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Strike at The New School Spawned a Radical Coalition That’s Still Going Strong

A post-strike coalition at The New School has dreams of transforming the university and higher education more broadly.

Students begin their occupation of the New School’s University Center on December 8, 2022.

Though the 25-day labor strike of part-time faculty at The New School, a private university in New York City, ended three months ago, the university administration’s hardball approach has not been forgotten. A student-led coalition that emerged in solidarity with the striking adjunct faculty is still going strong. And with the school’s graduate students set to begin their own contract negotiations with the university later this year, the coalition could potentially add pressure to the university administration to bargain in a different manner than it did with the part-time faculty union. The coalition is certainly poised to rally support during a strike if no agreement is reached before the graduate students’ contract expires.

The coalition that is engaged in this organizing — known as the One New School Coalition — is building toward its goal of establishing a cooperative university. At the moment, its members are prioritizing meeting the campus community’s unmet needs. Their first act was to establish a Community Center to bolster students’ and faculty’s ability to teach, learn and work.

The One New School Coalition was formed on December 12, 2022, the day when the striking part-time faculty went back to work. On that day, students, staff, faculty, alumni and parents were invited to participate in a vote of no confidence in the university’s senior leadership and the Board of Trustees. The measure passed 421-10 and quickly gained more than 1,600 signatories.

The coalition’s formation came on the heels of the 25 days last fall when the lives of students at The New School were upended by the part-time faculty strike. After months of fraught negotiations with a hostile employer failed to produce a new union contract, members of the part-time faculty union, ACT-UAW Local 7902, had begun their historic strike on November 16.

The students’ solidarity with their striking professors reached a crescendo on December 8, the 23rd day of the strike, when students flooded into the school’s University Center on Fifth Avenue, beginning a nine-day occupation. Students were galvanized by the university administration’s announcement that it would withhold pay and contributions to health insurance and retirement benefits for all striking employees.

While students sang “Solidarity Forever” and entered the building, a staff organizer with the part-time faculty union remarked that student occupations have become ingrained into the culture at some universities. This is certainly true at The New School, where the university’s past three leadership boards have all faced student occupations. In the past 15 years, there have been more student occupations at The New School than U.S. presidents.

Priorities of the One New School Coalition

At its core, the coalition is an organizing effort within a segment of the campus community that is actively thinking about the structural issues at the university that led to the strike in the first place. While much of the current work is student-led, the coalition claims to represent faculty, alumni, staff and parents who think that the university is in crisis. Long-term, they aim to “no longer be governed by a body of high-paid administrators chosen by a small group of wealthy trustees who have no standing in the world of education.”

Bella Coles, a senior at The New School who was involved with planning last fall’s occupation with the undergraduate-led Student Faculty Solidarity group and is a member of the One New School Coalition, said that “the best thing that came out of the occupation was people felt an actual sense of community for the first time. It seemed kind of like a no-brainer for most people that there had to be some kind of continuation.”

If previous student occupations at The New School have been explosions of discontent with the university’s leadership, the One New School Coalition is more like an attempt at controlled demolition; it aims to transform the private university’s structure into that of a cooperative university. In January 2023, interested members of the campus community discussed the student occupation’s demands and developed a blueprint to map out their efforts. This led to the formation of six working groups that are exploring things like: relocating the existing space for students of color and designating a Black Affinity Space; organizing faculty votes of no confidence in the university’s senior administration; exploring the “feasibility” of implementing their two most radical demands — a fairer pay ratio between the highest and lowest-paid workers, and participatory budgeting; implementing a tuition strike if tuition is raised; and developing a “para-administrative system” from the bottom up to address the community’s unmet needs.

It’s not surprising that the One New School Coalition emerged in the context of the part-time faculty strike. The strike was provoked by the kinds of crises in academia that have been getting the writers at The Chronicle of Higher Education out of bed in the morning since at least 1998. The university’s refusal to bargain in good faith with the union left many students feeling like the school was falling short of its stated progressive mission. But students weren’t just angry about the university’s disregard for their professors’ contributions, they were also angry because “the lack of respect that was shown for students by the administration leading up to the strike and during the strike was a big call to action for us,” according to Jane Buffo, a senior fine arts major who was also involved with planning the occupation.

With the school’s graduate students set to begin their own contract negotiations with the university later this year, the coalition could potentially add pressure to the university administration.

Inside the occupied University Center, students discovered that their anger with their administration ran deeper than their frustration with missing classes because of a strike that never should have had to happen. They had common financial aid horror stories, a shared disgust with the lack of dignified spaces for students of color on campus, and a general contempt for the school’s austerity-driven policies that — in addition to union busting — include the hiring of much maligned Huron Consulting and subsequently, firing of over 120 workers in October 2020. Coles said that although “occupations happen so much at The New School that they’ve become a long-running joke,” she believes that the frequency of occupations “shows that the university as we know it seems to be and will continue to be in perpetual crisis.”

