Critical Reflections on the 2018 New School Occupation

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Both a critical reflection and an analysis on the the occupation of a cafeteria at the New School in New York, its context in a history of struggle at the school, and what was learned about the occupation itself. To hear our podcast interview on the occupation, go here.

Photo by Matthew McDermott

Background

The keystone project of New School President Bob Kerry’s decade-long neoliberalization of the musky marxist Greenwich Village haunt, was to tear down the NSSR Graduate Faculty building in 2010.

The “Graduate Center” that would replace it represented the faded critical spirit of The New School, an increasingly lonely voice of continental philosophy and political economics amidst the analytic and neo-classical rabble of other schools. A new University Center on the corner of 14th and 5th – a combination of hip design, student work spaces, a library, and a dorm/tenement for foreign students – represented the structural shift of the University’s priorities under Kerry. The New School was now about fashion and design. Its radical legacy reduced, as much as possible, to a fundraising talking point – like a radical slogan on an advertisement for jeans.

The UC, at best, would have been a new bottle for the old wine. Throughout Kerry’s reign Deans and faculty assured rebelling students that the core values of the university would remain in the classroom or the shelves of the new library. As a sign of good faith, the faculty fought to protect student struggles, even as they became self-satirically militant. Finally the NS decided to replace Kerry with someone a bit more clever, a little slower on the NYPD trigger finger, and attempted to enshrine student revolt as a part of the legacy of the school’s commitment to social justice.

Ten years later the UC is fully operational, complete with a vacant “Social Justice Hub” mostly used for quiet study. Its cost-cutting architecture is “green,” its turnstiles easily passable for public events. Beneath the hip veneer is anti-riot architecture, a new generation of the brutalist campuses of the ‘70s, meant to contain student struggle. The student and worker struggles in the beginning of May 2018 was the first major test of the new New School’s strategy of containment and recuperation. But more importantly it was a test of the militancy of the self-described communist students and workers who initiated the struggle and how they were able to overcome the trap.

Occupations, Then and Now

At the center of the May struggle was the University’s reliance on student workers to perform the tasks of professors, and clerical staff at a fraction of the price. Such labor was meant to replace the staff at the UC’s second-floor cafeteria in the Fall 2018 semester. The unionized workers would be, in effect, fired when the school’s contract with Chartwell’s expired. This would bring food production “in house,” the University said, emphasizing the local and organic components of the cost-cutting. Such hypocrisy at the self-proclaimed progressive University is long banal at the New School, where the millionaire trustees shrug at the labor complaints of their workers before sicking union-busting lawyers on them.

A revolt against this attitude occurred in 2008-09, when the Faculty voted no-confidence in Bob Kerry for his authoritarian leadership. Student organizations, initially motivated by anti-imperialist criticism of Kerry’s Vietnam war crimes and connections with military contractors, occupied the GC Cafeteria in December 2008 demanding his resignation and democratization of the functioning of the school. Demands for a sustainable investment committee and student representative to the board of trustees, meaningless and easily neutralized position for voluntaryist nerds, were quickly granted, and the occupation, surrounded by NYPD in its second night, agreed to leave.

“they strong-armed their way into the GC early on the morning of April 3rd, hung banners calling to “Occupy Everything,” smashed the cash register, and read On the Poverty of Student Life from a megaphone.”

A segment of this occupation, influenced by the European ultraleft, announced in a masked press conference that they would shut down the school in April of the Spring Semester if Kerry didn’t resign. Through the semester their rhetoric grew more anti-social, criticizing student activism and declaring a nihilistic war against the University itself. They lost most of their support amongst the faculty and student groups in the process. Nonetheless, they strong-armed their way into the GC early on the morning of April 3rd, hung banners calling to “Occupy Everything,” smashed the cash register, and read On the Poverty of Student Life from a megaphone. Bob Kerry and his contacts in the NYPD responded by calling a “Code Cobra” – a hostage or terrorist threat.

