|The following interview with Barbara Bowen took place
in March 2000 during her successful campaign as the New Caucus candidate
for the Presidency of the PSC (Professional Staff Congress/AFT), the faculty
and staff union at the City University of New York. It has been edited
AW: As a feminist graduate student, I am very interested in the intersection of your roles as a feminist and as a labor activist. I heard you speak at a panel on feminism and labor sponsored by the Graduate Centerís Womenís Studies program last fall. You had said something about labor movementís history of opposing some feminist and anti-racist struggles. I was wondering if you could say a little more about that. Why has there been an uneasy history there? How do you work with that? I assume things must be changing somewhat because I do see a lot of feminists very actively involved in labor issues now.
BB: Yes, some unions have had a history of actively opposing civil rights struggles, anti-racist struggles, and feminist struggles. It is a long , complicated in which some unions have been active in supporting progressive race and gender causes and then have been not so strong on those issues in their own workplace. Others have had the opposite record. Iím not really expert enough to talk about the whole history of the relation of labor to anti-racist and feminist struggles. But one of the historic problems in the labor movement is that traditionally itís been seen in this country as a movement of white men, and of workers defined in a certain way, even when labor has been trying to move in other directions.
But recently, I think youíre right. Labor has lost so many members in the last 20 or 30 years, but one of the ways it is beginning to have a little bit of resurgence is through workers who traditionally were not unionized. One group is women workers in service industries and another is professional workers. So, for me, that is one of the interesting things. I think the question I was raising in that panel last fall was about the intersection between feminism and labor struggles, and that intersection is not unproblematic. But in the last 15 years as labor has been in some small ways regaining members, one of the fronts on which it has been regaining are women workers. Women workers have started some really interesting feminist ways of labor organizing. Just as there are feminist ways of thinking about everything else, there are feminist ways of thinking about labor. This is done through reconceiving invisible parts of the work that women do in the labor movement and rethinking womenís ways of organizing. For instance, when women clerical workers were organizing at Harvard, the women organizers didnít use any campaign literature, which is really anathema to anyone who has been doing union work. They thought that women had a way of talking to the mostly women workers, a way of connecting to each other that the traditional piece of campaign literature does not allow. They didnít just run by your desk, plop a piece of literature on it, and think that you were in the group. They didnít allow themselves that crutch; they insisted on talking one on one Ė and they saw that as a feminist way of connecting. Not that women canít use literature also to campaign, but it sometimes obscures the kind of connection that we really need. They were very successful using that method.
So, one question for me is how to think about being a feminist in the labor movement, a movement that hasnít historically defined itself as a feminist movement, and how to bring those concerns together.
AW: Going back to that feminist panel, I was struck that we have so many feminists here within CUNY who are so active in labor. Itís actually something I wasnít fully aware of Ė I certainly knew about your leadership and I knew about some others Ė and I was so excited after that panel to hear all these voices and to see all of these women together. But at the same time I was also somewhat discouraged, because I was wondering why I havenít known about this and, in this Graduate Center that has such an incredible feminist presence, why I donít associate labor with feminism here. Why do I only think of the academics, when we clearly have so many people doing a lot of good work on labor?
BB: Well, the question of associating labor with feminism in general is the issue. I donít think there has been a long association of labor with feminism, even though there are dynamite women organizers. There have always been women in the movement and women in leadership positions even when they havenít been acknowledged in those positions. Many different unions have depended almost entirely on women doing the organizing. But the image of the labor movement is not that. You are right that at the Grad Center we have a stunning feminist presence, a fabulous collection of women doing work in the community and also doing feminist writing, research, teaching, and scholarship. And a lot of them are working on labor. I think that labor issues is one of the big new frontiers of our time; I think itís possible that the new movements that we are going to see are going to be movements around work. So, maybe weíre just coming into the moment when all the different feminists who are interested in labor issues are going to be able to come together and identify themselves as a group because I think youíre right that that really hasnít happened. There are many different people who have done studies on welfare, on social movements, on childcare, and on writing about labor, but we havenít seen ourselves as a force to begin with. But one thought that certainly is on my mind is that one of the new major arenas for social movement would be labor issues.
