Today, I voted to authorize my union at CUNY to call a strike

This semester, I’m teaching our department capstone seminar, on the classics of political economy, in which students are expected to write a lengthy piece of original research.

It’s an intense process for the students. We start with a one- to two-page précis. The students then write a detailed outline of the paper. Then they submit a rough draft (I just got the rough drafts yesterday and have begun reading them today). And then the final draft, which is due in a few weeks.

My goal is twofold: first, to get the students to really dig into a topic (I’ve written about that here); second, to teach the students that old truism that all writing is just rewriting. I think the fancy ed folks like to call that “iterative writing” (google that phrase and you get 16.2 million results). But to me, it’s just writing. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you snake oil.

This kind of teaching, that kind of intensive feedback, of going over sentence after sentence, is a lot of work. It can be grueling and challenging for the student. I remember last semester, in a different class, where we also do rough drafts, writing on the student’s paper (she’s a recent immigrant from Nigeria), after she had submitted multiple drafts, this:

This is an exemplary sentence. Do you see how clear and concrete it is? How perfect and precise its attack? It says what it needs to say and, then, moves on. The fact that you had to carve this out of so many drafts is a testament to how hard won such a sentence is. This is how you always want to be writing.

This kind of work can also be challenging for the professor. But it’s work we have to do. It’s our payback, our part of the social contract. Mr. Damon did it for me in high school; I have to do it now for my students.

I don’t mind doing it. But I do mind when the institution that employs me takes that work for granted. And CUNY—and behind CUNY, Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature—has been taking that work for granted.

Since 2009. That was the last time we got a raise. The last time. Our union has been struggling to negotiate a contract since then. The best our chancellor can do is to offer us a pay cut. Our teaching loads are high: at the senior colleges, we teach 4/3; at the junior colleges, it’s 5/4. And the best the chancellor can do is offer us a pay cut.

Make no mistake about it: This isn’t just an assault on the work I do as a professor; this is an assault on our students. Like I said, Mr. Damon did this work with me in the fancy Westchester suburb that I grew up in, where the Clintons now live. Sheldon Wolin and John Murrin and Lawrence Stone did it with me at Princeton, where I was an undergraduate. But our society doesn’t want the kids I teach to get that education. So it pays me to give them less than I got. Not because they’re any less smart or talented than I was when I was their age. But simply because they’re not white, or wealthy, or privileged, the way I was when I was their age.

We have two choices: I can give those students less, or CUNY can pay me to give them more.

Today, I voted for the second option. I voted to authorize my union to call a strike or some other job action if the union’s leadership decides, after exhausting all the possibilities at the negotiating table, that a job action or strike is necessary. I joined thousands of my co-workers who have pledged to do the same.

I didn’t do it lightly. I’ve been on strike before; it’s no picnic. Not for the people who teach, not for their students.

But, as the song says, something’s gotta give. And it’s not going to be me.


  1. John Maher May 2, 2016 at 10:05 pm | #

    Many will comment upon the need of Cuomo to lead a punitive expedition against CUNY as payback for the union failing to endorse him. “Delenda est CUNY-O!” (3X) and the remnants may be absorbed into a more politically malleable SUNY offshoot after a bloodletting of staff.

    In fact the entire business model of American higher ed is wrong. As someone concerned with Hunter/CUNY issues I support the strike, but I am a bit chary that the strike will play into Cuomo’s hand, not the one which seeks reform, but the the one which holds the dagger behind his toga. Surely there is a better time to strike at Caesar.

    • Roquentin May 3, 2016 at 9:51 am | #

      I don’t know, hardly anyone likes Cuomo anyways, certainly not in the circles I run in. Zephyr Teachout, almost a complete unknown at the time, nearly defeated him during the last primary….and he was an incumbent! That doesn’t sound like much of a popular mandate to me. People have seen all the bickering between him and DeBlasio and that hasn’t done wonders for his reputation either. Fuck Cuomo, seriously. I voted for Howie Hawkins and the Green Party, for the first time in my life, simply not to vote for him.

      I’m not in Academia at all, but I’d wager the general public would be pretty sympathetic to such a strike. It’s common knowledge that adjuncts get paid next to nothing and that high education is currently close in the running for the biggest scam in America. Let me tell you, it’s a pretty crowded field so that’s not something to be said lightly.

      • John Maher May 3, 2016 at 11:01 am | #

        I never implied Cuomo had any kind of popular mandate, merely that he pursued a strategy of punitive expeditions and invoked Cato the Elder. I have taught courses as an adjunct teaching and the entire academic structure is corrupt in the way it follows the neoliberal mandate to commodify both teaching and the University experience, but that is a broader discussion.I always admire Roquentin’s insightful comments.

        One should vote for any non neoliberal candidate out there starting with the Greens. An issue I would love to read about if Corey will brief it is: is someone like Trump actually less destructive than a neoliberal continuum under Hilary? Zizeck seems to imply what many believe to be this sad case in his Guardian talk.