Hundreds of cops swarmed the area. They pepper-sprayed students for trying to exit through a side door, and beat up supporters attempting to assist the escape. The images stunned the student body enough to cause a series of wild marches in the area around the school and a huge community meeting to denounce Kerry’s overreaction. Finally the Trustees pressured him to announce he would not renew his contract.

His replacement, David Van Zandt, put a friendlier face on Kerry’s agenda. When anarchist students occupied a study space in 2011, he let them stay despite the vandalism and violent threats against police and liberal students that enraged almost all students and faculty. He negotiated the occupation to move to an art gallery in the Parsons building. Butcher paper was posted on the walls and magic markers were supplied. The hands-off faux-support from the administration neutralized the energy the anarchists gained from the Kerry foil.

Students in the 2018 occupation became involved with the labor dispute in the cafeteria through the organizing of the Maoist-influenced “Communist Student Group.” In the last weeks of April they made contact with the cafeteria workers and organized the occupation for May Day. The CSG flyered for a solidarity rally at the cafeteria, marched in with “hundreds of students,” declared it closed, sent home temporary workers with jeers of “scab” and began posting Maoist and other revolutionary-era posters. After a few hours the occupation was declared indefinite. They demanded the cafeteria workers be rehired without a cut in pay or loss of benefits, compensation for the workers for the time of the occupation, and resignation of the manager/head chef Brian Duhart, whom workers charge with unsanitary procedures and sexual harassment. The occupiers began setting up camp, moving couches into the cafeteria from different floors, putting out calls for more to join, setting up sub-committees, and distributing what food was left at the cafeteria that hadn’t been thrown away.

“The occupiers began setting up camp, moving couches into the cafeteria from different floors, putting out calls for more to join, setting up sub-committees, and distributing what food was left at the cafeteria that hadn’t been thrown away.”

As they had in 2011, the University ceded the space to the occupiers, and transferred live-in students’ mandatory dining plan to be used at other cafes on campus and grocery stores in the area. Over time, Maoists ceded their top-down control of the space to sub-committees, and the day-to-day activity was increasingly lead by a non-sectarian informal alliance of students. They made three meals a day, snacks, and coffee using the equipment of the kitchen. The couldn’t control the lights, so they set up tarped-in areas to shelter their air mattresses. During the day a trickle of curious students came in to study as if everything was normal, occasionally meeting the occupiers and trying their food.

The Cafeteria workers stopped coming regularly after Friday night. They had been cautioned against participating by their union organizer. Around this time the University announced it would hire them all back at equal wages, but the occupation demanded a hard contract. Into its second week a waiting game developed, with the administration hands-off, the occupation settling into a steady rhythm of reproduction, and momentum from the SENS-UAW Academic Workers Strike scheduled for May 8-11th.

For four years the Student Employees of the New School (SENS) demanded a contract with increased pay, and healthcare. The administration had declined to recognize their union until the NLRB compelled them to do so in 2017. They affiliated with the UAW and elected a bargaining committee. The University’s offer was a 10% pay increase over 8 years, an offer the SENS found insulting.

As it became clear the University wouldn’t budge, the SENS-UAW organized a 4 day strike to take place in the last week of the semester. The Tuesday after the occupation began, several hundred workers went on strike. About 150 attended the pickets, which were bolstered by outside supporters, students from the occupation, and a small number of construction workers from the #countemein demonstration. Many classes were cancelled for the four days. Three hundred faculty members signed their names to endorse the strike, cancelling their classes or holding them off-campus. Many students respected the picket line, or at least grappled with what it meant to cross one for the first time in their lives. Activities at NSSR and Lang were largely cancelled. Occupiers prepared meals and a rest area for picketers.

On Thursday night, cafeteria workers came to the occupation with a signed agreement between their union and the school. They had won all their demands, aside from the firing of their manager, the head chef, who they say is a sexually harasser and does not take care to separate meat products from vegetarian food preparation. In an emotional assembly, the workers sincerely thanked the students and encouraged them to stay “until they get whatever [they] want.” Subsequently the University, which had several graduation events scheduled for the cafeteria in the next week, sent a letter asking the occupiers to leave.

