By Miles Hamberg, Courtesy of The Real News Network.
At midnight on Dec. 10, part-time faculty at The New School and Parsons School of Design officially suspended their strike after a nearly seven-hour-long mediation session with the university administration ended with a tentative agreement. The union’s bargaining committee, which is composed entirely of part-time faculty at The New School, unanimously chose to suspend the strike while they prepare to hold a ratification vote. Three hundred part-time faculty members actually watched the final mediation session on Zoom. Alex Robins, a union staff member and part-time instructor teaching at Parsons School of Design, described the scene, “The mood was absolutely ebullient.”
“I breathed for the first time in a month. They came into negotiations seemingly aiming to break the union. They tried to force a harmful impasse contract. They threatened to replace us. They threatened our wages and our health care up until that moment. It was validation that we were stronger than they were cruel. And they knew it and we knew it,” Robins said.
More than 1,600 part-time faculty members hit the picket line on Nov. 16 after their previous contract expired and the university failed to deliver an offer that the union, ACT-UAW Local 7902, could recommend to its members. Part-time faculty hadn’t received a raise since 2018, and they were striking for better pay, expanded health care eligibility, and improved job security.
The tentative agreement was reached on the 25th day of the strike, which the union has been calling the longest adjunct strike in American history. According to the union, if ratified, the contract would include the largest raises part-time faculty at The New School have ever achieved. The agreement also includes:
- 12 weeks of paid family leave at 67% pay;
- improved terms on annualization (i.e., when the university must reappoint part-time faculty on an annual—not semester-by-semester—basis with a minimum number of courses);
- a guaranteed minimum “baseload” of two courses to teach per year for annualized faculty, which expands access to health insurance (the university had previously annualized faculty with baseloads of one course as part of its scheme to save on wages and benefits, which left many part-time faculty ineligible for health insurance);
- compensation for labor performed outside of the classroom, like holding office hours or attending departmental meetings;
- muti-year appointments that last six years instead of three;compensation for labor performed outside of the classroom, like holding office hours or attending departmental meetings;
- the reservation of three full-time faculty positions per year, exclusively for part-time faculty;
- language that expands health care eligibility; and
- health care coverage that remains consistent from year to year and is not subject to unilateral changes made solely at the university’s discretion.
Union members paid at the lowest rates (i.e., those who teach private music lessons for students ages 4-18) will see their minimum pay-per-course increase from $998.34 to $1,590 in 2023, and to $2,550 by 2027. That’s a 155% increase by the end of the contract’s five-year term. Part-time faculty teaching studio and lab courses, which constitute the sizable portion of classes taught at the renowned Parsons School of Design, currently start at $4,299.30 for a standard 3-credit, 45-hour course. Those same faculty will see a 19% bump in their pay next year to $5,125, and will make $6,875 by the end of the contract—a 60% increase. Faculty at the upper ends of the pay scale will also receive raises. A 45-hour lecture course that currently nets $5,753.25 will increase 13% to $6,475 next year, and about 36% by the end of the contract ($7,820).
The union members had good reason to celebrate. Throughout the strike and the seven months of negotiating, the university administration deployed an array of corporate union-busting tactics that were antithetical to The New School’s progressive heritage and offensive to part-time faculty, students, parents, and other educators on campus. Numerous part-time faculty members reported feeling not only disrespected and undervalued by the university administrators throughout the whole ordeal, but also spurned and deeply wounded by the administration’s callous, openly hostile attempts to squash the strike and bully them back into subservience. But in the end, with a whole lot of solidarity and cooperation, the workers prevailed.
In a jubilant video posted on Instagram, Matthew Spiegelman, a part-time faculty member at Parsons who had been recording daily videos to provide updates on negotiations, proclaimed, “It’s got to be one of the most historical contracts in education history.”
“We succeeded on our own terms,” he added. “We overwhelmed the university administration and the Board of Trustees and we got a fair and just contract for the people who teach here now, and for the people who will come and teach here in the future.”
In the week leading up to the Thanksgiving break, the university administration took a hardline approach that included a “last, best, and final” offer, the declaration of an impasse at the bargaining table, and a threat to impose the terms of the final contract offer unilaterally. Union members responded with a stunning 95% rejection of the offer, leading the university to agree to continue negotiations with a mediator. But even with the help of a mediator, according to members of the union’s bargaining team, the university administration remained bitterly adversarial during negotiations and continued using tactics befitting of a large corporation in the days leading up to the tentative agreement.
Part-time faculty members had anticipated that the university would look to recruit scabs since their strike began. Their suspicions were valid: The university’s only suggested “contingency” plan for the Spring, apparently, was hiring scabs. The university’s administration realized that the school could not function without its part-time faculty, who make up 87% of its educators. It’s ironic that, hours before a settlement was reached to halt the strike, the university asked students to self-grade—a truly economical alternative.
On Dec. 5, the university announced that it would withhold pay and contributions to both insurance and retirement benefits for all striking employees, regardless of whether they were full-time faculty, part-time faculty, or student workers. The next day, the university demanded that full-time faculty and student workers submit weekly attestation forms certifying their work during the prior week. These moves increased pressure on other campus workers to cross the union’s picket line.
Full-time faculty, some of whom have tenure, were outraged by the university’s actions. Three of the university’s six divisions released statements on Dec. 6 demanding the retraction of the university’s “loyalty oath.” Additionally, about 1,000 scholars, writers, artists, and activists pledged to boycott all events at the university. An open letter was also circulated by the American Association of University Professors at The New School, stating that full-time faculty from the university’s six divisions had met and discussed holding a vote of “no confidence” in the university’s senior administration, including the president.
The university’s escalation backfired tremendously. Both the part-time faculty union and the union for student workers on campus—a separate bargaining unit within ACT-UAW Local 7902—filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in response to the work certification forms. The impending threat of the union’s litigation before the NLRB had to have been alarming. The part-time faculty union’s lawsuit could’ve changed the legal status of their strike from an economic strike to a Unfair Labor Practices strike. This change would’ve limited the university’s ability to hire scabs and forced the university to rehire the part-time faculty on strike, regardless of whether it had already hired replacement workers. And they may have been owed back pay.
The university clearly felt the pressure, and movement toward the terms of the tentative agreement began rapidly. During mediation on Dec. 8, the university presented the union with an updated final offer that included a large concession on pay, with raises and compensation for their unpaid out-of-classroom work—two of the union’s core demands. This marked a significant change in the university’s approach.
The university clearly thought the union’s right to grieve changes in the health care plan was a vexing power that it preferred the union not to have. During the pandemic, the university changed the union’s health care plan without any prior consultation to a policy with worse coverage and significantly higher out-of-pocket costs on things like essential medications and medical procedures. Part-time faculty won an arbitration against the university thanks to their right to grieve the unilateral change in policy. A union staff member said that part-time faculty only began receiving their settlement checks awarded by the arbitration ruling after the tentative agreement was reached.
On Dec. 8, about two hours before the university made its updated proposal, hundreds of students occupied the University Center in response to the administration’s attacks on other workers on campus. Students had already felt betrayed by the university’s administration and were angry that they had missed nearly a month of classes. Most take a majority of their classes with part-time faculty, and students could be found on the picket line every day.
Union staffer Alex Robins stated that “no one can deny this is a fair contract with reasonable gains for workers,” and called the TA “an unbelievable platform to build on for the future with one of the most engaged union memberships in the country.”
This article is an edited version of a report published by Real News Network on December 16.