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How Part-Time Faculty Won Their Strike At The New School

Above Photo: People attend a protest in front of the Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village on Nov. 17, 2022, in New York. Kena Betancur / VIEWpress via Getty Images.

‘We Were Stronger Than They Were Cruel.’

According to the union, the tentative agreement includes the largest single raise ever received by part-time faculty at The New School.

At midnight on Dec. 10, part-time faculty at The New School and Parsons School of Design officially suspended their strike after a nearly seven-hour-long mediation session with the university administration ended with a tentative agreement (TA). The union’s bargaining committee, which is composed entirely of part-time faculty at The New School, unanimously chose to suspend the strike while they prepare to hold a ratification vote. Alex Robins, a union staff member and part-time instructor teaching at Parsons School of Design, told TRNN that approximately 300 (exhausted) part-time faculty members attended the final mediation session via Zoom. “The mood was absolutely ebullient,” he said.

“I breathed for the first time in a month. They came into negotiations seemingly aiming to break the union. They tried to force a harmful impasse contract. They threatened to replace us. They threatened our wages and our health care up until that moment. It was validation that we were stronger than they were cruel. And they knew it and we knew it,” Robins said.

As I reported previously for TRNN, more than 1,600 part-time faculty members hit the picket line on Nov. 16 after their previous contract expired and the university failed to deliver an offer that the union, ACT-UAW Local 7902, could recommend to its members. Part-time faculty hadn’t received a raise since 2018, and they were striking for better pay, expanded health care eligibility (and an end to the university’s manipulation of health care policies), improved job security, and other forward-thinking proposals.

The TA was reached on the 25th day of the strike, which the union has been calling the longest adjunct strike in American history. According to the union, if ratified, the contract would include the largest raises part-time faculty at The New School have ever achieved. The TA also includes:

  • 12 weeks of paid family leave at 67% pay (which is already mandatory for most employees in New York state);
  • improved terms on annualization (i.e., when the university must reappoint part-time faculty on an annual—not semester-by-semester—basis with a minimum number of courses), which will happen a year sooner than the previous standard;
  • a guaranteed minimum “baseload” of two courses to teach per year for annualized faculty, which expands access to health insurance (the university had previously annualized faculty with baseloads of one course as part of its scheme to save on wages and benefits, which left many part-time faculty ineligible for health insurance);
  • compensation for labor performed outside of the classroom, like holding office hours or attending departmental meetings;
  • muti-year appointments that last six years instead of three;
  • the reservation of three full-time faculty positions per year, exclusively for part-time faculty;
  • language that expands health care eligibility;
  • health care coverage that remains consistent from year to year and is not subject to unilateral changes made solely at the university’s discretion.

Union members paid at the lowest rates (i.e., those who teach private music lessons for students ages 4-18) will see their minimum pay-per-course increase from $998.34 to $1,590 in 2023, and to $2,550 by 2027. That’s a 155% increase by the end of the contract’s five-year term. Part-time faculty teaching studio and lab courses, which constitute the sizable portion of classes taught at the renowned Parsons School of Design, currently start at  $4,299.30 for a standard 3-credit, 45-hour course. Those same faculty will see a 19% bump in their pay next year to $5,125, and will make $6,875 by the end of the contract—a 60% increase. Faculty at the upper ends of the pay scale will also receive raises. A 45-hour lecture course that currently nets $5,753.25 will increase 13% to $6,475 next year, and about 36% by the end of the contract ($7,820).

The union members had good reason to celebrate. Throughout the strike and the seven months of negotiating, the university administration deployed an array of corporate union-busting tactics that were antithetical to The New School’s progressive heritage and offensive to part-time faculty, students, parents, and other educators on campus. Numerous part-time faculty members reported feeling not only disrespected and undervalued by the university administrators throughout the whole ordeal, but also spurned and deeply wounded by the administration’s callous, openly hostile attempts to squash the strike and bully them back into subservience. But in the end, with a bit of luck and a whole lot of solidarity and cooperation, the workers prevailed.

In a jubilant video posted on Instagram, Matthew Spiegelman, a part-time faculty member at Parsons who had been recording daily videos to provide updates on negotiations, proclaimed, “It’s got to be one of the most historical contracts in education history.”

“We succeeded on our own terms,” he added. “We overwhelmed the university administration and the Board of Trustees and we got a fair and just contract for the people who teach here now, and for the people who will come and teach here in the future.”

