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At the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, empty stomachs were walking down empty halls. Despite the return to in-person work, and the wish to congregate with others, students, faculty and staff have largely been avoiding the campus this semester, dodging Midtown’s notoriously high food prices, and forced instead to eat at home, once more. Many described a paycheck-to-paycheck life, quickly dried up stipends and food insecurity.
Now, the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing faculty and staff at CUNY, is trying to bring life back into the building — and they’re starting with food. On Feb. 1, they launched a food pantry on the eighth floor of the building, where the never-reopened cafeteria once stood, to share hot dinners and drinks. They hope to host weekly potlucks and community meetings there.
Even before the pandemic, the PSC had been agitating to end what they call the “exploitation of low-wage and expendable adjunct faculty.” Amid rising cost of living and tuition fees in New York City, the university currently pays graduate student workers on a full stipend $26,000 a year.
“And this is only part of the problem,” said Giacomo Bianchino, a doctoral candidate at CUNY since 2018, adjunct teacher and PSC delegate. “There’s a larger pattern of mismanagement of funds, including huge delays on reimbursement, which has left staff out of pocket sometimes to the tune of several thousand dollars.”
On the eighth floor, the food disappeared quickly. By the second morning, more than 100 people had emptied the stack of hot meals and drinks set up on the tables. Meanwhile, donations started coming in, and large hand-painted banners cropped up on the tables: Fix the budget office. Hire faculty and staff. Expand the childcare center. Cops out of CUNY!
“During Covid, students felt like no one listened,” said Silvia Riviera Alfaro, a PhD student in the school of Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures and co-chair for student affairs. “They needed a place to get together, share their frustrations and demands.”
The Costa Rican student representative, who was first elected on the student council as the officer for health and wellness, said her biggest concern was her fellow students’ mental health. To her, the popularity of the food pantry shows that “people missed that sense of community.”
For now, Bianchino said that the administration’s response to the initiative has been “very strange.” On the one hand, the Graduate Center’s special counsel and labor designee asked them in an email to remove all food and signage from the dining commons, and called their display of union support and political concern “divisive.”
“They’re using neoliberal bureaucratic language to make us the villains,” Bianchino said. On the other hand, the president and provost of the Graduate Center attended a meeting at the pantry Feb. 15, where they pledged to work with the union to get affordable food options back on campus. Provost Steve Everett even donated money to the community-run kitchen.
But the aim of this organizing campaign to “reclaim the commons” does not stop at food provision. Olivia Wood, a PHD candidate in the English program and delegate in the union chapter, said that she hopes to center one of the weekly potlucks around the issue of queer struggles at the university and discuss “resources to help folks at a personal level, as well as procedures at CUNY,” she said. One of the demands on her list: letting students change their names in computer logins.
Last week, some of the organizing also consisted of solidarity events for striking graduate student teaching and research assistants at Temple University, who just reached a tentative agreement including wage increases after a weeks-long walkout. For CUNY grad students though, Wood explained, “the strike question is a little more complicated because of the Taylor law.”
The labor relations statute makes it illegal for public-sector workers to strike in New York. It covers CUNY student workers, with violations potentially resulting in substantial fines levied against the union and rank-and-file workers. "But campaigns like this are a step on the way to strike readiness,” Bianchino said, explaining that he was still in favor of a strike despite the law.
Those who got the food pantry going hope that, beyond meeting an immediate need, it can help galvanize students, facilitate community organizing and build a broader activist force at the Graduate Center. “Every movement has to start somewhere,” Wood said. “Right now, what people needed was food.”
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