Left Forum panel: “Rank-and-File Academic Organizing”

by Sofya Aptekar, Sociology

The Caucus for a Democratic Union (CDU) was formed to promote greater democracy, empowerment, and participation in the FSU. This type of rank-and-file movement is far from unique to our union. On June 2, 2018, I participated in a Left Forum panel, Rank-and-File Academic Organizing: Turning the Tide Against Austerity. I shared our struggles at UMass Boston with the budget crisis, state-driven austerity, and FSU problems that led us to form CDU. My fellow panelists represented CUNY Struggle, a rank-and-file movement that inspires our efforts at CDU, Graduate Workers of Columbia, and Barnard Contingent Faculty. Our sizable audience included members of these and other higher-ed unions, teachers’ unions, and government worker unions.

What became clear quickly is that across unions in very different settings, rank-and-file face the same issues with their union leadership:

  • Fear of dissent
  • Constant references to alienating the mythical base, often in the form of that “science PhD” in the case of universities
  • Restrictions on emailing own members
  • Thinking of themselves as partners with the administration, playing the inside game
  • Aversion to direct action
  • Events and activities that are disempowering to members
  • No consequential decisions happen outside a small circle of leaders

All this can lead to burnout among the most active and committed union members.

Rank-and-file groups like CDU, CUNY Struggle, Educators for a Democratic Union within the MTA, and the Movement of Rank and File Educators within UFT fight to create membership-driven, democratic, and accountable unions. These groups can open up the space for direct action and critical analysis. They can also broaden and connect to other workers.

Our colleagues at CUNY Struggle are in many ways in a similar – and worse – situation across their system. They are dealing with union leadership that talks the talk – “social justice magnetic poetry”, in the words of panel organizer Jarrod Shanahan – but remains undemocratic and less than committed to the plight of egregiously underpaid adjuncts. Still, the state of many CUNY buildings will make Healey or Wheatley seem luxurious.

CUNY Struggle has found that union elections are an opportunity to organize rank and file members and disrupt undemocratic patterns, forcing incumbents to debate and provide critical/alternative analyses. It is also helpful to think beyond individual leaders and their personal failings to the structural position of those who mediate between management and the workers.

Sonam Singh, who is part of the new Barnard Contingent Faculty union, pointed out that too often we talk about the union vs the university/college. But instead of calling them “the university”, we need to say “the current management team”. Great advice for us given the churn in our current management team!

For more on Left Forum panel, see Alex Battle’s post here.

For some more on higher-ed union organizing, see:

The push for graduate student unions signals a deep shift in academia

May Day in a Bureaucratic Union

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