In the week leading up to the Thanksgiving break, the university administration took a hardline approach that included a “last, best, and final” offer, the declaration of an impasse at the bargaining table, and a threat to impose the terms of the final contract offer unilaterally. Union members responded with a stunning 95% rejection of the offer, leading the university to agree to continue negotiations with a mediator. But even with the help of a mediator, according to members of the union’s bargaining team, the university administration remained bitterly adversarial during negotiations and continued using tactics befitting of a large corporation in the days leading up to the TA.

On Dec. 2, a job recruitment email from the university’s human resources department was leaked to the union. The email stated that the university was seeking “several temporary Progress Reviewers” from Dec. 5 through Jan. 5, 2023. Striking part-time faculty members had been withholding all labor and were resolved to not submit students’ grades until they had signed a fair contract, but the university administrators were making plans to bring in strikebreakers to undermine those efforts. It is not uncommon for strikes in academia to occur at or near the end of the semester, when the impact of withholding one’s labor and the products of that labor (like grades, articles, grant proposals, etc.) can be most acutely felt by university administrators.

The university’s raison d’être for these emails was concern about an upcoming evaluation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a federally recognized accreditor, which was set to begin in 2023. The New School was seeking scabs, the “temporary progress reviewers,” to ensure the strike would not impact its accreditation status. Perhaps most insulting to students and part-time faculty was the email’s insistence that the temporary graders were “not expected to be subject experts in the student’s enrolled courses.”

In response to the leak, the university effectively threw the HR worker under the bus by saying the email was sent in error. But many part-time faculty members had anticipated that the university would look to recruit scabs since their strike began. Their suspicions were valid: The university’s only suggested “contingency” plan for the Spring, apparently, was hiring scabs. While infuriating at the time, the leaked emails indicate that the university’s administration realized that the school could not function without its part-time faculty, who make up 87% of its educators. It’s ironic that, hours before a settlement was reached to halt the strike, the university asked students to self-grade—a truly economical alternative.

Recruiting strikebreakers was not the only tactic in the university administration’s arsenal. It began invoking draconian measures that would’ve impacted other workers on campus, including full-time faculty, graduate students, and those in the Federal Work-Study program.

On Dec. 5, the university announced that it would withhold pay and contributions to both insurance and retirement benefits for all striking employees, regardless of whether they were full-time faculty, part-time faculty, or student workers. The next day, the university demanded that full-time faculty and student workers submit weekly attestation forms certifying their work during the prior week. These moves increased pressure on other campus workers to cross the union’s picket line.

Full-time faculty, some of whom have tenure, were outraged by the university’s actions. Three of the university’s six divisions released statements on Dec. 6 demanding the retraction of the university’s “loyalty oath.” Additionally, about 1,000 scholars, writers, artists, and activists pledged to boycott all events at the university. Luminaries like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, Cornel West, and even former NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Tom Finkelpearl were among the letter’s first signatories. An open letter was also circulated by the American Association of University Professors at The New School, stating that full-time faculty from the university’s six divisions had met and discussed holding a vote of “no confidence” in the university’s senior administration, including the president.

The university’s escalation backfired tremendously. Both the part-time faculty union and the union for student workers on campus—a separate bargaining unit within ACT-UAW Local 7902—filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in response to the work certification forms. The impending threat of the union’s litigation before the NLRB had to have been alarming. The part-time faculty union’s lawsuit could’ve changed the legal status of their strike from an economic strike to a ULP strike. This change would’ve limited the university’s ability to hire scabs and forced the university to rehire the part-time faculty on strike, regardless of whether it had already hired replacement workers.

The university clearly felt the pressure, and movement toward the terms of the TA began rapidly. During mediation on Dec. 8, the university presented the union with an updated final offer that included a large concession on pay, with raises and compensation for their unpaid out-of-classroom work—two of the union’s core demands. While the union had already come down significantly from its opening compensation proposal, the university had been reluctant to close the still-substantial gap. This marked a significant change in the university’s approach.

However, the university continued trudging down the primrose path, seemingly unmoved by the ire it had ignited on campus. The updated final offer was riddled with “clerical errors”—a deliberately vague term the university used to avoid admitting whether unacceptable language in the contract was accidental or intentional—regarding healthcare eligibility. For example, part-time faculty teaching two courses that amounted to less than 90 hours in the classroom would’ve been ineligible for the health care plan. This “clerical error” would’ve taken away health insurance from dozens of families, a union staff member told TRNN. The university also included terms that would have given it full discretion on health care plan design and out-of-pocket costs, as well as a clause that would’ve stripped the union of the right to file a formal grievance against any changes—a right the union had in its last contract. These were terms the university sought to impose through its original “last, best, and final” offer.