On Friday night the exhausted SENS members, many with strained voices and sunburns from their days of picketing, met in the Social Justice Hub with their bargaining committee. The BC announced the strike and pickets were a success, but the University hadn’t, and wouldn’t, budge. Thus the strike should end. As the rank-and-file began to push against this illogic, it became clear the decision had already been made. Hours passed, the exasperated r&f convincing the BC do an online and phone straw poll of the r&f to determine if there was enough sentiment to continue striking the next day.

Simultaneously in the occupation the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Committee (MACC) held their GA. They discussed antifascism, sending a contingent to a solidarity demonstration with sex workers, and cybersecurity. A break-out was called to discuss solidarity with the NS Occupation. There, a small anarchist contingent of the occupation said due to the domineering of the Maoists and microaggressions against students of color, women, trans, and queer people, the occupation was not a safe space, and that they would stop staying there, effectively neutralizing the small interest MACC members had in supporting the occupation. Ironically, the Maoists, who had been largely absent the entire week, were also simultaneously meeting and planning to formally pull out of the occupation.

After the GA there was a party called by SENS R&F, to which MACC and other left groups were invited. This party lasted for about 2-3 hours, ending shortly after the marathon SENS-UAW meeting. Due to the lighting of the space, the disinterest of the regular occupiers in the event, and a suddenly concerned NS security team not allowing non-students in past 11, the party seemed like a regular New School networking event, even something of a reunion for participants in the past occupations. Despite having been encouraged to bring a sleeping bag and support the occupation, none of those invited for the party stayed the night. The next day occupiers, unimpressed with the anarchists, regretted having the party.

On Saturday SENS members went to UAW headquarters and called hundreds of members, finding widespread support to continue their strike, and confusion as to why it would be called off. The UAW would not release the results of their own straw-poll. An “escalation meeting” was called for Sunday night, a SENS member burning their access to the union Facebook page to announce it. The turnout was low, and many of the attendees were outside supporters. There was sentiment to continue the strike, or to take some other direct action, but no one came prepared with concrete plans. Burning themselves out in conversation, they settled on a small duct-taped-mouth die-in the next morning to support an ongoing strike, unrelated to SENS, of a dozen Student Advisors.

Although sentiment for escalation had been in the air since Thursday, existential questions about the purpose of the occupation were being openly posed without much answer. By Monday much of the tasks previously performed by the occupiers were going undone. Breakfast was served but not lunch. The cafeteria had not been swept or mopped since Friday. Coffee was running low, and the occupiers openly discussed their plans of moving out of their dorms and going home within the week. No one was planning to step-up to replace them. There were no rhetorical shifts about the autonomy of the space, the occupation being a commune, challenging the normality of the school, etc. it was still oriented as a pressure action in favor of the workers, who were satisfied in the case of the cafeteria workers, and had given up for the summer in the case of SENS-UAW.

Someone had printed copies of such zines from the New School and University of California occupations such as: Preoccupied: The Logic of Occupation and Communique from an Absent Future, however these just cluttered an info area alongside copies of Workers’ World, the Internationalist, etc., which resembled a free flyer table for businesses that could not properly staff a table at a career fair.

Still in the student-activist headspace, a déclassé sanctuary where a general “social justice” is privileged to self-activity and immanent critique, few attempted to justify the occupation from a personal prerogative. There was little talk of “student power,” free tuition, removal of card-reading barriers, disdain for the New School’s horrendous bureaucracy. No connection was asserted to the solidarity between students and teachers in the wildcat teacher strikes in the US, the pre-insurrectionary connections between the two in France fifty years ago or today. There was no argument for permanence of the occupation, other than “we stay until everyone gets a contract,” internally was acknowledged to be a farce.

Picketing outside of the New School.

The strategy instead shifted to an assertion of the rights of the cafeteria workers to self-manage. On Monday evening two occupiers, three cafeteria workers, an organizer of a co-operative cafe, and marxist professor Richard Wolff discussed the concept of workplace democracy. The workers agreed that the worst part of their job was management, who didn’t do much besides making orders and arbitrarily disciplining the workers. They reiterated that they were thankful to the students for taking action and clapped in agreement to Wolff’s anti-capitalist statements, but showed only general enthusiasm at the prospect of becoming their own managers.

