Protests amid quarantine: Unionists protect adjunct jobs, press for higher ed funding

Faculty and staff from area colleges and universities filled New York City’s midtown May 18 to protest the elimination of thousands of adjunct faculty jobs and threats to the City University of New York’s budget. Led by members of the faculty staff union, the Professional Staff Congress, protesters drove cars and rode bicycles festooned with signs reading, “Save Jobs” and “Save CUNY, the People’s University,” tooting their horns from a safe distance, to deliver this urgent message: Amid the COVID-19 economic crisis, the governor of New York must find adequate additional funding for higher education, including CUNY, and colleges must continue to employ adjunct faculty, who teach 56 percent of CUNY courses.

a woman holds a sign

CUNY students—many of them people of color, and many from low-income families—rely on adjunct faculty not just for an education but for the support they need to make it through to graduation. These faculty are among the lowest-paid workers at the university, and their job security is notoriously shaky, with short-term contracts and no guarantee of continued work from semester to semester. If they lose their jobs, many adjuncts will lose their health benefits, a particularly hard blow during a pandemic.

With the state budget threatened by reduced revenue due to COVID-19, some presidents at CUNY’s 25 campuses are anticipating budget cuts and pre-emptively proposing as much as a 40 percent reduction in the ranks of this vulnerable workforce.

“Adjunct faculty are not expendable,” says PSC President Barbara Bowen. “They are talented teachers and devoted mentors of students; they deserve far better than panicked, pre-emptive layoffs.” Bowen urged policymakers to consider other measures before cutting faculty. “CUNY management should be fighting to protect every job at the university, not finding ways to cut courses and jobs.”


person on bike at rally
Photo by Benjamin Shepard

Michelle Strah, a veteran who teaches in John Jay College’s International Crime and Justice Program, has already received an email informing her she will have no teaching assignment in the fall, but her concern is for the impact that will have on her students. “Laying off 40 percent of professors who provide necessary professional and technical expertise will mean CUNY students are denied the right to meaningful education,” she says. “Are we saying that our student population, from overwhelmingly disadvantaged, minority backgrounds, are second-class citizens who only merit a second-class education, warehoused in huge lecture classes?”

“We have been shortchanging our higher education system long before COVID-19 came to town,” says state Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris, one of many legislators who rallied with PSC members at a virtual press conference May 15. “To impose drastic cuts and layoffs at this time would make an already dire situation much worse.”


sign on car details support for NYC CUNY schools
Photo by Benjamin Shepard

“CUNY students are the next generation of virologists, educators, first responders and essential workers,” says state Sen. Andrew Gounardes. “Cutting classes, raising tuition and fees, and further starving CUNY of resources would be beyond shortsighted.”

Legislators and unionists agree that taxing ultra-millionaires and billionaires would help pay for public education. To that end, the protest caravan included signs demanding to “Tax the Rich” and “Make Billionaires Pay” as it drove past Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York City office and “Billionaires’ Row,” an Upper East Side area where several very wealthy people reside. Legislators have proposed a number of measures, including dedicated funding streams, an ultra-millionaires tax and the SHARE Act, which would increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for public services.

Street protests are not the only tool PSC is using: Members are standing in solidarity to fight adjunct cuts in other ways. At the College of Staten Island, where the president was considering a 35 percent cut in the number of adjuncts, department chairs pushed back during a budget meeting and then refused to send out an email informing adjuncts that they were about to lose their jobs. “We will not be complicit,” says Michael Paris, who chairs the political science and global affairs department at CSI. “It may be done, but we will not do it.” The plan was rescinded and is now on hold.Ultimately, the fight is about ensuring CUNY students have the education experience they deserve. “Our college motto is, ‘We learn so that we may serve,’” says Bianca Johnson, who teaches at Queens College. “But how are we adequately servicing our students if we’re being cut?”

[Virginia Myers, PSC Communications]