The university clearly thought the union’s right to grieve changes in the health care plan was a vexing power that it preferred the union not to have. During the pandemic, the university changed the union’s health care plan without any prior consultation to a policy with worse coverage and significantly higher out-of-pocket costs on things like essential medications and medical procedures. Part-time faculty won an arbitration against the university thanks to their right to grieve the unilateral change in policy. A union staff member said that part-time faculty only began receiving their settlement checks awarded by the arbitration ruling after the TA was reached.

On Dec. 8, about two hours before the university made its updated proposal, hundreds of students occupied the University Center in response to the administration’s attacks on other workers on campus. Students had already felt betrayed by the university’s administration and were angry that they had missed nearly a month of classes. Most take a majority of their classes with part-time faculty, and students could be found on the picket line every day.

Moments after the union received the updated final offer, the university sent preemptive celebratory emails to the campus community and posted a Twitter thread patting themselves on the back for making movement on part-time faculty pay. Some union members speculated that this email indicated that the updated final offer had been premeditated, and felt the timing was meant to cause confusion at the start of the student occupation.

If the university was trying to hide, or prevent, the emerging student rebellion, it failed. The student occupation has attracted the attention of the national media, and students continue to occupy the University Center 24/7.

The occupation has been an inspiring display of student deliberative democracy. Undergraduates and graduate students worked together to form a set of radical demands seeking to transform the university. Their demands include a tuition refund for their missed instructional time, that the maximum salary for administrators is in proportion to the base pay of other university workers, and the dissolution of the Board of Trustees in favor of “a participatory process, as defined by the non-administrative TNS community.”

Multiple part-time faculty members reached out to TRNN in the days following the occupation, expressing enthusiasm for their students’ efforts. One part-time faculty member mused that they had hoped their strike would be the beginning of a bigger restructuring of the university.

We’ll never know for sure what caused the university to change course on health care access and give up on unilateral control. Was it the parents’ threat of a tuition strike and a class action lawsuit? The filing of ULP charges with the NLRB? The administration’s fear of the demands that might come out of the student occupation? The leaking of the scab grader email? The prospect of tenured and other full-time faculty holding a vote of no confidence in the entire senior administration? What we do know is that the Board of Trustees, which picks the university’s senior administration and boasts real estate barons, hedge fund managers, and private equity veterans, abandoned their cruel profits-over-people approach and caved to the union’s demands.

A number of union staffers and members of the union’s bargaining committee told TRNN that the university’s stance during negotiations had unlocked a genuine sense of enthusiasm and optimism in the union. Some part-time faculty members who had been at the university for decades admitted that in the past they had not paid much attention to the union, but as the union began to clearly lay out the facts of their exploitation and showed a commitment to a transparent and democratic process, they were galvanized into taking on a more active role. They became the union’s most reliable organizers—volunteering hours of their time for phone banking, attending membership meetings, providing updates through social media, and manning the picket line. The old adage about the boss being the best organizer was proved true, as the once-disparate part-time faculty became united under one banner.

The TA isn’t perfect, and some may have hoped for even more gains—their salaries will still fall below adjuncts at other area universities, and despite the faster path to job security, there is still no recourse available for part-time faculty members who are fired by the university the semester before reaching annualization—but it’s a lot better than the contract part-time faculty had before. For example, compensation for out-of-classroom work begins at $400 per course and will increase to $800 per course by the contract’s end. That’s less than the union’s opening proposal, but part-time faculty will be paid for their work outside the classroom for the first time. Plus, now that it’s enshrined in a contract, the union can work to grow that number over time.

Robins told TRNN that “no one can deny this is a fair contract with reasonable gains for workers,” and called the TA “an unbelievable platform to build on for the future with one of the most engaged union memberships in the country.”

However, the administration’s headache isn’t over. The University Center is still occupied and students are resolute in their demands. Although part-time faculty returned to work on Dec. 12, a number of classes were held in the occupied University Center. The students also invited part-time faculty, full-time faculty, staff, parents, and alumni to participate in a vote of no confidence in the university’s senior administration and Board of Trustees, which passed 421-10 and has since been endorsed by over 1,500 members of The New School community. The students are building an inclusive campus coalition—“ONE NEW SCHOOL”—which would be a political body responsible for transforming the university into a self-governing institution. They also held an open Zoom meeting, inviting those from other universities across the country to reimagine the higher education landscape. If The New School is serious about its progressive heritage, it would do well to implement the students’ proposals. Their demands represent a vision of change that’s desperately needed at the fractured university and in higher education writ large.

Even though the longest adjunct strike in American history is over, The New School’s future is uncertain. But one thing’s for sure: the union hopes to hold a ratification vote before Christmas. Perhaps the TA will be a holiday gift worthy of their efforts.

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