New School strikers gain tentative agreement

By SAM PAGANO and ERWIN FREED

Union negotiators and school administration have reached a tentative agreement in the ongoing contract fight at the New School in New York City. The TA follows the longest strike of adjunct professors in U.S. history, lasting from Nov. 16 to Dec. 10—25 days on the picket line. Members of ACT-UAW Local 7902 will now vote on whether or not to ratify the agreement, which includes major pay raises and virtually all of the union’s demands around health care. The strike garnered massive support from the labor movement and community and sparked ongoing actions by New School students.

Roots of the conflict

The key immediate factor leading into the strike was that there had been no increases in compensation for part-time faculty since 2018. In 2020, using the pandemic and budgetary shortfalls as an excuse, the university cut 13% of its staff. Over the years, like many institutions, the New School has virtually eliminated future full-time and tenure-track positions. Currently, almost 90% of classroom teaching is done by adjuncts, whose pre-strike wage ceiling was $5753 per three-credit course.

The New School was started in 1919 as a response to Columbia University blacklists, with a mission of defending academic freedom and cultivating a spirit of free-thinking in students and faculty. These ethos have lived on, and the college has been home to militant organizing over recent years. That includes the unionization of undergraduate and graduate teaching staff, who are in the same union as adjuncts. In their local, SENS-UAW Local 7902, student teachers went on strike in 2018.

During the pre-strike negotiations, the university offered a raise that amounted to a significant pay cut, in light of inflation—around 1.5% per year—as well as significant cuts to health care. This comes as university president Dwight A. McBride earns an annual salary of over $1.4 million and lives for free in an expensive Townhome. McBride is a scholar in Black Queer studies and a biographer of James Baldwin. Despite his progressive outlook on these topics, however, in 2017 he said, “I don’t think unions, for graduate students and at universities in general, are a good thing.” His actions as president have made this position very clear.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) explained in 2020 how “the “top” at The New School, as in many other higher education institutions, has been extravagantly rewarded, and administrative expenses have grown significantly in recent years. For instance, average compensation for the 23 highest paid “executive leadership” employees was more than $430,000 in 2018. Total management salaries have increased 45% between 2014 and 2019, while total revenues have increased by only 17% in the same period. Indeed, this is the dominant trend in higher education, as high-paid executives suck up more money, class sizes grow, and teaching and research become increasingly precarious positions.

New School faculty and students walk out

The strike began on Nov. 16 after a 10-hour negotiation session proved that there was no hope of the university accepting a reasonable compromise. Adjuncts immediately shut down the school’s ability to operate, with the full-time faculty and students joining the strike in solidarity. For the first five days of the strike, negotiations were still being carried out between the union and administration, but on the 21st the union was offered what would prove to be one of many “final offers” by the university. When it was refused due to poor wage proposals, cuts to health care, and attacks on working conditions, the university walked away from the bargaining table.

Negotiations resumed around the time of Thanksgiving, while picketing had been continuous since the strike began. On Dec. 6, negotiations broke down again with the college offering an ultimatum, their “last, best, final offer,” which made no real new concessions. That same day, the administration attempted an offensive against the strike and its supporters. Molly Ragan, a strike leader, exposed on Twitter how “the New School announced it would stop paying and contributing to the health insurance of striking faculty and staff (+ student workers); TNS threatened to move forward with plans for ‘a Spring semester without our part-time faculty’; HR sent everyone notice of ‘certification of work’ forms to surveil workers.”

That only served to energize the pickets rather than intimidate them. Workers’ Voice members joined the picket line the next day, Dec. 7; in spite of miserable weather, it was huge and very energetic. Speakers discussed the inspiration from the University of California strikes and the importance for worker-student solidarity, especially on university campuses. A solidarity statement on behalf of philosophy students read in part, “We strongly and unanimously support the stance taken by faculty at the New School for Social Research, Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College against [the administration].” It made additional demands, including limiting the administration’s salaries to no more than 1.5 times that of the average worker, and called for a number of actions if the strike was not resolved, such as boycotting the Spring 2023 semester and supporting a class-action lawsuit against the university.

University Center occupied; tentative agreement forced

On Thursday, Dec. 8, a mass meeting was held, where students voted to occupy the University Center in solidarity with the strike. Within a few hours of the occupation’s beginning, the college announced that it was “taking extraordinary steps to agree to all of the union’s compensation demands, with the addition of an administrative services fee to compensate part-time faculty for their work outside of the classroom.” According to the union, this meant:

1) Substantial raises, with the largest raises going to faculty who are currently paid at the lowest rates.

2) Payment for the work we perform as teachers outside of the classroom.

3) Expanded healthcare eligibility to faculty teaching one course, no hikes to our out-of-pocket health insurance costs, and caps to annual premium increases.

4) Stronger job security for long-time faculty and newer faculty alike.

5) Paid family leave, a professional development fund, and much more.

Continuing struggle for education

The occupation remains ongoing, with the students making demands that no tuition hike be made this year—as the university has been doing year after year—for the tuition paid for the time the school was closed to be refunded to the students, and for a more fundamental change in how the pedagogy of the school is practiced, with a focus on genuine education rather than just grades.

The strike, and the administration’s aggressively anti-worker response, have sparked a wider fight for control of the university. First on Dec. 9, a mass meeting of students and staff developed a platform of 16 demands, including greater protections for international students, no retaliation for strike support, selling the president’s house, decreasing administrative pay and linking it with base pay for all workers, and disbanding the board of trustees.

At the time of writing in the early evening of Dec. 12, another mass meeting of students, staff, adjuncts, and full time faculty is being held in the occupied University Center to “formalize a coalition” named “One New School,” whose first act would be to develop a collective statement to give a vote of no confidence for the current board of trustees. Hundreds have gathered at the center for open discussion, debate, and votes on proposals, politics, and language.

The New School strike can serve as an important model for the class struggle in higher education. The key lesson of this strike is that faculty organizing is almost unbreakable if the faculty and their unions are able to organize real student support. The union directly took the initiative in reaching out to student groups for building a solidarity organization, and that solidarity organization was able to weld the students together in support of the strikers in action. Turning out students to participate in the pickets not only unleashed pent-up anger but also hammered home the need for organization—which led to the mass meetings and occupations that helped push the strike over the finish line to victory.

Strikes in academia are also immensely important for the development of the labor movement more broadly. It is clear that the New School strike has particularly energized the imagination of the students about what independent action by the working class can achieve. All of these students and their families have direct exposure to that power, and will bring it along with them long after this strike is over. The student solidarity organization is already currently discussing organizing solidarity with the other upcoming strikes at colleges in New York, notably including those of facilities workers. This marks a major extension of the class horizons of this movement beyond just faculty or grad students but also the non-teaching campus workers.

Photo: Sam Pagano / Workers’ Voice

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