Strikes and Occupations at The New School

Students and Workers stand up to union busting and firing by the self-proclaimed progressive private university in New York.

For three years, academic workers at The New School have been fighting for a contract. Now that bargaining nears its end, the university administration decided to launch an attack at various parts of the workforce. In April 2018, they announced taking cafeteria operations „in-house,“ initially omitting that this meant firing all the workers, and only rehiring some of them without recognizing their preexisting union affiliation. A little later, student advisors were presented with a new pay scheme, canceling health insurance and fee waivers worth thousands of dollars every year. And at the bargaining table with SENS-UAW who represent over 1000 student workers every year, they stalled economic bargaining until the very end of the semester, offering wage increases that do not even keep up with their own tuition inflation.

Examples of Resistance

All of these attacks provoked justified response from the wider university community. SENS-UAW announced a strike for May 8 demanding a contract with meaningful results in pay, healthcare and childcare before the end of the semester. Student Advisors, although being left out of the university’s bargaining unit by bureaucratic tricks, announced that they would join the strike on May 8 if their demands were not met. And under leadership of the Maoist „Communist Student Group“ and working with the cafeteria workers’ union UNITE HERE, students occupied the cafeteria, stopping operations without breaking the „no strike, no lock-out“ clause in the workers’ contract. Workers Power US participated in both struggles.

Capitalism with a Human Face

The New School likes to present itself as not only a progressive university, but actively markets radical politics of their students and professors. It was founded on the premise of not wasting any money for administrative bodies, advertisement and such. In 2018 though, tuition and fees were 30 percent higher than the national average for private colleges. At the same time, it spends more than double on administration and advertisement than comparable „peer institutions.“

Furthermore, the school has a history of cracking down on students and workers protesting reactionary decisions. When students occupied the cafeteria protesting university President Bob Kerrey, he called the NYPD and had 22 of them arrested. After he resigned, his successor and current University President David Van Zandt fought a legal battle against union recognition that was ultimately lost in 2015. While the school markets radical policies, it actively tries to suppress workers and students organizing.

Like all private universities, The New School is a capitalist firm. When its founders wrote that they wanted to create a place to learn for learning’s sake, they were deceiving themselves from the reality of higher education in the United States. However, in the last 99 years since the founding of the university, commodification of education and oppression of workers have become qualitatively worse. The New School is tuition funded, and since tuition is payed per class attended, the rate of exploitation is easily calculated, taken the minuscule wages of teaching assistants. The same is true for the role of research assistants in providing the work on which outside funding and the university’s academic reputation depends.

One Struggle, One Fight

We can see similar struggles in education and higher education, especially in the past months and years. Only a week ago, student workers at prestigious „Ivy League“ member Columbia University went on a one week strike, demanding that the administration begins bargaining with them. Columbia’s president Bollinger is believed to hope for Trump’s anti-labor administration to crack down on academic workers’ unionizing and turn around the corresponding 2015 decision by the National Labor Relations Board. Similar accusations have been voiced against the administration of Harvard University, where workers finally won their union in April 2018.

These struggles are also to be linked with the strike wave of teachers in the economically marginalized states in the Midwest and South of the United States. Often being banned from striking they took the streets and the picket lines earlier this year, winning meaningful concessions in what was essentially wild-cat striking. The shameful behavior of the trade unions in Arizona show how important workers’ control over the struggle, and the fight for real democracy within the unions, is.

We can see the contradictions of US capitalism escalating at the moment. While the cost of the 2008 crisis and the bail-outs have been born almost exclusively by workers and those dependent on state welfare, it has not been resolved at all. The election of Trump, i.e., the most reactionary parts of the ruling capitalist class putting in one of the most eclectic and radical candidates of the conservative right, is a symptom of this. The need for radical solutions accounts in part for the election of such an eclectic and radical candidate as Donald Trump with this program of despoiling the environment, slashing the rights of labor and the racially and gender oppressed, as well as the threats of trade war and worse, supposedly to get better “deals” for big US corporations. The ongoing crackdown on workers on both state and federal level join the economic and political contradictions that are defining for this time.

Path-breaking Victories

The conflicts at The New School seem small in comparison. But they are not. Ensuring every single job for cafeteria workers (which is the number one demand of the occupants) is an important victory against layoffs and union busting. The administration has already said publicly they would rehire every single worker at equal or better pay.

The academic workers in SENS-UAW would be the first to gain a contract through the 2015 NLRB decision, thereby setting the pace for negotiations after, for example at Harvard, Washington University in Seattle and other places where UAW is negotiating at the moment. It is at the forefront of one of the most successful unionizing sprees in the United States today.

Workers’ Control

However, both at the cafeteria occupation and in the contract negotiations, rank-and-file workers have become suspicious of what union employees are doing behind closed doors. While negotiations and targets are confidential to not let employers know what they are up against, they deeply disturb the democratic process within the union, for which workers need to fight. Control over economic circumstances of their work cannot be left to union bureaucracy, but must be in the hands of the workers themselves.

This is a complicated trade-off. While bargaining committees are usually democratically elected and have the trust and backing of their rank-and-file, them not discussing their real targets in bargaining detaches the struggle at the table from the struggle at the workplace. The magnitude of these contradictions became obvious in the cafeteria occupations’ “worker and students committee” demanding open negotiations instead of closed-door meetings, and proposals of open bargaining by academic student workers, that were voiced during strike preparation meetings.

Our comrades of Workers Power US support the demand of open bargaining and advocate for full control of the process by the rank and file, ensuring workers’ control between the election of a bargaining committee and the ratification of a contract.

Power in Unity

While democracy and workers power are a sure way to winning a strong contract, so is solidarity within our class. It was natural for the strike at Columbia that unionists from all over town to come and help. Also, the occupation at The New School was supported by all unions on campus and other organizations, such as the Democratic Socialist of America in New York City, or the local “Maoist Communist Group”. Other activists supported by sending their solidarity in written form or as transfers to the occupations’ solidarity fund.

Such solidarity and unity in struggle is not only needed by those in struggle, but also those who are temporarily at what seems to be peace with their employers. Such conflicts are won by workers control, solidarity and unity. They are not only a victory for those affected, but for the class as a whole.