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A Strike Diary

Then the parents threatened a class-action lawsuit. The students occupied a university building. The full-time faculty began rumbles about a vote of no confidence against the president. They had nowhere left to go.

On the New School picket line

Photograph by the author.

Author’s note: During the part-time faculty strike at the New School, this past November and December, I wrote frequently in my journal about the labor negotiations. (I have taught as a part-time faculty member at The New School since 2019.) These excerpts are only lightly edited; mostly, this is exactly how I responded to the strike, in real time, with no attempt to be objective or even-handed.

Friday, Oct. 21, 2022—Putting up posters for the strike authorization vote gave me an amazing rush. More than I expected.

Friday, Nov. 11—Yesterday was the last day of classes before impending strike. Catching ferocity in my voice as I talked to my students—and again this morning, talking to D. I’ve been caught up in the righteousness, surprising myself by getting involved. Hundreds of students in the courtyard, a young woman with a bullhorn crying out, and the answering reply. H, my student, calling it all stupid: “Like, rah-rah! But I’m a leftist, I know strikes aren’t happy things.” And my spike of defensiveness.

Saturday, Nov. 12—I think I am going to put aside the strike for the weekend. I followed the negotiations closely all week, and got fired up, and now I sort of want to walk around + call my mom + return my library books.

Monday, Nov. 14—Trying to find the right balance of showing up for the strike . . . and preserving writing time. I keep saying writing is my top priority—and yet not acting like it.

Wednesday, Nov. 16—We are on strike as of midnight. We walked off the job. We are marching, picketing, making posters, calling the press, bringing coffee to picketers.

Well. I am home in my PJs trying to nurse a few sentences into shape. But.

Thursday, Nov. 17—Last night I walked the picket line from 5:30 to 7 PM, in the dark, with a round blue union sign, in and out of chants. ”Union Busting is Disgusting!” + “Get up, Get down! New York is a union town!” + “Students! And Faculty! Stand in Solidarity!” + “Dwight McBride! Pick a side!”

There was a brass band in green and black long underwear, a man with bass drum dancing and pounding, many five gallon buckets used as drums. Two girls, one with pink hair, one with green, holding a sign that says Practice What you Preach!

Bundled up women handing out apples, granola bars, Hershey’s kisses. Pizza, water bottles. Colleagues chattering happily. The girl on the artificial rock with the white blouse and the big brown curls, beaming and crying out chants and dancing—incandescent.

First I am alone, and self-conscious . . . then D arrives, and we march and talk together. It’s nice, actually, to shout together in the dark.

I have surprised myself by feeling so passionately about the strike. Whenever someone asks about it I find myself talking about it a lot—I can’t help myself, I go on and on (and on). It feels good. For so long I’ve been politically dormant—full of opinions, but unable to take action—that I surprised myself by responding to emails, hanging up posters, tabling. Three or four actions don’t seem like much, but it’s more than I’ve done in a long time. I’m amazed by how energizing it feels, how galvanizing.

What else I want to say: the way that chanting works, little islands of rhythms, and as you circle around and around you land in different chants, and adapt your shouting. The three ghost puppets with signs: Stop ghosting on our contract! and Boo! The New School is scary! Big sheer white fabric stretched over metal rings, bumping into each other, creating madcap vibes on the line. PAY OUR FUCKING TEACHERS says a popular sign. The bashful eyes of my students, unsure about seeing me here.

Friday, Nov. 18—Marching again with B. So fun. Tiring. It is very cold, it is a little monotonous going in circles. The energy is not quite as high as yesterday. Fewer puppets, fewer ecstatic students. But. It’s fun to talk to B, to hoist the sign I made myself:

LABOR OF LOVE
IS STILL LABOR
NO MORE
UNPAID WORK

It’s nights like these, picketing, signing up for strike pay in an old West Village church, dinner with my boyfriend + brother, sipping Guinness at Julians, that I think I really love New York, that I don’t actually want to live anywhere else.

But I do feel this real conflict between wanting to give everything to the strike and wanting to use this time to make some progress on the novel draft. It’s not a matter of time, it’s a matter of focus.

