Intersecting Picket Lines: Free Speech, Palestine, and the CUNY Contract

“Die-In/Vigil for Ferguson and Gaza,” John Jay College/CUNY, October 8, 2014
“Die-In/Vigil for Fer­gu­son and Gaza,” John Jay College/CUNY, Octo­ber 8, 2014

On June 20, five days after the Pro­fes­sional Staff Con­gress (PSC) teach­ers and staff union reached a ten­ta­tive con­tract agree­ment with the City Uni­ver­sity of New York admin­is­tra­tion, the Board of Trustees (BoT) con­vened a pub­lic hear­ing on a pro­posed pol­icy for “Free­dom of Expres­sion and Expres­sive Con­duct.” This Orwellian mea­sure could crim­i­nal­ize any unsanc­tioned meet­ings, speak-outs, and marches on CUNY cam­puses, and by the CUNY lawyer’s own admis­sion, was tai­lored to coun­ter recent Black Lives Mat­ter and Palestine sol­i­dar­ity actions. At the packed hear­ing, three dozen stu­dents, fac­ulty, staff, and alumni railed against the BoT, demand­ing that the pro­posed pol­icy be scrapped. 

Even though the new con­tract was bro­kered only after the PSC threat­ened to strike, and estab­lishes con­crete gains for var­i­ous con­stituen­cies, it’s by no means a rad­i­cal agree­ment. Some mem­bers have already vowed to pur­sue a no-vote. The 10.41% salary increase (com­pounded for 2010-2017) doesn’t sur­pass infla­tion, the three-year adjunct appoint­ment sys­tem (instead of reap­point­ments each semes­ter) won’t apply to most adjuncts who teach the major­ity of CUNY classes, and man­age­ment will be able to hire a new coterie of star fac­ulty with exor­bi­tant salaries (call it the Paul Krug­man­iza­tion of CUNY), thus wrench­ing the two-tier wage dis­par­ity gap even wider. 

It’s no coin­ci­dence that the CUNY admin­is­tra­tion delayed nego­ti­a­tions so that the PSC mem­ber­ship vote to rat­ify the con­tract and the BoT June 27 vote to cur­tail free speech would both occur when most of the CUNY com­mu­nity is dis­persed for the sum­mer. How­ever, because the PSC has fought for a con­tract along nar­row demands, in the face of increas­ing polit­i­cal crises at CUNY – over labor aus­ter­ity, free speech, U.S. mil­i­tarism, and Palestine sol­i­dar­ity – the union lead­er­ship is now scram­bling to mount a broad, multi-sec­tional oppo­si­tion to a pol­icy that would inhibit the right to amass a picket line. 

This ten­u­ous sit­u­a­tion demands that we rethink the strate­gies that guide labor orga­niz­ing on col­lege cam­puses. In prepa­ra­tion since 9/11, the CUNY admin­is­tra­tion and New York gov­ern­ment have now fully entwined the lan­guages of anti-racism, law and order, and fis­cal respon­si­bil­ity to enforce a shock doc­trine of struc­tural under­fund­ing and repres­sion. But if a defense of free speech and anti-impe­ri­al­ism is fused with the strug­gles of orga­nized labor, a new open­ing for a broad and com­bined strug­gle can emerge. If CUNY’s move­ments are to reverse this assault, they’ll have to force the union to move past the economism of their con­tract cam­paign and embrace strug­gles that speak to the lives of their mem­bers, New York, and the wider world. 

City University in the World

CUNY is the largest pub­lic urban uni­ver­sity in the United States. It employs fifty thou­sand teach­ers and cam­pus staff in sev­eral unions, and relies on unwaged intel­lec­tual work by over half a mil­lion stu­dents, mostly work­ing poor immi­grant youth from around the world. Both the wealthy elite and social move­ments have long rec­og­nized CUNY’s insti­tu­tional role as a social bell­wether. At var­i­ous points in the twen­ti­eth and twenty-first cen­turies, the uni­ver­sity has become a pri­mary site of eco­nomic, social, and ide­o­log­i­cal restruc­tur­ing – as well as resis­tance – in which strug­gles over CUNY became epi­cen­ters for national, and even global, con­flicts.