AW: It would be very encouraging, and it sounds like it makes sense for feminist scholars to go in that direction with the work theyíre doing. I keep thinking back to students now though, because if the faculty havenít quite cohered yet, the students havenít either. There certainly are students who are very active, and there are certainly feminist students who are very active, but feminist students as a group, similar to feminist faculty here, are not identifying themselves necessarily as a widespread group focused on organizing.
BB: But students at an earlier level are. One of the things that I think is really interesting is the amount of organizing that college students are doing on labor issues, specifically on sweatshop issues. So thereís a difference between the students who are involved in working on labor issues that donít involve their own labor, and graduate students who are working on their own labor issues. Both of those are crucial, and this raises the question of why labor has suddenly become a field in which undergraduates and even high school students get energized and do work. There are a lot of reasons for that. One, I think, is that it feels like a new field to struggle in. If your parents were activists, they might have been activists in civil rights or in womenís rights, or even in gay rights for the younger students, but they probably wouldnít have been activists in labor. Labor, oddly because itís very old terrain in which to struggle, feels new for students. Also, the injustices in labor are so palpable; sweatshop labor and the exploitation can be made so vivid. And the implication of the students themselves through their activity as consumers also makes labor issues very vivid for them. The other thing that makes labor a compelling field for student activists is that it is multi-racial and multi-gendered; itís an area where white students can connect to people of color in their places of work, and also where students of different races can work together. So I think thereís an appeal to labor for students. I often ask myself why a lot of undergraduates are placing their activism there right now. Why are they directing their energy there? Itís great that they are, so in one sense there is an example of students involved in labor struggles. Then I think that what you were talking about is the graduate students, many of whom are very exploited themselves. So, you donít feel that it has really gelled here for students to think of themselves as conscious of labor issues?
AW: I think that many of the graduate students here are very conscious, but not really active. But not everyone is even conscious of the problems. For instance, a friend of mine once said to me, ďWell, I donít think the pay that we get as adjuncts is so bad. This is pretty good.Ē I remember being struck by that and thinking, ďCan you live on this pay? Do you need a second job? Or are you being supported by student loans or maybe by family?Ē You canít live on this pay, and yet she was thinking it was decent pay for what we do. It is very true that undergraduates, and graduate students too, are very interested in the labor of others Ė looking at other exploited people and saying ďI can help youĒ or ďThis is unjust.Ē But itís a little bit harder to say it about yourself, to say, ďI am being exploited.Ē
BB: It is. I think it is harder. I see that with full-time employees now in the work that Iím doing with the New Caucus in the union. Itís harder to see that because it can make you feel foolish for having allowed that to happen to yourself. And it can make you feel degraded to admit that youíre not being compensated in the way that you should be. I think thatís true for full-time workers in the university also, as our salaries have become noncompetitive here at CUNY and as funding has been withdrawn. In one sense itís the easiest thing in the world to say ďIím being underpaid,Ē but in another sense itís not because it suggests that you could assent to that. I can see that itís difficult to acknowledge that.
AW: Last week when you were speaking here at the Graduate Center you said that the CUNY union has internalized the idea that CUNY is poor and underfunded. If you are working at a public university is it somewhat easy to accept the idea that you are not being exploited, but that lack of funding is just a fact of life at public universities, and that you are sacrificing for the good of the public? Is that a part of the mindset that accepts CUNYís inadequate funding?
BB: Yes, although the underpayment of part-timers is not limited at all to public universities.
AW: Right, but with full-timers?
BB: Yes, with full-timers I think it is. I think the biggest piece of resistance is to the idea that there could in fact be more funding, that itís not a zero sum game with funding. The resistance that we [the New Caucus] have met as an energetic, insurgent group in the union is to the possibility that in fact there could be more funding. New York is 49th in the country in funding for public higher education and weíre certainly one of the richest states in the country. Only Mississippi ranks lower than New York. We have a $3 billion state surplus, and yet public higher education has been systematically disinvested in. Itís not just a casual series of cuts; itís a conscious disinvestment in public higher education certainly, and in education in general. Itís scandalous that New York would be 49th in the country.
