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CUNY faculty go on illegal ‘May Day’ strike in support of students protests

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On May Day, May 1, hundreds of CUNY faculty and staff signed a pledge to not work, in solidarity with a student encampment at City College. 

The strike, which is illegal under state law and was not endorsed by the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing CUNY workers, comes after law enforcement and riot police carried out a violent crackdown on the night before to clear protest encampments at City College and Columbia University. 

Student protesters engaging in these encampments across various schools in the country are demanding that their schools, many with massive endowments, financially divest from Israel. 

Divestment, for these protesters, means cutting endowment ties to Israeli companies or companies that do business with Israel, particularly those aiding or profiting from Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Many also want their schools to end all academic relations with Israeli institutions. 

Student activists say that companies doing business in Israel, or with Israeli organizations, as well as colleges investing in these companies, are complicit in its ongoing war in Gaza, which Gazan health authorities say has claimed over 34,000 lives.

On April 30, hundreds of NYPD officers flooded City College’s campus to clear the CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment, which had been present on the quad since  April 25. 

Following student protesters’ refusal to leave the encampment, the NYPD arrested over 200 people. 

In solidarity with the encampments, a group of the CUNY union members gathered at the City College encampment on April 29 and held an anonymous vote to authorize a May Day strike if 250 or more members pledged to call in sick on May 1.

By the night of April 30, the group, now renamed “CUNY Out Sick for Palestine,” tweeted anonymously that they had surpassed the 250 participant threshold and will proceed with the strike on May 1.

The faculty petition recognized the gravity of such action, considering New York’s Taylor Law of 1967, which prohibits public sector workers from participating in any strike or work stoppages. Participants in such misconduct may face possible fines, jail time and potential discipline or termination. 

The PSC distanced itself from what it called the “unauthorized” sick-out in a statement to members on April 29. The vote, PSC President James Davis wrote, “is not sanctioned” by the union, adding that PSC “does not condone this action and discourages PSC members from participating.”

In a separate statement, the PSC condemned the mass arrests at City College. “Last night’s NYPD actions at the campus, even before the announced deadline for students to clear the encampment, were escalatory and disproportionate to any threat that the encampment posed. A militarized police response violates the trust and community that make the shared quest for education possible,” the statement read.

Despite such warnings, organizers of the strike announced on May Day evening that over 300 PSC-CUNY members participated in the strike, calling it “historic” as the union’s first strike in its 52-year existence.

The staff protesters, in solidarity with the CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment, demand that schools cut all financial and academic ties to Israel, demilitarize campuses and voice support for the Palestinian cause. Additionally, staff members called for amnesty for the protesters who were arrested and charged with crimes. 

“This is a decisive and serious action,” the petition read. “But this is a decisive and serious moment — a point in history that we will look back at and see ourselves on one side or the other.”

Meanwhile, at Columbia, faculty were still reeling from a violent crackdown that sent several students to hospitals with injuries. 

The Columbia University chapter of the American Association of University Professors is considering issuing a symbolic vote of no confidence against university President Minouche Shafik, following a similar faculty-wide vote against Barnard College President Laura Rosenbury.

On the evening of April 30, Shafik announced that NYPD will remain on campus until after the semester ends late May to prevent students from re-establishing the encampment against a unanimous vote from the campus Faculty Senate.By May Day evening, the NYPD had cleared out another encampment at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus.

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