The Costs of Higher Ed

Me and Tania WNYC web

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being on WNYC radio’s Midday to converse with fellow graduate worker Tania Bhattacharyya of the Columbia research- and teaching-assistants union and guest host DW Gibson. The topic: the “costs of higher ed,” as the show’s three-part series was aptly titled. In our segment, Tania and I discussed graduate worker and adjunct labor, in particular the continuing push by Columbia’s grad employees for the administration to recognize their union, and the overall drive to improve the wages and working conditions of all contingent faculty, adjuncts most especially. (I was representing the CUNY Adjunct Project, my organizing home of the last five years.)

You can hear the audio of our segment here, which also links to the audio from the two previous segments.

In prepping for the segment, I did a bit of archival research to answer one of assistant producer Ursula Sommer’s excellent questions. I found out that part of the rationale that Columbia has been using in defense of not recognizing the union—that Columbia’s grad workers are already well-provided-for and that a union would create antagonism—mirrored the response of CUNY’s administration to the two academic unions that eventually merged to form (in 1972) the current Professional Staff Congress.

As captured in this history of CUNY faculty labor organizing (6):

Some CUNY officials wondered why the faculty and staff had supported collective bargaining. They cited the good salaries and governance structure under the bylaws. Prior to the election, Chancellor Bowker openly called for rejection of collective bargaining, saying it would weaken faculty governance and replace a community of shared interest with an adversarial relationship.

This was the tactic of CUNY management to contain labor in 1968—the same one Columbia management now uses 50 years later.

I invoked the phrase “plus ça change” the other day and my partner asked me what it meant. This tactical similarity across half a century is a great example of its meaning: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’m confident, however, that Columbia will eventually concede—much like I expect CUNY to agree to a $7K minimum starting salary for adjunct faculty—and then our mutual struggles will ramify anew.

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