The Brooklyn College Vanguard

Low Qui Savage: A Sour Note From Union Brass

  Reader, if you’re like me, you’ve probably skipped past all the news in this “news” paper and gone right to the hot takes in the opinions section. Well, your loyalty is much appreciated, but before you go further, I’d encourage you to read my article on the rebranding of “7K or Strike,” and the state of adjunct organizing after last year’s “historic” contract. It’s a good example of the reporting that very few publications really bother with.

   One publication that you certainly won’t see a piece about adjunct activism in? PSC-CUNY’s official newspaper, the Clarion.

   I suspect when they chose to name their publication after a clarion, they meant it in an adjectival sense – “loud and clear” – or perhaps in the literal sense, as a war horn leading the masses into battle. But the name is also appropriate in a more sinister sense: for just as a clarion is a brass instrument, the Clarion is little more than an instrument of the brass – the means through which a handful of union bigwigs exert control over the narrative.

   Over the four years I’ve been involved with campus news, the growing rank-and-file insurrection within the PSC has risen to a fever pitch. The PSC has officially taken on some of their causes (most obviously, the push to raise adjunct pay to $7,000 per course – an effective doubling of their wages), but they’ve never addressed the key complaint: that rather than engage with the rank-and-file, PSC leaders have pursued a top-down approach that’s left behind the most vulnerable groups within the union.

   The story I hear over and over again from rank-and-file organizers is that PSC president Barbara Bowen and her posse have disproportionate power over what the union wants and who gets a seat at the (bargaining) table. The key to this control is a powerful media apparatus which allows Bowen et al to shape the narrative, and spin the most modest of gains as “historic” accomplishments.

   At the heart of this propaganda machine (and I don’t use those words lightly) is the Clarion, which has been thoroughly scrubbed of anything resembling dissent. Consider the November 2019 issue, which sets out to “inform” union members of the terms of the not-yet-ratified 2019 contract. Every single page is dedicated to trumpeting the gains of that contract – sorry, the “groundbreaking tentative agreement that substantially lifts pay for adjunct faculty.” A center spread contains two years worth of glamour shots of PSC members protesting. If you look closely at a shot from a fall 2018 rally, you can see a pair of “7K or Strike” signs partially obscured by a man’s head. (I was at that rally, and let me tell you, there were a hell of a lot more than two of those on display.) The copy doesn’t outright say “vote yes” – but how could anyone come to a different conclusion, when every page is a nonstop deluge of accolades for the heroic bargaining team who toiled for two perilous years for the dispirited worker’s sake; when the evidence suggesting the contract gains fall short of expectations is conspicuously absent; when the concerted effort by rank-and-file activists for a “no” vote is reduced to a scant reference to “a handful of member observers [who] attempted to disrupt the meeting with heckling” on page 12? Yes, the contract was ratified in a landslide – but how could it be any other way, when the PSC has effectively suppressed all rationale for a no vote?

   And not just in their own literature, either. Mainstream outlets are all too happy to parrot the PSC’s press releases; student media could fill this void, but labor reporting is well outside the wheelhouse of most student journos, and even when folks like yours truly do report on the “opposition,” we just don’t have the reach to really influence the narrative. History, after all, is written by the winners.

   Quite literally, in one case: consider the online “CUNY Digital History Archive,” an allegedly open-source project dedicated to the history of left-wing activism within CUNY. You would think that the project would extensively document CUNY Struggle, 7K or Strike, or any number of adjunct-driven activist movements of the past five years. You would be wrong. There are plenty of photographs of a papier-mache head of former CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein – but the sole reference to 7K or Strike in this activist treasure trove is buried within an hour-long interview. What’s the cause of this conspicuous absence of some of the largest intra-CUNY activist campaigns of the decade? Maybe – just maybe – it’s because the head “archivist” for the CUNY DHA is Andrea Vasquez (no relation), the vice president of the PSC? The same Andrea Vasquez who, in an “Open Letter on $7K or Strike” from the PSC’s principal officers, accused the movement of “creating confusion and division […] diminishing our power and creating potential legal risk” ? I’d wager so.

   I don’t mean to tar every higher-up within the PSC with the same brush. (Brooklyn College’s PSC chapter is run by James Davis, who has had many honest conversations with student reporters over the years.) And I certainly don’t mean to imply that just because the Clarion suppresses these stances, they’re correct de facto. (The PSC correctly notes that striking in New York is a dangerous proposition under the Taylor Law – although given that one of the penalties when public-sector unions strike is that the union president gets arrested, Barbara Bowen may not have entirely pure reasons for wanting to quash strike talk.) But I suspect that part of the reason why the PSC needs an iron grip over the narrative is that in a union where adjunct activists are given equal time to express their opinions, the union brass could not possibly convince the PSC membership that their agenda is sufficient.

   The union brass and their media machine won in 2019. But if the uptick in adjunct mutiny continues unabated, pretty soon this decade, the PSC’s higher-ups may find themselves accountable to a new clarion call.

About Quiara Vasquez

Quiara Vasquez is the current, highly frazzled editor-in-chief of Vanguard and the former, highly frazzled editor-in-chief of Vanguard’s predecessor, Kingsman.