Their reaction was somewhat irrelevant. The occupation released a statement reiterating their demand for worker and student control of the cafeteria and firing of its manager. Privately they acknowledged that they would leave on Wednesday. The Communist Student Group posted a public declaration of victory, for some reason clarifying they had “pulled out” of the occupation since the previous Saturday. The activist-led plan to temporarily reoccupy the building lost steam, turning into a small solidarity demo almost entirely of activists who had taken part in the occupation. As many predicted, the moment of struggle fizzled out with the end of the semester. On Wednesday the occupation demanded with its remaining demands unmet.

Analysis

Communists are not isolated from the proletariat. Their action is never an attempt to organize others, only to express their own subversive response to the world. Ultimately, revolutionary initiatives will interconnect. But our task is not primarily one of organization: it is to convey (in a text or an action) an antagonistic relation to the world. However big or small it may be, such an act is an attack against the old world.
– François Martin

Like many of the North American struggles of recent years, the occupation demonstrated a type of maturity from those ten years prior. Focused on concrete tactics and demands, it took direct action to protect the livelihood of workers whose previous self-organizing attempts fell on deaf ears. The visible disruption of the occupation was apparently impetus enough to bring the University to the bargaining table. It provided a physical center to connect the struggle of the cafeteria workers with the student workers, and filled the space with political teach-ins, literature, and propaganda that colored the individual labors struggles with a revolutionary brush. The occupiers were quickly able to overcome the sectarian aspect of the occupation that marred the first few days, and, despite different perspectives, were able to work together in a way that privileged the efficacy of the occupation to any ideological position.

The solidarity with the cafeteria workers was especially impressive. At their discussion with Richard Wolff, they revealed their favorite part of the job was the connection they made with students, how they would give them free food if they were out of money, how they would talk to them about their problems, and how managers would chastise them for doing so. As critics of work, we must recognize that their interest in securing their jobs posed a hard limit to the revolutionary pretenses we may have had in coming to support the occupation. The same can be said of the SENS-UAW, whose demand was to fair compensation in order to continue their roles within the functioning of the university.

The desperation of these struggles prevented an anti-work critique from arising as it had in occupations past. The inability for the struggles to intersect around their central point, the misery of work (food service, university administration, academic work), in favor of new relations, alienated the core of the struggle–the militant faction of the SENS-UAW and the student occupiers–from their own desires. Many if not most said they wanted to escalate, to occupy another building, to make the University pay for their insulting non-negotiation, to make the union pay for for four days of grueling pickets. The occupation ended in the heart of finals weeks, when failing to turn in grades or disruptions of graduation must have been a major fear for administrators. Making a hard blockade of university functions would have deepened this crisis. That the UAW/Maoist/occupier’s plan of withdrawal was a breath of relief to administration challenges the few revolutionary pretenses the occupation maintained.

“The results were banal and unimaginative because very few, if anyone, actually wanted to escalate, they were merely pro-escalation.”

The idea of workplace democracy was part of this retreat. A workplace without a formal management structure develops an informal one; workers who care keep the ones who don’t in-line for the “good of the business.” During the Wolff panel, one of the cafeteria workers wondered why anyone would even want the overpriced and faux-fancy food, suggesting they go to a Wendy’s down the street instead. Even if the cafeteria were turned into a collectively-run co-op, it would still be in the service of the University’s bottom-line of selling students food and looking culturally woke in the process.

For all its infantile drawbacks, a lack of the adventurism that lead to the occupations of ‘08, ‘09, and ‘11, probably allowed the occupation to stagnate and whither on the vine. At any point a militant faction (say at the Wednesday or Friday post-picket meetings, or just any cafeteria GA) could have entered a situation, as the CSG had done with the cafeteria workers’ struggle, announced that they had an analysis and a plan, and anyone interested can attend an immediate planning meeting. One can blame this on the absence of a determined anarchist/ultraleft in NY, whose demobilization over the last decade deserves its own text. Instead people with pro-escalation sentiments suggested that such a faction should be created, after the current meeting or the next day, and it could be planned on a signal loop, because the meeting had gone on so long. The results were banal and unimaginative because very few, if anyone, actually wanted to escalate, they were merely pro-escalation.