We see this dynamic, for exam­ple, in the early 1940s, when the Rapp-Coud­ert Com­mit­tee held closed-door dis­ci­pli­nary hear­ings to fire more than fifty CUNY edu­ca­tors (pre­dom­i­nantly Jew­ish) in the Col­lege Teach­ers Union who were sus­pected of being Com­mu­nists, a few years after sev­eral dozen CUNY stu­dents and teach­ers had returned from fight­ing fas­cism in the Span­ish Civil War. Rapp-Coud­ert laid the ground­work for Sen­a­tor Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (HUAC) to wreak havoc over a gen­er­a­tion of rad­i­cal lives. 

CUNY again became a ful­crum upon which the U.S. state and cap­i­tal, reel­ing from the 1975 defeat in Viet­nam and the result­ing eco­nomic cri­sis, extorted con­ces­sions from the work­ing class via the reduc­tion of social pro­grams like free col­lege edu­ca­tion. After Black, Puerto Rican, and Asian stu­dents-led cam­pus strikes in the late six­ties and early sev­en­ties trans­formed CUNY with eth­nic and gen­der stud­ies and Open Admis­sions, Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford insisted that New York City impose tuition at CUNY and lay off con­tin­gent fac­ulty en masse in order to escape from a man­u­fac­tured fis­cal cri­sis which Ford’s cab­i­net reframed as irre­spon­si­ble self-indul­gence: like “a way­ward daugh­ter hooked on heroin… You don’t give her $100 a day to sup­port her habit. You make her go cold turkey to break her habit.”

Campus War Zone

More recently, the post-9/11 rela­tion­ship between CUNY and U.S. impe­ri­al­ism has devel­oped to the point that the uni­ver­sity is now a promi­nent tar­get for both mil­i­tary recruit­ment and coun­terin­sur­gency. Since the mid-2000s, as the United States became mired in the occu­pa­tions of Iraq and Afghanistan, recruiters’ pres­ence inten­si­fied at CUNY col­leges, espe­cially after the 2008 eco­nomic cri­sis. In Novem­ber 2011, days after the Occupy Wall Street evic­tion, the CUNY admin­is­tra­tion imposed a five-year annual tuition increase by approv­ing a police assault on peace­ful pro­tes­tors, and then evac­u­at­ing an entire cam­pus build­ing to hold the vote. Dur­ing this same year, CUNY reviewed a pol­icy paper call­ing for the Reserve Offi­cers Train­ing Corps (ROTC) to be re-embed­ded at CUNY in order to diver­sify its offi­cers.

Then in fall 2013, for­mer mil­i­tary gen­eral David Petraeus began teach­ing a CUNY class called “The Com­ing North Amer­i­can Decades,” and ROTC set up shop in three other CUNY cam­puses with lit­tle to no regard for cam­pus gov­er­nance pro­ce­dures. Although Medgar Evers Col­lege suc­cess­fully removed ROTC, it remains at City Col­lege and York Col­lege. Mean­while, stu­dent activists were sur­veilled, arrested, and sus­pended as cam­pus orga­niz­ing spaces were seized. As jour­nal­ist Peter Rugh put it, “America’s most diverse uni­ver­sity was turned into a war zone.”

Dur­ing this post-9/11 period I’ve briefly sketched out, the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion at CUNY also dra­mat­i­cally shifted in terms of sol­i­dar­ity with Palestine and oppo­si­tion to the sur­veil­lance of Mus­lim stu­dents, two issues which began to coa­lesce on CUNY cam­puses as the move­ment against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan waned. 

In 2005, Pales­tinian civil soci­ety issued a global call for boy­cott, divest­ment, and sanc­tions (BDS) against Israel until it com­plied with inter­na­tional law and uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples of human rights. Cri­tiques across CUNY and New York City of the Israeli military’s unchecked aggres­sion on Gaza height­ened dur­ing Israel’s win­ter 2008, Novem­ber 2012, and sum­mer 2014 car­pet bomb­ing cam­paigns. All funded by $8.5 mil­lion U.S. gov­ern­ment dol­lars a day, these three con­flicts alto­gether killed 3,900 Pales­tini­ans and 90 Israelis, left many more wounded, and demol­ished social infra­struc­ture (such as hos­pi­tals, schools, elec­tric­ity and water sup­plies) along sim­i­larly asym­met­ri­cal fig­ures in an effort at total destruc­tion of daily life in Gaza. 