Saturday, Nov. 19—On the WhatsApp group there is discussion of compromise, which bums me out. Makes me feel less keen about striking, about giving it all to the strike. I kind of want to take a step back, go home for Thanksgiving, and then see where things are.

Monday, Nov. 21—Yesterday the U issued what it called its “last, best, and final offer”—a legal term that allows them to walk away from negotiations. It is so dumb—they’ve offered a big one-time pandemic bonus, with the liberty to hike health care costs as much as they want.

Now we will have to convince everyone to vote no. I don’t think it will be easy. They are essentially asking us to re-establish our mandate.

I listened in on a two-hour caucus meeting last night, something like three hundred people Zooming in. The outrage. A woman choking back tears as she talks about her health care. The disorderly mess of it, people talk about messaging around phone banking before we’ve even really decided what to do. Yet somehow order arrives, something like consensus emerges—we will fight, we will spend our Thanksgivings calling people to talk about the contract.

My heart is pounding as I write this, which amazes me. I’m so scared that this is where we lose everything. That we just get divided, and agree to this contract. That it works, essentially.

Tuesday, Nov. 22—Feeling better about the strike. More optimistic about the chance of voting down this contract.

My dad sounded a note of skepticism about the U’s offer—or about our decision to reject it—doing his usual apologia for institutions, the conservative bit of him. I felt my voice go high and defensive, searching, wishing always for more numbers. Then later he said, What do you care what I think? But there is always the authority of the father.

Wednesday, Nov. 23—The addictive adrenaline of the WhatsApp group. The few characters who post often, who vent. The way we scroll for news. The quiet disapproval of our neighbor, when my mom tells him. The uncanny weirdness of not working, especially now that I’m down in Baltimore. Thinking about how normally I would have taught yesterday, would be buried under a load of papers to grade. The queasy truth: the strike does feel like a vacation, a little bit. But I also feel guilty, not being there. Exciting to live like every hour might bring something new . . . but also resolution, predictability, beckons. And this odd anxiety—what would it feel like to not finish the semester?

Tuesday, Nov. 29—The strike is the most distracting thing ever. It is nice not to have to teach. But it hasn’t translated into hours and hours of writing time.

Wednesday, Nov. 30—  . . . And picketing! At first no one is there, and the line is soggy, almost sullen—trudging in circles. But even this feels meaningful to me—something about just putting your body in the line, the form and structure of the picket maintained by these bodies “filling the form.” Then as we get closer to 3 PM more people show up, including M with his daughter, who is adorable and eats a donut with one hand while banging a bucket with the other, and C, in her big silver rain jacket and giant glasses, saying Oh my god I love being on strike! I love shouting! It suits my personality!—and it’s kind of great to loop around this stretch of 5th Avenue, talking to my colleagues, to people I otherwise barely exchange a word with—it feels good. The cheer at the end. The speech from the guy who helped me table—he’s handsome, and so earnest in a way that doesn’t seem to account for his handsomeness, like he doesn’t know this about himself.

Thursday, Dec. 1—The union called the U’s bluff, essentially—95 percent “no” vote on the “last, best, and final” contract, over 1800 no’s—so they go back to the table, and we continue to not have class. We are now in such a position of strength—the U finally looks panicked. I talked to my dad last night, both of us marveling at this failure of leadership. Anyone could have told the administration that people were pissed, that confrontational aggressive negotiating would only inflame people more. If they had been mild and pleaded poverty I really think the vote would not have been so successful . . .

Tuesday, Dec. 6—They are cutting our pay + health care premiums. Chaos. Questions about what this means, logistics, people on the WhatsApp chat getting snippy with each other. The mediator says he doesn’t know how much more we’ll get out of the school. Some people say they have the money, some say they are legit broke.

Hope dies hard. When the contract for NYU was announced I got so excited—entertained the dream of making decent money for this work. Now it seems there will be improvement, but not as much as we hoped.