So, itís very easy to internalize the idea that of course thereís never going to be any more. It is easy to internalize the idea at CUNY that if you get more for one group, itís going to mean less for somebody else. And thatís the real trouble. The immediate reaction to any agenda that says itís unjust and unprofessional for counselors to be paid less than they were in the past, or for some to have fewer vacation days than in the past, or that itís wrong for adjuncts to be underpaid or have weaker health benefits, is that if you get more for them itís going to mean less for us. That goes along also with the acceptance of awful conditions at CUNY, like oh yes, of course the linoleum is falling off the floor, and the blinds donít work, and the bathrooms arenít clean. But thatís the public sphere, and itís that mentality that our caucus in the union really wants to reverse. We realize that itís a very slow process because the mentality across the country is that if something is public it has to be less good than something that is private. There has been a massive reversal in which the public sphere has been completely degraded in this country so that it is just assumed that public education is not as good as private education. Itís not impossible that we could raise the level of the public sphere and reinvest in it. Thatís really our biggest campaign Ė to insist that there is money, which there is, for public higher education, that itís a deep benefit in every way to the public, and itís something that people must put their money back into. Once you begin to shift that titanic mindset, then you can begin to say, okay itís possible that everyoneís salary can come up and everyoneís conditions can improve.
AW: But it is a huge undertaking. You have to start with the faculty and everyone within the school systems to get them out of that mentality of ďweíre always going to be poor; weíre always going to be competing amongst ourselves for money.Ē With organizing, how do you get over that competition between full-timers and part-timers?
BB: I think the question we had the most in our campaign for union leadership was, ďArenít you going to give away everything to the adjuncts?Ē I have two things to say about that: one is that it shows us something about how the opposition is relying on mobilizing peopleís fear, and also that the mindset of there is no more goes so, so deep. That really is one of the biggest issues that we have faced. There is so much to say that itís hard to know where to begin. The main thing is that our current union leadership has missed the boat in terms of the analysis of the relationship between part-timers and full-timers. Twenty years ago there were more than 11,000 full-time faculty lines at CUNY; now there are just over 5,000. In the last ten years alone we have lost more than 1,000 full-time faculty positions. But we havenít had an analysis of that phenomenon as anything more than a local disaster, and thatís where our caucus is different from the current union leadership. Now they finally realize, because theyíve heard it from us for five years and theyíve also heard it from CUNY Adjuncts Unite.
This is not just a question of certain vindictive personalities wanting to take away our budget; itís a whole restructuring of higher education nationally. As higher education budgets have been whittled away all over the country, schools have stayed afloat by hiring part-timers or by increasing their number of part-timers. Thatís how they can keep offering the same number of courses with budgets that are 40, 50 and 60% less than they used to be. This has been a national trend for at least fifteen years, and not having an analysis of it is the first thing that is wrong. So that is the first place I think our union let us down. The union leadership did not take action on it, and they did not make it visible to full-timers. And the really the crucial thing is that because union leaders didnít take action, they allowed the perception to grow that the economic interests of full-timers and part-timers are in competition. In fact, the only argument to make is that they absolutely are not. I would say two things: one is that of course the ability of university managers, nationally and internationally, to hire good and qualified people to work at depressed wages weakens and completely undermines the bargaining power of full-timers. Why should they increase a full-time faculty memberís salary to a competitive level from $40,000 to say $55,000 when they know that the courses will get taught by super-qualified people who are right here in the labor market who will get paid $2,000 or $3,000 a course? That totally undermines the bargaining ability of the full-timers and the ability of the full-timers to insist on full-time lines. Why should they bother to do that?
And the other argument thatís really speaking to full-timers, faculty as well as staff, is what happens as full-time lines are not replaced. In my own department in English at Queens College there were about 80 full-timers when I came twelve years ago, and there are now 50 or fewer. If the 30 who have retired, moved on, or even died had been replaced by full-timers we would now have 30 new full-time faculty colleagues who would be sharing the advising work, developing curriculum, and inventing new courses. The kind of oppression we feel as full-time faculty in the department, with very heavy loads from all the auxiliary work as well as the teaching, would be lifted because weíd have all these fabulous new colleagues. I feel that intensely because I work with many graduate students, whom I pine to have in our department as full-time members. We have a lot of them as part-timers, but they are not paid for office hours, they have to run off to teach elsewhere, and they are not given any kind of enfranchisement to participate like full-timers are. So, it is so deeply in the interest of full-timers to support pay parity and improved conditions for part-timers Ė one, because of the ethics and justice of that, and two, because itís in their material interest to do so.