This car­nage could have poten­tially felt dis­tant, were it not for Zion­ist orga­ni­za­tions, col­lege admin­is­tra­tors, and gov­ern­ment offi­cials’ more local attempts of repres­sion on CUNY cam­puses. If stu­dent revolts once aspired to “bring the war home,” more recently this pro-Israel coali­tion has done so dif­fer­ently in its attempts to fire and sup­press CUNY fac­ulty and stu­dents who dared to crit­i­cally teach, learn, write, and orga­nize for Palestine. Instead of being silenced, Pales­tini­ans and their anti-impe­ri­al­ist accom­plices at CUNY (in groups such as Stu­dents for Jus­tice in Palestine and CUNY for Palestine) – many of them women, LGBTQ, and gen­der-non­con­form­ing folk – began to more insis­tently share sto­ries of what peo­ple in Gaza and the West Bank endured under the U.S.-backed Israeli mil­i­tary.

CUNY fac­ulty and grad­u­ate stu­dents also helped lead a wave of sev­eral national aca­d­e­mic asso­ci­a­tions and unions pass­ing BDS res­o­lu­tions against the Israeli gov­ern­ment and aca­d­e­mic insti­tu­tions. The CUNY Grad­u­ate Center’s own stu­dent gov­ern­ment passed an aca­d­e­mic boy­cott in April 2016 after a two-year cam­paign. These boy­cott res­o­lu­tions were implicit strikes against occu­pa­tion, under­stood as clearly drawn picket lines for aca­d­e­mic labor.

Surveillance and Selective Anti-racism

Links between wars against Arabs and Mus­lims abroad and at home also deep­ened when, in the fall of 2011, jour­nal­ists exposed that the NYPD had con­ducted sur­veil­lance of Mus­lim stu­dent groups at eight CUNY schools from 2003 to 2006. Another NYPD spy­ing oper­a­tion would begin in March 2011 at Brook­lyn Col­lege. An infor­mant embed­ded her­self in Mus­lim friend­ships cir­cles, in Stu­dents for Jus­tice in Palestine (SJP), and in a “Unity Coali­tion,” which orga­nized SJP, the Black Stu­dent Union, Puerto Rican Alliance, Domini­can Stu­dent Move­ment, and other left stu­dent groups. This resulted in fall 2015 rev­e­la­tions of the entrap­ment of two young women in a fab­ri­cated ISIS ter­ror­ist plot. 

CUNY pro­fes­sor Jeanne Theo­haris warned in the Inter­cept,

[T]hese tac­tics are not rene­gade actions. They are con­sis­tent with the NYPD’s and the FBI’s approach to Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties after 9/11. They reveal how an “inves­ti­ga­tion” becomes a perch from which to spy on a com­mu­nity for years, how polit­i­cally active and reli­giously con­ser­v­a­tive stu­dents become tar­gets, and how efforts to form coali­tions between stu­dents of color become sus­pect.

I draw this chronol­ogy to sit­u­ate why, in the last year, CUNY has sud­denly become an epi­cen­ter of strug­gle around edu­ca­tional aus­ter­ity, “expres­sive conduct”-policing, and BDS. This his­tory helps to explain why in fall 2015, as the PSC orga­nized civil dis­obe­di­ence and ral­lies, and mobi­lized for a strike vote, Cuomo and NY leg­is­la­tors sud­denly pro­posed a half-bil­lion dol­lar state fund­ing cut to CUNY’s bud­get, harken­ing back to our 1975 emer­gency sta­tus.