Wednesday, Dec. 7—The picket line. Biggest since the first day. P, my student, is out, with a Honk for Fair Wages sign. He hops down to talk to me. He always looks bashful when we run into each other on the picket line, like he’s out with his friends and his mom showed up. I think it’s kind of funny. But others seem so warm and chummy with their students and I wonder why I don’t—did I not do a good job?

Today the University stops paying us. Stops paying our health care premiums. I still feel achy and tired from the booster, a little sucked in to the strike again. The union and the Uni are closer than I thought—people say just $11 million apart.

God, this rage, this desire to destroy TNS, burn it down—rage of being exploited, rage of learning how much the admin makes.

Learning that my dad can be wrong. Too much on the side of institutions.

Friday, Dec. 9—It feels like a lot has happened in the past thirty-six hours.

Picketing felt fierce yesterday—big crowd. And then it built and built, until one student announced that students were going to be occupying the UC until a fair contract was reached. It was thrilling—electricity ran through me—B’s mouth dropped open—and I just felt so moved, watching all these students go inside the building, “peacefully and orderly” as instructed by the earnest student activist in fatigue overalls. Solidarity. People standing with us. I got misty, as did B. It just felt huge. We are making stuff happen . . .

. . . like a few hours later when the admin abruptly capitulated to all our demands—

Thrilling

Except not health care.

Except health care.

Health care is a sticking point. I hope it just gets resolved! We are so close.

But I felt so buoyed. They said—the mediator, the president, the lawyer, my dad—that there was no more money to give. That this was it. Even union members were losing faith: what do we expect them to give? What can we reasonably expect?

Then the parents threatened a class-action lawsuit. The students occupied a university building. The full-time faculty began rumbles about a vote of no confidence against the president. They had nowhere left to go.

Their “work attestation forms” and stripping away of health care really backfired—people got pissed. FTF got pissed. Students, too. They tried to “take the gloves off” and it only made people band together more.

All these clichés that have been so abstract—mostly, that we’re safe, and powerful, when we stick together—it was all really driven home yesterday.

Saturday, Dec. 10—Tired of the strike. Like many people, eager for resolution. I just want the closure of the semester’s end. The bitter fighting on the WhatsApp—suddenly people saying Mannes Prep shouldn’t be paid as much as a seminar class, arguing about who works harder, who spends more time out of class. All these people suddenly complaining that their share of the pie is too small, and all the angry “You don’t understand how much health care matters to those of us who use it” vs. “Don’t be a child, you have to understand health care costs are skyrocketing everywhere, we can’t expect the New School to fix a national problem.” The bitter acrimony, the shrill tone of the messages. Dispiriting.

Sunday, Dec. 11—The strike is over.

Over.

We won.

We fucking won.

It feels so good. We pushed and pushed. We made the late-stage push on health care that so many people thought was foolish. It was fascinating, in a stomach-turning way, to see our unity start to fissure in the last forty-eight hours—all the voices saying It’s enough.

But I guess the bargaining committee decided to push for “comparability” on health care—meaning they can’t abruptly switch us to a pricier plan—and the right to grievance. And then on a late-night zoom—9:15 on a Saturday night, the lawyer in a drapey white sweater reading out our terms in a monotone voice—it happened. We were all poker-faced, as instructed. Annie calmly saying, OK, we will return to caucus. And then the switch to the “caucus” zoom, where a bargaining committee member is playing the accordion, merry merry insanity, people hoisting drinks, crying, laughing, blowing up the chat. I got up and paced and cried. I felt—I feel—so relieved. The constant low tension of being on strike, abated.

Just happiness. And surprise. For a long time it really didn’t look good. Then that sweet Thursday capitulation—the pressure built to a breaking point. Parents + students + FTF turning the screws until they realized no one was on their side.

I actually do feel proud.

And—like I’ve been changed. It goes back to that first afternoon, hanging up posters in Lang, feeling illicit and powerful, the blue electric tape, the other adjunct whispering, Thank you. Tabling, handing out flyers. Feeling both like it was too much to add to my busy day—an imposition—and then also shocked to discover this spark of energy, the thrill it gave me, how suddenly “the union” became “us,” became “we are going to do this.”

And I am so relieved that I will see my students again.


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