The other thing I would add is what we could gain intellectually from the people who are teaching part-time. One big group, letís just say at CUNY, is the graduate students who have new knowledge and have so much to bring us. We need that on a full-time basis to revitalize. Itís just pointless to go on if you donít have new knowledge coming in. And another group is people who have been teaching who are not graduate students, who either have their PhDs or masters degrees. Many of them have been teaching developmental courses for a long time and have been right on the front lines of the developmental reading, writing, and math courses. They have a huge wellspring of knowledge about our students and experience and a way of teaching that we all need. In fact, their knowledge is being dismissed in a certain sense; it is not really accessible to everybody because they themselves are seen as a lower tier of teachers. So, I would say pedagogically and intellectually we lose tremendously as full-timers by not having our part-time colleagues as full-timers. So the case has to be made constantly, constantly, constantly that the interests of full-timers and part-timers are deeply united.
AW: At the beginning of your last response, you gave some statistics showing that as full time lines have been cut, there are more and more adjunct positions. You would think that would translate into more adjunct involvement and more adjunct union members. But that hasnít been the case really at CUNY. Has it been elsewhere?
BB: Yes, we have seen big labor struggles on the part of adjuncts at Wisconsin, Yale, Berkeley, UMass Boston. These are places where there have been really tremendous upheavals and gains by graduate student adjuncts. The role of our union in that story is complicated, but certainly our union leadership has utterly failed, and has been actively resistant to organizing part-timers at CUNY. Thatís something we just have to fault them on. Thereís no denying it; they have failed to organize part-timers into the union. We have a provision for an agency fee in our contract, which means that everyone shall be subject to the agency fee. So unless thereís some other agreement with the contract, which in fact there is, everyone will have the membership fee deducted from their paycheck, whether they join the union or not. Thatís a tremendous incentive for people to join, because once you join you have a voice. But that agency fee has not been applied to adjuncts. Certainly one way of thinking about that is to say that the union dues are a high percentage of an adjunctís pay, even though an adjunctís dues are lower than a full timerís. But it would certainly be possible to lower even further the adjunctsí dues and encourage more adjuncts to join and to apply the agency fee. That would do two things: first it would the boost the budget of the union tremendously, and also of course it would boost the intellectual capital of the political power of the union. There are 8,000 adjuncts at CUNY who are not part of the union. Theyíre represented by the union, but they donít have a voice. Thatís 8,000 possible members! We have a membership of just about 10,000, so there could be an 80% increase in membership. And those members could be very vocal and powerful advocates for us. We are missing a big sector of our membership that could be among the most powerful, energetic, articulate members of the union. So that organizing is something we certainly will make a priority.
AW: I have the sense that there are many adjuncts just waiting for the shift in leadership Ė they know that this change in leadership might be happening and once it does they will join the union. It is a bit discouraging that many graduate students and adjuncts in general have been waiting, but, on the other hand, nobody wants to pay dues when they know theyíre not even wanted and are not being represented. And that little bit of money goes a long way for an adjunct.
BB: I hope that is true that adjuncts are waiting Ė what a lovely picture of people waiting for us to get elected so they can join. And certainly if we get elected we have as an absolute priority hiring more organizers. The AFL-CIO has said in their recent guidelines that they are encouraging member unions to spend up to 10% of their budget on organizing. For us, that would be $700,000. And we donít even have a line on our budget for organizing currently! I wonít say that none is being done, but we certainly are not having results and the union is not growing in the way it should. Imagine if we hired somebody specifically to organize adjuncts into the union and to bring us into that strength Ė it would be great. Itís not just to organize people in just to have bodies, but to make sure that the union represents all of those members, to help people have a voice.
I think itís an interesting story about adjuncts at CUNY, whom in some ways you would expect to be among the most organized and politically active adjuncts because there are so many of you and because of New York Cityís traditions of politics. You could ask why the adjuncts here havenít been active, in the way that, say, adjuncts at Yale have been. I think one answer is unfortunately that the adjuncts here are already represented by a labor organization and thatís the PSC. And that hasnít been an organization that speaks to, understands the concerns of, or advocates for our adjuncts. I think in some ways that has held back adjunct organizing at CUNY. At other places where there havenít been unions, adjuncts have had to form their organizations. I know there have been various adjunct groups here Ė the current one is CUNY Adjuncts Unite Ė that have tried to ensure labor representation for adjuncts. I think the role of the union in that story has been really not to advance the concerns of adjuncts, and possibly even to put a break on possible organizing.