        • Roquentin May 3, 2016 at 4:36 pm | #

          Zizek had a good line recently when talking about how once you took away the racist and sexist stupidities, Trump was basically a figure of the center-right and hard to distinguish from most other major politicians. And beyond that, Trump’s vulgar sexism and racism is first and foremost a way to distract everyone from this. It worked like a charm didn’t it? Left, right, and center we seem to be getting essay after hysterical essay about how Trump represents the end of the world, rather than just another run of the mill reactionary billionaire who fits rather well with everyone who has run the country since Carter.

          I didn’t think you meant Cuomo had a popular mandate, but it still seemed to me you were overestimating the support behind him. Maybe not, he could be more powerful still than I realize. I also may have come down a little hard on academic institutions. To be fair, they held out against the neoliberal onslaught longer than the rest of the institutions in the US. I guess that’s why it’s extra sad to see them going down the same road.

  2. realthog May 2, 2016 at 10:13 pm | #

    old truism that all writing is just rewriting. . . . Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you snake oil.

    Oh, really? I’ve done quite a lot of writing in my time, and I’d beg to differ. Really quite strenuously.

    • Bill Michtom May 2, 2016 at 10:26 pm | #

      You need to do some serious rewriting because I have no idea why you’re saying that. You are not being strenuous if you can’t tell us more than that.

      • John Maher May 2, 2016 at 10:38 pm | #

        This is the regression problem and it is boring.

        • Bill Michtom May 2, 2016 at 11:09 pm | #

          You are intellectually dishonest and that is offensive.

        • realthog May 2, 2016 at 11:12 pm | #

          Hear hear.

        • realthog May 2, 2016 at 11:13 pm | #

          Oh, heck: The “Hear hear” was addressed to John Maher.

  3. simon May 3, 2016 at 12:32 am | #

    Congrats. I can’t offer much in the way of support from California, other than my words. Good luck.

  4. Dene Karaus May 3, 2016 at 2:00 am | #

    Thank you so much. I was a pilot’s union activist, and faced the same attitudes….”we’ll get somebody younger to do the job. You people with experience and principles can take a hike.”

  5. David R Applebaum May 3, 2016 at 4:26 am | #

    The senior seminar story is familiar. Sounds as if Greeley (Chappaqua) was like Midwood (across the street) in the mid 1960’s. Strikes at Brooklyn College were part of my undergrad learning. My first day of teaching (1969) (Integrated Liberal Studies/Mieklejohn Honors College/Madison) was marked by walking into class and saying ‘join the picket line’ (Black Strike). We struggled with the decision to call a strike at the beginning of the TAA. As ‘liason’ to the 18 left groups we forged a strong alliance with undergraduates (with protections for supporters built into the first agreement). Similar events unfolded with the vote to form the AFT in NJ – and the first statewide strike in the early 1970’s. In sum – I feel empathy and sympathy for the CUNY faculty and students. Hope that militancy brings a settlement. Solidarity should the strike become necessary.

  6. Sanctimonious Purist May 3, 2016 at 3:37 pm | #

    Solidarity! Please let us know if we can help with the strike fund. I wish all professors had unions. Many in non-union regional Universities like CUNY have that same load and don’t say a peep. The adjunct situation is even worse.

  7. L.M. Dorsey May 3, 2016 at 4:53 pm | #

    A year or so ago I read Umberto Eco’s How To Write A Thesis. It’s one method. A schematic of a method. But method is necessary when wrestling with sources and libraries over time (I feel Borges smirking somewhere… but never mind). That is one thing. Techne.

    Sitting down with a student, tho, and her writing, insisting on their both being taken seriously, here and now, and again and again, is profoundly… well, I long ago came to the conclusion that it was a work best entrusted to monks of the strict observance (who happen also to brew a sturdy ale). It of the heart of education. Heart, as in the dark and bloody wellspring.

    So, fare forward, professor. Avanti!

  8. stepincrease May 3, 2016 at 7:36 pm | #

    corey: does an annual step increase count as a raise? if so, the vast majority of cuny faculty are getting regular raises. if not, how should such pay increases be classified?

    • Carl Weetabix May 4, 2016 at 11:34 am | #

      A little bit of a tangent from your point, but I would say if more of us were concerned about making it so we received the benefits of those above us, than trying to take down those who do have the benefits, then we would all be a lot happier.

      The elites have done a good job of turning our anger inward – instead of focusing on the injustice of what we don’t have and deserve, we focus on the injustice that some of our same class might happen to have the benefits we don’t. The problem isn’t that Postal Workers get to have a real retirement benefit, the problem is that the rest of us don’t. The answer is not to strip the Postal Workers in a race to the bottom, but to insist that we too receive reasonable benefits.

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