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Students Occupy the New School After Administration Cuts Off Pay and Health Coverage for Striking Faculty

A surprise escalation by students adds heat to a labor action that is already the longest adjunct faculty strike in U.S. history.

Singing “Solidarity Forever,” students stream into the New School’s University Center to occupy it. (Hell Gate)

At 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon, on the 23rd day of the New School's part-time faculty strike, now the longest adjunct faculty strike in United States history, a throng of people—part-time faculty, full-time faculty, alumni, and, overwhelmingly, students—packed the block of Fifth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets in front of the University Center building, banging on drums, cans, pots and street signs, chanting, "If we don't get a contract now / We're gonna shut the school down!"

At 3:14 p.m., that’s exactly what the students did. "We no longer represent this administration as representative of the New School!" Bella Coles, a member of the Student Faculty Solidarity Alliance declared through a megaphone. "The violent, manipulative, and cruel attacks from the administration upon every part of the New School have left us no choice but to escalate student action. We are now occupying the University Center!"

A few minutes later, scores of students slowly filed into the university center, swiping their student IDs to pass through the turnstiles, singing a rousing chorus of "Solidarity Forever."

The occupation comes the day after the school's administration announced that it would be suspending pay and health coverage for faculty that refuse to cross the picket line. The move affects faculty, said Cooper Sperling, a New School sophomore and member of the Alliance, "many of whom are caretakers primary insurance holders, some even pregnant or have upcoming surgeries. And this is all happening in New York City to the COVID-19 surge with over 40,000 cases as of the last few weeks."

The administration has also come for full-time faculty, who have supported the strike in significant numbers, directing them to regularly fill out forms affirming that they have conducted instructional activities. The administration has threatened full-time faculty member's employment if they do not fill out the cards, or if their cards are found not to be accurate. Students on federal work-study programs, similarly, have had their funding and enrollment threatened if they do not cross the picket line.

At the picket line moments before the occupation was announced. (Hell Gate)

Amidst laying plans for scab labor to undermine the strike, the university provost found the opportunity to quote bell hooks's "Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom."

The administration's hardball tactics so far appear to be strengthening the solidarity of strikers and their allies, rather than breaking it. A group representing 1,500 parents has called for the administration to resolve the labor dispute and has threatened a class-action suit if classes don't resume soon. 

With the occupation of the University Center, students too are exercising the tools available to them. The occupiers say they intend to maintain their occupation of the University Center continuously, 24 hours a day, until all striking faculty see their health benefits restored and the administration reaches a fair contract agreement with the union.

On an Instagram account that went live when the occupation was announced, students are asking for food, blankets, toiletries, and donations. They're asking participants to be respectful of the building and of university staff. "Any and all illegal activity will actively hurt the union effort," Emmanuel Auerbach Baidani, another organizer, told the crowd. "This occupation was organized by students and we do not want to reflect poorly upon the Union."

Hell Gate asked the administration whether it would take steps to end the occupation, and the how it justified taking health coverage from striking workers and their families. A spokesperson for the administration responded with the following statement: "The university supports free expression by our students and is continuing to work to reach a strong, fair, and fiscally responsible contract for our part-time faculty."

Sperling said the students came to the decision to occupy reluctantly, and because they felt they had no other choice. 

"All of our previous tactics have not worked," Sperling said. "What's at stake is the future of our education, and the future of the New School," Sperling told Hell Gate in an interview Thursday morning. "This is an opportunity for the students to play a role in returning the New School to its revolutionary roots."

Updated (12/8/22, 8:20 p.m.): This story has been updated to include a statement from the administration that was received after the story was first published.

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