AW: Yes, that was one of the first things I heard about the union when I started teaching at John Jay. I was told that it doesnít represent us, and not to bother with it because things were never going to change. I was told that we have no control over any of this; if our health benefits get cut, they get cut. Thatís the line of thinking I heard. Of course, it infuriated me, but at the same time when so many of us are working several jobs, living in New York City where itís very expensive.Ö
BB: Yes, itís totally de-mobilizing.
AW: So the dilemma is where to even start. Plus, it goes back to the internalized notion that graduate students are supposed to be poor and that weíre only in training, not real professionals - yet. That idea that we should be grateful to have jobs and have no right to complain plays into the problem a bit too.
BB: Yes, absolutely. But thereís no reason why those jobs should be massively underpaid. And, more than that, that there shouldnít be full-time jobs at the end of the long, long training. Itís completely a fiction to maintain at this point that adjunct jobs are part training, when many people spend a long time in part-timer jobs. Also, the university relies on your labor Ė and it is labor. It is training in a certain sense, but teaching is always training, at whatever your stage.
AW: Clearly, weíre not being perceived as being in training Ė or we wouldnít be just dropped into classes and told to teach with very little training and supervision. We are teaching our own classes; we are not TAís. And we know how much the university relies upon on our labor. But one other point I wanted to touch upon is regarding the debates within CUNY about remediation and the claims about the lack of quality students. Iíve been thinking about the students and their perceptions of themselves. I know some adjuncts think ďIím just an adjunctĒ as a way of excusing low pay, etc. Iím wondering if the students are having the same attitude of ďIím only at CUNY, and Iím only in a remedial course, and Iím not worth anythingĒ because the Mayor and the Board of Trustees keep describing them are worthless. And Iím wondering what happens to the education level when the students are so demoralized.
BB: I think thatís a great question. I donít think we even know the deep psychological effect of having a Mayor who says CUNYís a system should be blown up, and a head of the Board of Trustees who says that the graduation rate from CUNY community colleges is 1%. And he engineers that by cutting off the statistics at the point at which they are at 1%, when in fact if you take our four and five year graduation rates they are above the national average for community colleges. And if you take the seven and eight year graduation rates from the senior colleges, they too are above the national average. So, how does it work on people when those statistics are being completely manipulated to degrade and demean people?
I think youíre absolutely right; there is a sense in not all but many of our students that ďIím only at CUNY.Ē Everything communicates that to them. That whole culture of scarcity, which I feel our CUNY leadership and our union leadership have allowed to develop, is everywhere in the buildings. If you go into a place where everything is ugly, where the registrarís office is understaffed, where you have to wait in a gigantic line, where you have to call eighteen numbers and be put on hold before you get any question answered about your transcript Ė everything about that communicates to you that you are worthless. The contrast is really stark between that and a well-funded, private institution. You forget about it when youíre here, thinking this is the norm until you go to give a talk at some other college where everything communicates to the students that they are important. The grassy lawns, the space, the time, the nice rooms, the wooden tables instead of metal, the windows that open and blinds that close Ė everything about that communicates to people ďYou are important and your learning is important.Ē There are lots of other things too Ė the size of your class, the level of excitement of your professors and the staff. I think this sense of being degraded just by being here must go very, very deep in our students. We are working both with that and against that quite actively in the classroom; the work against that mindset is part of the hidden narrative of CUNY.
AW: Itís almost as if students are being told they are lucky to be here, not that they deserve to be. As a teacher itís hard when you know that if you fail your student, your student might not be back next semester and might never graduate from college. I find myself in an awkward position, struggling to figure out how much I can care about my students, and how much should I care about my students when Iím clearly told that Iím not supposed to. But I do.
BB: Itís interesting that you say that you get the message that you are not supposed to care about your students. I actually feel that there is a competing tendency to work incredibly hard for students.
AW: I mean whatís coming from outside of CUNY.
