The December 5 rally at Foley Square put a spotlight on the fight against growing economic inequality in New York City – and the demand for justice for the insecure, low-wage workers who have suffered as a result. In the crowd were many part-time CUNY faculty members, who talked about their common interests.
“We don’t get enough pay. We don’t get retirement. We don’t get enough health insurance,” PSC Vice President for Part-Time Personnel Marcia Newfield told the crowd of about 1,000 people. “We teach you, we teach your family. Help us! We are with you!”
“What we all share in common,” said Blanca Vásquez, an adjunct assistant professor in film & media studies at Hunter College and a member of the PSC Executive Council, “is that we have to pay rent and educate children and do everything else that others have to do, [but] we’re not doing it on a full-time wage.”
Bonnie Lucas has worked for 18 years as an adjunct art lecturer at City College. She has endured low wages and the uncertainty of not knowing from semester to semester whether she will have a job. To Lucas, attending the rally at Foley Square was a natural thing to do. She told Clarion she was there not only for herself, but also for her students who work at insecure, low-wage jobs. Their situations are not identical, she said, but there are similarities.
“There’s been this whole shift in the economy toward lower pay and less security, and somebody who is a university professor is not exempt from that,” Lucas said.
Lucas spoke of one of her students who works as a night manager at McDonalds for $7.25 an hour. Another one of Lucas’s students works part-time at a supermarket and does not know which hours or how many hours she will work from week to week.
“The insecurity is week to week instead of semester to semester, but it’s the same kind of loss of civility and lack of honoring of people’s work,” Lucas said.
Employees at Walmart and some of the nation’s largest fast-food chains have been at the forefront of low-wage and contingent worker struggles over the past year, with an escalating series of job actions in scores of cities. In November, voters from New Jersey to Washington State approved minimum wage increases. Other groups of economically insecure workers have begun to receive more attention, including the 13,000 adjuncts who teach more than half the classes at CUNY. Many members of the public are shocked to learn that someone can be a college teacher for many years, be paid so little, and not know if they will have a job the following semester.
Ed Ott, former executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council and a distinguished lecturer at the Murphy Institute, spoke about CUNY adjuncts when he appeared on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC. Other organizations in the New Day New York Coalition, such as New York Communities for Change, Citizen Action of New York, and Walmart Free NYC were very receptive to including adjunct faculty in their messaging during the coalition’s Week of Action, in public outreach and in social media.
On the March
The protest at Foley Square coincided with a one-day strike by food-service workers in more than 100 cities. Afterwards, syndicated columnist Jim Hightower wrote that “there’s a growing army of the working poor in our USofA, and big contingents of it are now on the march.” Colleges are among the immoral employers being challenged, Hightower wrote: “More education makes you better off, right? Well, ask a college professor about that – you know, the ones who earned PhDs and are now teaching America’s next generation.”
“People are recognizing that we are in similar situations,” said Andrew Bartels, an adjunct lecturer in English at Brooklyn College. And from new unity might come new strength.