The CSG, who did not attempt to block escalation, cautioned against symbolic and activisty measures. At the same time, they appeared so self-satisfied with their initial planning that they never attempted to escalate themselves, revealing that they had wanted to end the occupation only a few days after it had started. Nonetheless, they came away with a reputation of being the most prepared and militant faction.

In what starts as a victory statement, and ends as the first piece of critical analysis of the struggle so far, the CSG describes a degeneration of the action from the moment the group lost its control over the rhetoric and functioning within the occupation, which they call the “popular camp of struggle.” At this point, they argued the action became taken over by an “identity demagoguery” and the idea that the occupation was an “end-in-itself.” They cite the absence of the cafeteria workers from the occupation, which they blamed on threats from a UNITE organizer, as leaving the entire mobilization pointless. They imply that fact that the occupation became focused on supporting the SENS-UAW strike, and that student-workers from the striking SENS played a major role in the occupation, did not justify its continuation. The inference is that they analyzed the student-workers as non proletarian, or at least not compared to the cafeteria workers. Lastly, they saw the rhetoric of workplace democracy as a pivot to petit-bourgeois “model self-management.” While some of these criticisms are valid, the statement is overall sectarian, narcissistic, and needlessly insulting to the occupiers who, despite any general political faults, held the cafeteria for weeks on their own volition.

One cannot turn a labor struggle revolutionary by putting a hammer and sickle into a worker’s hand. Meaningful solidarity aims not to organize and educate the class, but to share analysis and desires in an attempt to overcome the separation of the militant and the aggrieved worker. The occupation is the perfect venue for such activity. Through sharing food, chores, and political ideas, bonds can be formed that could have turned the occupation from an activist sleepover to a confrontation with the logic of the University. The parameters of the occupation as by-the-students and for-the-workers, with a historical revolutionary aesthetic in place of a contemporary or experimental approach, alienated the occupation from its own potential.

The initial goal of the occupation was for the workers’ jobs and to show a relatively low-risk campaign of direct-action could force the hypocritical University to acknowledge the dignity of those who staff it. Such a struggle is worth supporting and engaging in, even if the demand for restoration of work may be infertile ground for a revolutionary experiment. Even as the addition of the SENS-UAW struggle made matters more interesting, this initial impetus kept the politics of the occupation on a leash that perhaps no pro-revolutionary group, no matter how clear-headed or determined, could have snapped. Nonetheless, the fact that this border went unprobed only makes future actions easier to contain.

Communists and anarchists should not seek to categorize the working class by authenticity, looking to the most exploited groups as a true revolutionary subject. The class mobilizes with its own notions of identity, stripping them down in the process of struggle; approaching a logic of classlessness. For this reason, we will echo the CSG polemic against “identity demagoguery” without limiting it to its stale anti-SJW dimensions. It was the various managers of the struggle, more than any insufficiently marxist group at the occupation, that attempted to reify the boundaries of identity with their with administrative, union, sectarian, and activist objectives. The opening of the cafeteria as a “commune kitchen” for all was a first step at abolishing the day-to-day logic of the UC. The next step was challenging UNITE, then the CSG, then the UAW. The worst failure is these managers barely seemed willing to put up a fight. There would of course be more managers to come, but that’s as far as we got.

Here’s hoping we do better next semester.

Written by a solitary outside agitator with much appreciated editorial help from several of the participants in the occupation.

Contact: NYPL@protonmail.com

Notes:

Image credits:

Picket image by Orlando Mendiola

Relevant texts:

Militancy: The highest stage of alienation by Organisation des Jeunes Travailleurs Révolutionnaires

On the Poverty of Student life by the Situationist International

Leninism and the Ultra-Left by Francois Martin

Notes Towards a Critique of Maoism by Loren Goldner

Preoccupied: The Logic of Occupation

Communique from an Absent Future


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