Based on a let­ter by the Zion­ist Orga­ni­za­tion of Amer­ica that cited a skewed series of “anti-Semitic” events at CUNY (defined only with regard to Jew­ish stu­dents, not to Arab stu­dents who are also Semitic), the NY Sen­ate announced in March 2016 that they would “deny addi­tional fund­ing for CUNY senior schools until it is sat­is­fied that the admin­is­tra­tion has devel­oped a plan to guar­an­tee the safety of stu­dents of all faiths.” Even though state fund­ing was ulti­mately restored to CUNY, the irony, of course, was that this mas­sive gash in the bud­get would have also hurt Jew­ish stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff.

Nev­er­the­less, a self-described CUNY task force on anti-Semi­tism called pro-BDS Pro­fes­sor Sarah Schul­man and SJP stu­dent lead­ers into closed-door dis­ci­pli­nary meet­ings rem­i­nis­cent of the Rapp-Coud­ert Com­mit­tee and the rise of McCarthy­ism to under­score a “Palestine Excep­tion to Free Speech.” In the last few weeks, Gov­er­nor Andrew Cuomo intro­duced a bill to specif­i­cally attack indi­vid­u­als, stu­dent groups, and insti­tu­tions that advo­cate BDS. The CUNY Board of Trustees also seized the momen­tum to intro­duce the pol­icy on “Free­dom of Expres­sion and Expres­sive Con­duct.”

PSC civil disobedience outside CUNY Central administrators’ offices, November 4, 2015 (Photo credit: Erik McGregor)
PSC civil dis­obe­di­ence out­side CUNY Cen­tral admin­is­tra­tors’ offices, Novem­ber 4, 2015 (Photo credit: Erik McGre­gor)

Intersecting Picket Lines

The gov­ern­ment and admin­is­tra­tion have fused these crises into a new polit­i­cal econ­omy at CUNY – we can use this shift to mean­ing­fully con­nect our strug­gles, not keep them iso­lated in retreat. The PSC repeat­edly vocal­izes its defense of CUNY’s mis­sion to provide qual­ity edu­ca­tion to work­ing-class peo­ple of all col­ors and back­grounds. How­ever, the union has main­tained a lim­ited con­tract focus that is already ham­pered by endur­ing adjunct inequal­i­ties, while not tak­ing a pub­lic stand on these anti-BDS bills, McCarthy­ist hear­ings, stu­dent sur­veil­lance, and the pol­icy on “Free­dom of Expres­sion and Expres­sive Con­duct.” In so doing, the union has one arm tied behind its back, right when it could fur­ther expand upon a recent land­slide 92% strike autho­riza­tion and sub­se­quent con­tract offer. 

This moment is haunted by the old racist song repur­posed by Paul Gilroy to exam­ine race and class under neolib­er­al­ism, that “There Ain’t no Black in the Union, Jack.” In other words, labor move­ments are always at risk of elid­ing con­cur­rent strug­gles that affect its most mar­gin­al­ized work­ers and sup­port bases. These issues are not being offi­cially rec­og­nized by the PSC as part of our picket line, even if they have become a cen­tral means by which many of us orga­nize as labor­ers, and have piv­oted the direc­tions of our university’s insti­tu­tional life.

More widely, a class re-com­po­si­tion is tak­ing place to gather var­i­ous kinds of work­ers – ath­letes, artists, dock­work­ers, edu­ca­tors, health­care work­ers, jour­nal­ists, retail work­ers, sci­en­tists, stu­dents, and beyond – under the “one big union” of BDS to coor­di­nat­ing rank-and-file cross-indus­try actions that link apartheid and impe­ri­al­ism abroad with aus­ter­ity and polic­ing at home. Because CUNY stu­dents and work­ers have had to vig­or­ously defend our right to speak on Palestine and on the sur­veil­lance of Mus­lims, we’ve rad­i­cal­ized the con­tours of a new free speech move­ment that is con­cerned with dif­fer­ent “trig­ger warn­ings” of Israeli apartheid and Home­land Secu­rity on our cam­puses.

