The Fight for Tuition-Free CUNY

The New Deal for CUNY (NDFC) legislation, which would eliminate tuition at all CUNY schools, is seeing a renewed surge of publicity and support. Sponsored by Senator Andrew Gounardes (S4461) and Assembly member Karines Reyes (A5843), the bill is a product of an effort led by the PSC, the CUNY Rising Alliance, and Democrats in the state legislature. The passing of this legislation would have an impact on mass access to higher education. Since a well-attended virtual kickoff press conference in February 2021, the NDFC has been sitting in the Senate and Assembly’s Higher Education committees. What is the likelihood of this bill becoming a reality? How should revolutionary students approach this legislative effort?

Promotional image for the NDFC campaign by PSC and CUNY Rising Alliance

CUNY’s “New Deal” calls for a combined investment of more than $6.5 billion in CUNY’s capital and operational budgets over the course of five years. It would grant free in-state tuition for undergrads, reallocating funds that currently pay for TAP financial aid awards and the Excelsior scholarship program.[1] It would fund upgrades for campus buildings, whose deteriorating status is well documented. The bill would  allow CUNY to hire more teaching staff (as many as 5,000), “professionalize” faculty compensation, and improve the ratios of academic advisors and mental health counselors to students.

The New Deal for CUNY depends on revenue allocated from the state’s budget, which could come from increased taxes on the wealthy or federal stimulus money. This April’s state budget for FY 2022 was heralded by the bill’s supporters as an partial victory – it rejected Cuomo’s proposed cuts, set a temporary tax increase on high-earners, granted $5.6 million in increased funding for community colleges, and increased the maximum TAP award by $500.

Many believe that now is the perfect moment to secure a massive investment in public higher education. The NDFC has ~26% official support among legislators.[2] Over the course of the year, the bill figured prominently in the campaigns of NYC mayoral candidates like Scott Stringer and Diane Morales, and it has the support of the race’s ultimate victor, Eric Adams. Gov. Cuomo’s departure from office was another cause for optimism among the bill’s advocates, signaling a possible end to the era of austerity budgets that has habitually underfunded public education in New York (during his first year in office Cuomo led the charge to slash education and health care funding by over $2 billion while avoiding tax hikes).

On Oct 25th the PSC and their allies held a rally in support of the CUNY Board of Trustees’ Budget Request for FY 2023, a break from the tradition of protests at the BOT meetings. The teacher’s union characterized the proposal as “more ambitious than it has been in years…a springboard to a very successful budget cycle.” The request, a 16% increase over last year that includes funding for 1,075 additional full-time faculty, was approved with near unanimous support and just one abstention (Cuomo-appointee Mujica). The NDFC coalition celebrated the vote as a major win, representing a turning of the tide, even if it falls short of the actual funding needed for their plan.

Although the bill’s 56 co-sponsors from the senate and assembly include DSA members like Jabari Brisport and Julia Salazar, the bulk of support comes from mainstream Democrats, as well as two Republicans in the assembly. The senate sponsor, Gounardes, previously served as Counsel to Eric Adams, the favored pick of the capitalist class for mayor of NYC. Karines Reyes, the bill’s sponsor in the assembly, was endorsed in 2018 by old-guard, establishment Bronx Dems like party chair Marcos Crespo, in the same race that witnessed the toppling of the “Independent Democratic Conference.” Given its wider appeal, the bill might have a chance of passing with the existing Democratic super-majorities at the state level.

But the country is still recovering from a global pandemic that brought historic levels of unemployment, economic stagnation, labor struggle, and general social crisis. The national strike wave is retaining its momentum. Biden’s Build Back Better social spending bills were dramatically transformed in negotiations between lawmakers before winning approval, in spite of his own party’s control of Congress. Over the past two years alone CUNY was robbed of more than 500 full-time faculty and staff – so the 1,075 new faculty hires requested by the BOT would only add ~500 above pre-pandemic levels. And the BOT’s so-called “ambitious” budget request doesn’t solve the long-standing issue of adjunct poverty wages and job precarity.

Given these conditions, how do we explain the absence today of mass militant resistance by students and workers in CUNY? How did we end up here?

Back in November of 2011, CUNY students rallied against the plan for scheduled tuition hikes of $300/year. The struggle escalated to arrests and police violence when over 100 students attempted to attend the BOT public hearing at Baruch college. A week later, one thousand students and staff members protested at the meeting where the Board voted in favor of the predictable tuition policy, 15-1. The movement against the hikes was defeated. Over the course of the decade since then, the level of student mass action around tuition has stagnated to a consistent pattern of verbal interruptions and symbolic actions by small groups of student activists at BOT meetings – meetings where they continued to approve those tuition increases every year (until the pandemic). The chant “if we don’t get it, shut it down” remains a threat without material force.

