Faculty and students protest budget cuts proposed for City University of New York

By Isaac Finn
19 March 2016

Hundreds of City University of New York (CUNY) students, faculty and staff gathered outside of the New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in midtown Manhattan last week to demand affordable higher education and new contracts for workers at the nation’s third-largest public university system.

Democratic Governor Cuomo had just released his 2017 budget proposal, and the protesters were particularly angered by a projected $485 million shortfall in funding for CUNY. The New York City university system consists of more than two dozen two-year, four-year and graduate institutions, and enrolls more than 270,000 degree-seeking students and an equal number in its continuing and professional education programs. CUNY is separate from the State University of New York (SUNY), an even larger network of community colleges and four-year institutions in the rest of the state.

Many demonstrators noted that Cuomo was pitting the SUNY schools against those in New York City. Both are funded by the state, with the city also providing some funding for the CUNY system. Cuomo’s proposal did not include any cuts for SUNY, and he also proposed a raise in the minimum wage, but only for SUNY workers, to $15 an hour.

The budget proposal also includes the renewal of a provision from 2011 that would allow the four-year colleges in both CUNY and SUNY systems to increase tuition by 30 percent over the next five years. Tuition at the SUNY schools has already increased 30 percent since 2011.

The roughly 25,000 faculty and professional staff at CUNY have worked for more than five years without a contract, and have not received a pay increase since 2010. In negotiations last year, CUNY officials proposed a 6 percent wage increase for the period from October 2010 and October 2016, an insulting offer that would have left staff far behind the rate of inflation.

Associate professors at CUNY earn approximately $90,000 annually, but adjuncts, who make up the majority of the teaching staff, are paid only $3,000 per course.

The approximately 10,000 non-faculty workers, represented by District Council 37 (DC 37), have been without a contract for even longer, since 2008. About 7,000 workers at CUNY earn less than $15 an hour.

Cuomo’s latest cynical maneuvers also include, in addition to dividing SUNY and CUNY, an attempt to drive a wedge between teachers and students. The governor’s budget proposal includes $240 million that would be used for retroactive raises for CUNY teachers and adjuncts, members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC). This would be conditional on the city making up the $485 million budget hole, however. The city currently pays about 10 percent of CUNY’s $3 billion annual budget.

Students are understandably determined to fight for their right to higher education, and faculty and staff equally resolute in defending their wages and benefits. The organizers of the March 10 protest, however, the PSC and DC 37, are determined to cover up the political issues and to work with the Democratic politicians to impose additional sacrifices and concessions.

The tactic advanced is that of putting pressure on the Democratic Party. Focusing on the Machiavellian operations of Cuomo, the unions cover up the role of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.

The ongoing feud between Cuomo and de Blasio has several sources. Albany and New York City regularly maneuver on budget issues, largely in order to avoid their own responsibility for continuing attacks on education and other public services. The current governor and mayor are also associated with slightly different factions of the Democrats, roughly paralleling the divisions between Clinton and Sanders in the current primary campaign. De Blasio has recently thrown his support behind Clinton, a move that Sanders has pledged to follow once she secures the presidential nomination.

There are no significant differences between Cuomo and de Blasio, a fact just attested to by the mayor’s refusal to criticize the governor’s budget proposal, even though he was informed of the demand to shift hundreds of millions of dollars of the CUNY budget onto the city’s shoulders at the last minute.

Cuomo has used de Blasio as a “liberal” foil to demonstrate his “moderate” credentials, although that has not prevented him making some of his own tactical shifts in a “left”-talking direction.

The governor says his proposal is just the opening of budget negotiations, and de Blasio agrees, preparing for deal-making that will reflect the interests of various sections of the corporate and financial establishment in the city and state.

The mayor has already mended fences, to the extent it was necessary, with the city’s corporate and real estate establishment, following his “progressive” campaign for mayor in 2013. Within his first five months in office he worked out contracts with the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) that offset meager raises by raiding retiree benefits of Long Island Rail Road workers and raising health care costs for teachers.

Nor did de Blasio deliver even his promised puny reforms to tackle the scandal of record inequality. He quickly surrendered on the proposal to levy modest tax increases on the wealthy in order to fund pre-kindergarten. His housing program has won the support of most of the big real estate developers, who are benefiting while creating a pathetically small amount of “affordable” housing units.

Both the PSC and DC 37 refused to endorse Cuomo during his reelection campaign in 2014, and they seek to portray him as the sole culprit in the attacks on CUNY staff and students, while turning a blind eye to de Blasio’s record.

The lie peddled by the unions and their political supporters is that the Democratic Party is the vehicle through which education can be defended. It was for this purpose that CUNY Rising Alliance—the name adopted by the coalition of student and community groups with the Working Families Party, the New York City Central Labor Council and various union locals—presented a list of demands addressed to Cuomo at the March 10 protest.

Reporters from the World Socialist Web Site went to the protest, and to the nearby Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), in order to discuss the defense of CUNY.

Victoria, a New York public school teacher, said, “I came out here for the faculty and students. Once the funding is cut it trickles down and affects those people, and it is very hard to get back.

“Cuomo has made many cuts that have impacted the public schools, and it is always the privately funded entities that have benefited. CUNY is also a really great school, and affordable. If they make these cuts it is going to take opportunities away from the students I teach.”

Khalid, a graduate student at CUNY, said, “They are raising tuition and cutting education despite a budget surplus. This is going to impact the quality of education at these schools. We already have most of the work being done by adjuncts, and you can tell the difference when the professor feels he is in a stable position. Despite this, I want to stress I’ve gone to three different universities and CUNY has one of the best faculties.”

Sam, a student at Hunter College, said, “These cuts are being used to fill in the holes in the budget. They are taxing those who aren’t working, and those are the people that will suffer. Many of the students at CUNY are first-generation college students, or already have to work a job to go to school. Even if you are a full-time student this is going to follow us after we graduate, we are going to have to pay this back in student loans.”

Jesus Arriaga, a student at BMCC, added, “This is evil for them to take the money away from students who cannot afford to be put in a worse situation. Due to student loans, I am already $5,000 in the hole, but I needed these loans to pay for books, subway fare, food and clothing.

“Jobs around here only pay $8.75 to $9 an hour, and after taxes you end up with about $600 a month. If I wasn’t living with my mother, I would be a homeless person trying to get an education.”

The Socialist Equality Party and the International Youth and Students for Social Equality urges adjuncts, faculty, CUNY workers and students to draw the political lessons of the role of the unions and their reactionary alliance with the Democrats. Forty years after the imposition of tuition for the first time in the history of the City University, the attacks on higher education are escalating in tandem with the deepening capitalist crisis.

The attacks can only be defeated with a new political strategy. It is necessary to break with both Democrats and Republicans, and to launch a united struggle of students, faculty and staff, fighting for the restoration of free tuition as well as the defense of wages and conditions of all CUNY employees.

Independent committees of students and staff must start from the needs of the working class, turning out to all sections of workers and youth and making the defense of education part of a broader program, a socialist program to defend basic social rights.

Click here to contact the Socialist Equality Party .

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