BB: Yes, from outside you do get that message. But yesterday, I was at Hostos Community College and there are some fabulous people there. Person after person that we met was doing incredible things with their students, with so much support and so much energy. There are a huge number of people at CUNY who were drawn to it because of the potential of working with these students and because of the massive desire that these students express. It is so powerful when you feel that desire for learning that they have, and I think there are a lot of people who are drawn to CUNY because of that and are fueled by that, working in the interstices. Meanwhile, everyone is saying that CUNY should be blown up and they are de-funding it, and yet there is this flowering of work going on. Thatís the story of CUNY really, despite all this stuff coming from outside.
AW: Yes, it is encouraging that there are so many people excited about the work they do here. And I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to teach in New York City, with a range of students I wouldnít have at other schools Ė with students who have a different attitude towards education than I certainly had as an undergrad.
BB: It would be hard for me to teach anyplace else now. Yes, I would love to have a lower teaching load, Iíd love to have smaller classes, Iíd love to have time for research. I would love to have good conditions and teach at CUNY. Thatís all I want for us. Itís not such a big thing. I would like us all to have the conditions of real college teaching and do that in conjunction with our student population. We should have the professional conditions that allow us to renew ourselves and create new things and do research and scholarship. We should be able to really work with our students and give them the resources they deserve in this place. And thatís exactly what is under attack Ė anything but the most minimal and derisory resources for our students and for the faculty and staff.
AW: It seems incredible to me that you are able to do so much. You have your position here at the Graduate Center and at Queens College, and you have been so active in labor and are now running for the Presidency of the PSC. It is inspiring Ė so many of us get stuck looking for that extra hour in the day while you seem to manage it so smoothly.
BB: Well, itís energizing. Itís very energizing to do the political work, And it is very like teaching. I always just wanted to be a teacher, but then I was really drawn to social justice movements. They come together in my work at CUNY; thatís one way of explaining why itís possible Ė because those are the two big desires of my life and here they are together and they have a lot in common. So, itís incredibly exciting and energizing to see people working for something. Certainly getting to know the university as a whole has been a great breakthrough Ė and that didnít happen just with this union election campaign, but over the ten or eleven years that I have been involved in the defense of CUNY actions. Suddenly the whole place opens up because you have a sense of the whole university, not just your own department or your own college. It gives you something tremendous. The intellectual connections, the political connections Ė between faculty and students, between staff and faculty, and with other faculty Ė have been great.
And it does fuel my scholarship too, although I have slowed down tremendously. Iíve never been a fast writer, so it has meant that I am now an even slower writer. But it has certainly influenced what I write about. Some things that Iíve been writing recently are about the way the field of early modern studies, especially the study of early modern women, has been influenced and shaped by the professional conditions in academia. One of the things that Iíve been interested in is showing how the epistemology of the field, the actual subjects we study and the way that we conceive of them, has real connections to things like the job market in academia. One connection is that just as some of these new fields of research were coming on the horizon we started to lose the influx of full-time faculty who were being trained in those fields. I think that we could really look at the history of disciplines in terms of the job market and the labor system in academia. Some of the things that we tend to explain just in terms of intellectual currents, in fact, also have been deeply influenced by material conditions of work. So when we look at the field of early modern womenís studies, we have to look at whoís getting jobs and who has the time to do research. My sense sometimes in that field of early modern womenís studies, for instance, is that itís been in some ways slow to connect with feminist theory and has been hanging on to the biographical as the central way of thinking about women writers. I feel that has something to do with the lack of new full-time faculty members in those fields; the people trained in that area have had a harder time coming into the academy than people just five or ten years ahead of them, like me, did. So, thatís one example of how in terms of my scholarship it has been revelatory to make the connection between the labor system and scholarly studies. Plus, my interest in questions of globalization and race especially in the early modern period has a lot to do with teaching at CUNY. So there are real ways it broadens your scholarship, your thinking, your connections with people.
You feel a little bit pulled apart, but it is not alienated labor, thatís
for sure. It is completely engaged. I met a man yesterday at Hostos who
said, ďNow that Iíve become active again in work with the New Caucus, Iíve
become so happy.Ē It was so nice when he said that: ďIíve become so happy.Ē
And it is true. You do become happy. It is hard to balance all of the different
roles, it is hard in my own head to occupy different positions. I would
say that is the hardest thing. But you do become happy.
Ann Wallace, CUNY Graduate Center