On the side of labor, we can look to the defeat of the “7k or Strike!” campaign and the PSC’s contract vote in 2019. The first “$7k or Strike!” resolution passed in April 2018, demanding that a wage of $7k per course for adjuncts be included in the union’s contract negotiations. PSC leadership chastised the trend for misrepresenting the official position of the union (which had not voted for strike authorization) but the $7k demand was adopted into the proposed contract. Although the $7k camp accused union leadership of making too many concessions to management during the bargaining process, the contract passed a membership vote with a significant majority: 13,660 (86%) in favor vs. 2,316 against. In the aftermath, $7k or Strike rebranded to Rank and File Action in an attempt to broaden their base among membership, recognizing that the 2019 vote reflected prevailing opinions of faculty towards militant action like strikes. The PSC’s last successful strike authorization vote was in 2016, after 5 years of working without a contract, and it passed with 92% support. But last year – even in the face of thousands of pandemic layoffs, hazardous working conditions, and wage theft – the PSC voted down a strike authorization proposal in favor of a resolution to prepare for “strike readiness.”

This series of defeats among both students and labor gives us some perspective on the approach of activists towards tuition reforms today. Many seem to have latched on to the prospect of a transformed atmosphere under new elected officials like Hochul and Adams, where they can get what they want through easy negotiations. PSC president James Davis penned a gushing op ed predicting that the new Mayor and Governor will align on future CUNY budgets, proclaiming “…a new day is here.” Following suit, NYC-DSA adopted the NDFC as a priority campaign at their convention in September. They see the bill as a realistic goal in the current political climate, and the perfect campaign to use for establishing new YDSA chapters in the CUNY system.

While free tuition would be a valuable reform no matter how it is won, we cannot be indifferent to how victories are won. If the path of lobbying and forming alliances with bourgeois politicians is taken, while it may have the same practical effect of ending tuition (over five years), it will deepen the weakness of the student movement and merely enlarge the voting base of liberal politicians. Pushing for reforms under the leadership of the Democrats serves to dull the political consciousness of students and workers, maintains our disorganization, and abandons the student movement to our class adversaries. But if the end of tuition at CUNY is imposed by means of independent and militant tactics, like a student and worker strike, one that will have to stir the whole of NYC’s organized and unorganized working class to be successful, it will strengthen the camp of the people. From a position of strength, we could seize additional victories, including open admissions and even the right to strike itself – a right that is currently denied to all CUNY employees under the Taylor Law. Winning a struggle on our own prepares our movement for further advances.

Students and labor will need each other in order to impose real transformation in public education. The Taylor Law, which prevents New York’s public employees from going on strike, is an obstacle that must be overcome in order to unshackle and unleash the potential of the labor movement. While most workers agree that the clause against strikes is problematic, there are contradictions within PSC’s membership over the question of reforming the Taylor Law to keep certain provisions versus getting rid of it completely. Since the PSC leadership has upheld several of the provisions within the law around collective bargaining, their position encourages the collaborative, lobbying approach towards legislators. The question is: is giving up the right to strike worth the compromise, if it leaves workers without access to their strongest weapon? Students should support workers who want to struggle to abolish the Taylor Law and secure our common demands without making concessions to management.

Today, we recognize that no student organization by itself has the membership or influence required to organize a mass student strike. YDSA acknowledges that they would need a presence on every CUNY campus in order to prepare for a system-wide action like a general student strike. This situation requires united action by all student organizations who share the minimum agreement that CUNY should be free, action which must serve to attract the vast numbers of unorganized undergrad students. Significant forces are needed to organize a strike that shuts down CUNY. Students will need to build strong relationships with workers and unions on the basis of organizing a militant strike; a strike that is enforced with actual picket lines and can impose our demand for a free university.

Acknowledging that we are in a moment dominated by reformism, socialists must push for a student movement where revolutionary politics, independent from the Democrats, can take root and spread. This includes the view that the demand for free education is a single reform in the line of social revolution. In the process of building for revolution, we struggle for reforms that allow us to capture positions from the class enemy. Our goal is not the same as those who want to resuscitate a “fully-fledged democratic welfare state” that never existed in the first place. We recognize that the entire bourgeoisie, “progressive” or not, serves the interests of capital – only a social revolution will resolve class contradictions.

Regardless of the fate of the NDFC bill, students must continue to fight for a free CUNY. Even if passed, the legislation puts free tuition into effect over the course of 5 years – this drawn-out timeline is insufficient. Our demand must be for a fully free CUNY now. We must prepare our forces to eventually launch a coordinated mass strike – by both workers and students – demanding the end of tuition.

[1] From the bill: “…create a new tuition reimbursement fund, established by the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC), to provide CUNY 100% reimbursement for the tuition they would have charged students. This fund shall be utilized as a first dollar award and its fiscal costs would be offset by the amount of funding that the city and state are already allocating towards TAP and Excelsior. Tuition funding previously earmarked for TAP and Excelsior in the General Fund would instead be redirected into this new tuition reimbursement fund controlled by OSC. The tuition reimbursement fund would not preclude any additional funds a student receives from state or federal grants, awards, or scholarship programs, however, as these will frequently flow directly to the student and cover other school-based, non-tuition expenses.”

[2] Co-sponsors: 18 (out of 63) senators, 38 (out of 150) assembly members = 56/213