblies with everybody who works in a particular building or a particular department, where it’s undergrads, grads, staff, maintenance workers, everybody. I don’t know, has anything like that been tried in the organizing there in New York?
Steve: Not that I’ve seen. I think we sort of pay lip-service to the general assemblies being open to everyone who is a part of the university, but we mostly see students and a few professors who are supporting the work come out for it. So, I think it would need to be not just declared open to everyone, but I think folks would need to be organized to come out. It’s something I would like to see more of.
CW: I feel like one of the biggest obstacles there to making that kind of organizing inclusive is the divisions between different groups: workers, students, different kinds of workers. Within those divided groups, people have informal networks of relationships, kind of informal communities, but to actually build relationships across those groups takes really serious, intentional on-the-ground conversations with people, like what you could do through union organizing. It’s interesting to me that, at CUNY, grad students are in the same union as clerical workers there. Do you feel that having a union already presents an obstacle to building those kinds of relationships, or do you feel that there are opportunities through the union for building those relationships?
Steve: I think it leads to opportunities. You sort of know who is active through the higher education officers at CUNY, the people doing the sort of administrative work. So, there are at least a few people at the Grad Center who we know are really connected through these networks in the union and who can turn out people to the demonstrations or events that we’re having. I think some people have thought about the idea of whether it’s a good thing overall that grad students and adjuncts are in the same union as full-timers, particularly when contract negotiation comes around. I think the last raises were negotiated on a percentage increase basis, which only exacerbated the gap between what people are being compensated for the same work. Some people kicked around ideas on our listserves about trying to get a separate union. But, that seemed very difficult, and that even if possible might not be worth the trouble.
Steve M. is a graduate student and instructor at CUNY. This interview was conducted on 6/19/12.