At the New School, Labor Struggles Unite Students and Workers

Solidarity creates a formidable challenge for the New York City university's administration.
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The New School's University Center.

The New School's University Center.

Students making their way into the New School's University Center on May 8th passed through a gauntlet of labor demonstrations. Reaching the center on 5th Avenue between East 13th and 14th streets in Manhattan, they were confronted by posters affixed to the building from ground level up to the windows of the second-story cafeteria: some excoriating University President David Van Zandt; some inviting students to join the ongoing occupation of the cafeteria; and still others expressing solidarity with the university workers' labor struggles.

Next, students walked by the picketing workers themselves, three distinct groups of whom had formed a tight line, together with their supporters. Upon entering the University Center building, they passed tables of academic student workers sporting pro-union T-shirts and stickers, and climbed stairwells flyered with more agitprop. Up the stairs on the second floor, the cafeteria was festooned with communist and anarchist propaganda, food was voluntarily prepared and freely distributed, and anywhere between a dozen to 100 occupiers were present, depending on the time of day.

The scene at the New School during the first weeks of May was perhaps intentionally reminiscent of France 50 years ago, when "May '68" saw radical students and striking workers bring the nation to a standstill. Then, as in now, solidarity between students and workers created a formidable challenge to the powers that be.

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Founded in 1919 by faculty from Columbia University who objected to its imposition of a loyalty oath to the United States, the New School has historically been associated with leftist politics. Its graduate school for political and social science, the New School for Social Research, was established in 1933 as the University-in-Exile, a haven for scholars fleeing Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, including philosopher and anti-fascist Hannah Arendt. That legacy of leftism extends to the 21st century, when students and supporters occupied school buildings to protest against the former university administration in both 2008 and 2009.

The challenge to the current New School administration under Van Zandt centers on labor disputes involving three groups of workers: cafeteria staff, academic student workers, and student advisers.

In March, the New School informed all 32 full-time cafeteria staff members that it would be bringing its dining services in house beginning July 1st. As they were employed by Chartwells, a third-party foodservice provider, cafeteria staff would have to re-apply for their jobs under ambiguous terms. Although the staffers were unionized with UNITE HERE Local 100, their contract was with Chartwells and a new one had yet to be negotiated with the New School, leading some to suspect that this was a union-busting tactic. Mia Halsey, a junior political science student, believes that the administration sought to replace the unionized staff with student workers, who would be paid lower wages without any benefits. "A lot of the cafeteria workers have been here for up to 16 years. They have pensions and benefits that they depend on," she says. "One of the workers expressed that, if he lost his job, he would immediately return to homelessness. The stakes were really high." In contrast, the administration states that workers were "invited to re-apply for positions offering equal or better pay and full university benefits" and that only a "small number of positions are open to students as part of our overall financial support and commitment to students."

Halsey was one of about 100 students who began an occupation of the cafeteria on May 1st, also known as May Day or International Workers' Day. Michael Brown, a chef at the New School for two years, describes how the occupiers simply entered the cafeteria, sat down, and declared it closed until the administration offered the staff a contract that the staff members approved. "It was like Moses parting the sea," he says. "It was amazing."

While the cafeteria was closed for business as usual, it became open for radical politics. It continued distributing food, but for free as produced by volunteers using the remaining supplies and any donations that came in. Although the occupation was organized by an on-campus reading group called Communist Student Group, it attracted students of different tendencies, as well as leftist organizations in New York. Both the Democratic Socialists of America and Workers World Party organized rallies in support of the occupation, as well as hosted security trainings and made donations toward food, respectively. The Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, which facilitates collaboration between local anarchists, assisted with media and held its monthly general assembly in the cafeteria. A panel there featured Richard Wolff, Marxian economist and visiting professor at the New School, alongside cafeteria staff and academic student workers.

The academic student workers had begun their own strike on May 8th. Newly unionized in 2017 as Student Employees at the New School with the United Automobile Workers Local 7902 (SENS-UAW), more than 800 mostly part-time research assistants, tutors, and other academic workers spent almost a year in negotiations for livable wages and basic benefits—demands the administration failed to take seriously. "The administration has agreed to 1 percent increases, which barely keeps up with inflation," says Noah Shuster, a political science Ph.D. student who's been working as a teaching assistant for three years. He contrasts the New School's offer with the predicament of students like him: "Students who come from working-class backgrounds, like myself, have to work five jobs every single semester no matter what to just live in the city." In a statement, the administration claims that it has been negotiating in good faith "since September" and that it remains committed to reaching a "timely" contract.

As SENS-UAW had voted to authorize the strike back in April, the cafeteria occupation came as "a very lucky coincidence," in Shuster's words. SENS-UAW was already holding a rally outside of University Center on May 1st when the occupation began, and many of the first occupiers were academic student workers. In return, when the SENS-UAW strike began, cafeteria staff walked the picket line in solidarity.

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Also on the picket line were a third group of New School workers: Student advisers, 12 of whom are employed by the university part time. New School recently announced cuts to their benefits totaling approximately $4,000, as well as rescinding their ability to hold other jobs within their departments—despite the student adviser position offering a maximum of only 20 hours of work per week. "We were informed this development was a result of the university having to go over records of all student workers at school and found the 'anomaly' with student advisers," says Ibrahim Shikaki, a Ph.D. student in economics and student adviser for two years. "We were the only student workers who were offered these 'privileges.' As such, they were forced to take these privileges away." As with the academic student workers, the New School claims it is working with the student advisers "to find a solution."

Unable to join the New School's clerical union (International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 1205) as they are students, but unable to join SENS-UAW because they don't perform teaching or research work, student advisers are not unionized. Regardless, they chose to go out on a wildcat strike alongside the academic student workers. Despite there being no formal coordination, student advisers walked the picket line with SENS-UAW and also participated in the occupation in support of the cafeteria staff.

The fluid involvement of occupiers, cafeteria staff, academics student workers, and student advisers in each other's struggles created a force whose sum was greater than its parts. Militancy, magnitude, and legitimacy were exchanged, bolstering otherwise timid, small, or dismissable individual campaigns. Participants openly connected their goals, some even drawing a line from the occupation to the strike as a series of escalating actions that would continue. While the unions themselves could not openly endorse the legally dubious occupation, sources close to UNITE HERE and UAW describe both as appreciative of the occupiers, viewing their actions as putting further pressure on the administration to negotiate favorably.

Magnitude and legitimacy aside, the degree of success that each group of workers has thus far been able to achieve appears to dovetail with their militancy. On May 10th—the 10th day of the occupation—UNITE HERE Local 100 released a statement declaring victory for the cafeteria staff, with all staff members retaining their jobs under their original contract until a new one is negotiated with the New School. Six days later, after cleaning the cafeteria, the occupiers decamped. SENS-UAW, on the other hand, has yet to reach an agreement with the New School, which some academic student workers have attributed to the union's rolling back of the strike from going on indefinitely, to four days with the possibility of extending it indefinitely, to just four days, wrapping up on May 12th. For their part, the student advisers also ended their strike after meeting with administration and delivering a revised list of demands, which they are waiting to hear back about.

The occupation, strikes, and pickets may be over for now, but perhaps the solidarity formed will endure. When the occupation was still ongoing, cafeteria staff member Michael Brown expressed his hope for the future following the panel with Richard Wolff. "Hopefully, tomorrow I can wake up and get the call that everything is good and I can go back to work. But that doesn't mean we've won, because I still worry about these guys," he said of the students. "We want them to have theirs too, because if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have won."

In the audience was one of the New School's security officers, but he apparently wasn't there to spy on or police the affair. His union's contract with the school expires in June.

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