The 7K or Strike movement’s commitment to adjunct pay parity hasn’t changed – but their name has.
In a broad rollout of updated handles across social media, the activist movement formerly known as 7K or Strike changed its name to “Rank and File Action” (RAFA) on Feb. 22. According to several people in the movement, the rebranding isn’t a reorientation so much as it is a confirmation of their ideals to a broad set of policy goals, both across and beyond CUNY.
“What we’re trying to do is broaden things out,” said Conor Tomàs Reed, a RAFA organizer and adjunct in BC’s Department of Africana Studies. Reed moved to New York in 2006, where he’s been involved in activism on- and off-campus the whole time, present at the inception of movements from Occupy Wall Street in 2011 to the Free CUNY campaign just last year.
Now, as an adjunct assistant professor, he’s uniquely attuned to the challenges he and his untenured colleagues face.
“Adjuncts time and time again have been thrown under the bus in PSC [CUNY faculty union] contracts,” Reed says. “We do the majority of the labor and make poverty wages.” After the PSC reached a contract agreement in 2016 in which adjunct wages remained stagnant, he and his peers realized that they needed to make an aggressive push for a raise. From this, the demand for “$7K or strike” was born. The $7,000-per-course figure was chosen to effectively double their salary and put them on par with other professors; the support for the idea of a strike began after an authorization for one passed with overwhelming support in 2016.
“At the moment when 7K or Strike was emerging, what we wanted to do was to polarize the issues,” Reed said. “We would not be able to develop pay parity without the credible threat of a strike.”
The threat of a strike fell on deaf ears within the union hierarchy – but nevertheless, the movement rumbled on. Eventually, the PSC adopted the $7,000-per-course figure as the benchmark for their most recent contract negotiations in 2019.
“The power of ‘7K or Strike’ is that it really pushed [PSC-CUNY] against the wall,” said Stuart Chen-Hayes. “We still didn’t get $7K, but we’re better than we were.”
Chen-Hayes has taught at Lehman for nearly three decades, but on Twitter he’s perhaps better known as one of the most vocal supporters of the RAFA movement. He wasn’t always this way: up until 2018, he says he was “a well-behaved PSC member.” It was adjunct activists like Reed, as well as the then-nascent CUNY Struggle movement, who opened his eyes.
“I did a lot of labor related reading, and realized that they [the PSC] were just doing the bidding of centrist corporate Democrats. PSC-CUNY adapted the rhetoric – hey, everybody should wear red clothes – but they continue to do lobbying. Lobbying is okay, but it doesn’t have the capacity to get us what we want.”
“I finally just got sick of it. That’s how I found CUNY Struggle.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Hudson, adjuncts at Rutgers were finding themselves in a similar situation: adjuncts and graduate students found themselves lagging behind tenured faculty, and their union wasn’t listening to their demands.
“In my experience what brings people into organizing is crisis, when your eyes are opened to your financial situation or well being being jeopardized,” said Alexandra Adams. She’s a full-time researcher at Rutgers Newark, finishing her PHD in Biology. “There was an alarming number of grad students in my department who had been waiting for reimbursement checks and hadn’t been paid for a year, and the grad school wasn’t giving any responses.”
As her situation worsened, she got more and more involved in union work – and more and more aware of the broader context of her situation.
“My financial situation has continued to decline from not receiving raises and all this other bullshit Rutgers does to grads. You look at the absolute travesty you’re experiencing and you realize you’re one of many.”
It was here where she met Jarrod Shanahan, the founder of the CUNY Struggle movement. Shanahan approached Adams due to her work getting Rutgers faculty to sign “crush cards,” documenting their willingness to go on strike. (Strike mobilization was, of course, a key tenet of 7K or Strike’s activism.) Her experience with grassroots activism made Adams’ perspective relevant at CUNY. Soon, she began to sympathize with the CUNY adjunct’s plight.
“I wanted to start organizing with them because I wasn’t going to watch these people get dogged on too,” Adams said. “Our overarching goal was, since all of us are going through all the same struggles at all these institutions, we wanted to form a really concrete alliance between [Rutgers] and the people in 7K or CUNY Struggle.”
Coalition building is at the heart of the rebranding from 7K or Strike to RAFA. And not just among instructors.
“We won’t be able to achieve this unless we have the support of the students of CUNY,” Reed said. “250,000 people across NYC? That’s one of the best mobilization bases that exists in plain sight. Real attention to solidarity between students and academic workers is needed.”
“One of the reasons for this new name is recognizing that this group all along really was open to all ranks,” Chen-Hayes said. “Anybody who’s interested in organizing with rank and file can join us. We’re all about free college for all students, we want to make sure that every faculty member is making a living wage. Staff as well.”
He notes that even as a tenured professor of twenty years, his pay is well below the national average.
“We’re still horribly underpaid compared to most around the country,” Chen-Hayes said. “That’s one of the big reasons for the rebranding – it’s never been only the adjuncts.”
Of course, while RAFA aims to broaden their base, they don’t intend to abandon their old tactics. Walk-outs, “sick-outs,” and grade-ins will still be part of their arsenal of consciousness-raising tools in the coming semesters.
Time will tell whether this expansion will be enough for RAFA and their ilk to achieve their goals. Despite their growth since 2017, the movement may still fall short of the influence they desire. That won’t stop them, though.
“We received a hard lesson that the membership of our union, which will be needed for a strike to be successful, is not yet convinced of its power to undertake a strike,” Reed said. “The broad support for this contract shows that we still have a lot of work to do.