Our move­ments can learn to both “oppose and pro­pose.” We can demand a fair CUNY con­tract while tak­ing a stand against polit­i­cal repres­sion. We can oppose ROTC mil­i­tary sci­ence pro­grams, while expand­ing resources for valu­able spaces like the CUNY Grad­u­ate Center’s Mid­dle East and Mid­dle East­ern Amer­i­can Cen­ter (MEMEAC) that are at risk of being under­funded to death. We can protest when rape-apol­o­gist IDF sol­diers are invited to speak on cam­puses, as we host the annual Pales­tinian stu­dents’ Right 2 Edu­ca­tion tour nation­wide. We can refuse to coop­er­ate our aca­d­e­mic labor with Israeli uni­ver­si­ties, and form new part­ner­ships with Pales­tinian uni­ver­si­ties, as Rabab Abdul­hadi at San Fran­cisco State Uni­ver­sity has ini­ti­ated with An-Najah and Birzeit. 

Like our unions (and uni­ver­si­ties), BDS is a means, not an end. More­over, the pro­tec­tion of free speech is not to be deco­rously enshrined by any top-down pol­icy, but direc­tion­ally honed and pushed beyond what the bosses and law­mak­ers deem per­mis­si­ble. Only through these inter­sect­ing picket lines can we address all the aspects of a con­tract cam­paign within a larger strug­gle to trans­form CUNY. In the words of Tidal Mag­a­zine, an anti-colo­nial move­ment jour­nal,

Boy­cott is a nec­es­sary yet lim­ited tac­tic. Each “win” is but a small part of a coor­di­nated exer­tion and inten­si­fi­ca­tion of pres­sure. The value of Boy­cott lies as much in the eco­nomic dam­age it could do to the tar­get as it does in the con­ver­sa­tions, bonds, and spaces that are formed in the process of orga­niz­ing. These are the foun­da­tions of any future lib­er­a­tion, beyond Boy­cott and beyond BDS itself.

City Uni­ver­sity of New York stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff, like the U.S. labor move­ment, are stuck between two forms of class com­po­si­tion: one that is bound by parochial bread-and-but­ter demands, and one in which our actions can rever­ber­ate around the world as they trans­form our work­ing and learn­ing con­di­tions here. Which side are we on? Improve­ments over wages, ben­e­fits, and job secu­rity are real advances against the uni­ver­sity and state elite, but they can­not be divorced from these inter­re­lated con­flicts that have cat­a­pulted CUNY into a local/global bat­tle­ground.

We must col­lec­tively ask why the PSC and many other cam­pus unions – as their lead­er­ship and mem­ber­ship are cur­rently con­fig­ured – have not been ade­quate forces for mak­ing such polit­i­cal demands. But per­haps strug­gles at CUNY can exper­i­ment with strate­gies to escape this impasse, find­ing ways to link the union to other strug­gles, to wider com­mu­ni­ties, to build asso­ci­a­tional power. In these broader coali­tions, and rely­ing on deep com­mu­nity ties, PSC mem­bers can urge the union to refuse to rat­ify a con­tract until man­age­ment desists from its efforts at aus­ter­ity, cur­tail­ment of civil lib­er­ties, and endorse­ment of U.S. and Israeli occu­pa­tions, which are all inte­gral facets of our work­places. Dur­ing the past year, we mobi­lized for a strike which gar­nered wide sup­port across the uni­ver­sity and New York City. We can use this momen­tum to strike at the heart of empire, and in the process, help redi­rect the course of social move­ment union­ism.


On June 23, half an hour after this arti­cle was pub­lished, Politico announced a state­ment by CUNY that “A pro­posed pol­icy will be con­sid­ered by the Board of Trustees at a later time, fol­low­ing addi­tional con­sul­ta­tion and dis­cus­sion.” Mean­while, The Nation reported that Gov­er­nor Cuomo con­tin­ues to pur­sue a BDS Black­list, in a clear vio­la­tion of the First Amend­ment. Later in the evening, the Pro­fes­sional Staff Con­gress Del­e­gate Assem­bly voted 111-11 to approve the con­tract as it stands for rat­i­fi­ca­tion by the union mem­ber­ship.

Author of the article

is an archivist, doctoral student, educator, and organizer at the City University of New York, a collective member of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, and a co-founding participant in the Free University of New York City. Conor researches twentieth and twenty first-century literatures of social movements and urban freedom schools, and will be a 2016-2017 Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.