Community-Building Efforts Aimed at Deeper Transformation

Though the coalition began with a stated commitment to reimagining what education could look like and transforming the university into a self-governing institution, most current efforts are aimed at fostering a deeper sense of community. Organizers say that their focus on community care is so prevalent because of institutional failure to deliver it. That’s the spirit that oriented the coalition to establish a Community Center inside the previously occupied University Center. It contains books, art supplies, food, office supplies, and other essentials like tampons and condoms.

The Community Center has been warmly received. Students are quick to point out that bathrooms at the university do not have tampons, and students appreciate that the One New School Coalition’s community building efforts have focused on basic health and hygiene needs. Organizers from the coalition have also been coordinating with the school’s student health services and plan to hold free Narcan trainings later this semester, at which students can learn how to administer the nasal spray that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose. There are also plans to begin organizing around the announced changes in the university’s COVID policy; students are frustrated that the university plans to stop providing free PCR tests at the end of March. They plan to set up a calendar for events in the space, perhaps inviting their professors to hold class there, and recently hosted their first free community lunch.

One New School Coalition organizers are hoping that their provision of free food will help them reach segments of the campus community that were not part of the broader solidarity campaign during the part-time faculty strike. AJ Medeiros, a junior coalition organizer, has been focusing his efforts on building relationships with cafeteria workers and security guards. Medeiros brings plates of food to security guards, who are not allowed to leave their post once their shift begins. Medeiros says that “there’s still generally a sentiment that they operate in a different world,” noting that these workers are not in The New School Labor Coalition — a 2020 formation of the university’s American Association of University Professors chapter and unions on campus that has been crucial to organizing solidarity efforts during contract fights like the one last fall. Medeiros actually attends class with one of the security guards during the week for a course entitled “Spaces of Struggle” that covers occupations.

At a university with such a rich history of student occupations, it’s notable that none of the recent ones have emerged strictly out of students’ solidarity with faculty; this was the first time that part-time faculty had been on strike in the university’s history. And this is perhaps the most interesting thing about the One New School Coalition, since students believe that their occupation compelled the university administration to update its final offer. Their belief that the occupation ultimately paved the way for the now-ratified contract suggests that the coalition’s greatest utility might be in organizing students in solidarity with unionized workers on campus and adding pressure on the administration to deliver a fair deal. When graduate students begin their contract negotiations with the university later this year, the coalition’s community-building potential will be put to the test.

“Occupations are fueled by the conditions of crisis that are produced under racial capitalism and neoliberalism within and outside of the university.”

Whether the coalition will be able to achieve its greater goal of establishing self-governance is unclear. In its blueprint, the coalition has a stated commitment to “reflect on possible alternatives to the current model and structure of the Board of Trustees.” Members seem to understand that a democratically run university cannot exist until the Board of Trustees is abolished and replaced with an elected, self-administrative body of students, faculty and staff. At present, it’s mostly acknowledged as a long-term project. With the part-time faculty strike over, one view is that the rupture and opportunity presented at the beginning of the occupation has passed. The resumption of normal life at the university indicates that the coalition is an organization without a movement.

However, back when the University Center was still occupied, students held a Zoom meeting with students and faculty from other universities to reimagine the higher education landscape. Since then, they’ve stayed in touch with students at local universities, namely CUNY and Rutgers — two schools that may see faculty strikes in the near future. If they continue their community-building efforts beyond the boundaries of their campus, they might find themselves igniting a new era of student activism reminiscent of the 1960s.

Beyond the need for student-faculty solidarity in the face of increasingly exploitative labor conditions, there is also a need for other forms of campus activism, as higher education is rife with crises. Recently, there have been student protests or occupations at Connecticut College, Temple University, UC Berkeley, Marymount University, Southwestern University, University of Central Florida, Drexel University, UC Santa Barbara and New College of Florida. At Connecticut College, the dean of institutional equity and inclusion resigned over a planned fundraiser at a Palm Beach country club known for its racism and antisemitism — a plan that sparked a student occupation. At Marymount University, students and teachers were outraged by their board of trustees’ decision to eliminate several liberal arts majors. At the New College of Florida, students are objecting to the abolishment of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives after Governor Ron DeSantis installed six new members of the Board of Trustees. And amid this recent spate of campus activism, protesters also rallied outside the Supreme Court to demand student debt cancellation. Continuing their work of connecting with organizers beyond the boundaries of their campuses could energize a more organized national student movement, which is desperately needed to help combat the crises in higher education and beyond.

It’s not yet clear how active the One New School Coalition will be in forming ongoing organizing ties with other students across the country and envisioning what a unified student movement might be capable of. But its members are clear on the fact that the conditions that sparked the student occupation and their ongoing work weren’t an isolated anomaly.

As Cole told Truthout, “Occupations are fueled by the conditions of crisis that are produced under racial capitalism and neoliberalism within and outside of the university.”

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