Teach Our Workers Well: Open Letter to Governor Cuomo

Dear Governor Cuomo,

I teach economics to construction workers at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies in New York City, which is a part of Empire State College. Because of the vicissitudes of real estate – combined with bad government policy (more about this in a bit) — the location of our college is going to change. Before you determine what funds to allocate to our new location, I’d like to tell you, based on my own experience as a teacher, what a workers’ college needs.

Our students come to school to acquire the knowledge that is necessary to situate themselves in the economic and political world and to become informed citizens. They take classes in writing, art, history, political science and economics, all of which help them examine the relationship between economics, politics, and culture. But the physical space of a college is an integral part of the education that shapes a student. Ours is abysmal, reinforcing our students’ view that they belong at the bottom of the economic and social ladder.

Most of our students work from 7am to 2:30pm in construction sites in all five boroughs; to allow for the commute, and because a few of our students work until 3:30, our classes start at 4:30pm. Had our College been like Columbia University, where I also teach, after work and before classes start our students might have traveled to the school in order to go to the gym or swimming pool where, along with other workers and faculty, they would have made the transition to their roles of students. They might then have headed to the cafeteria for a snack (their lunch is at 11:45), where they would have shared tables with their cohort before heading, refreshed, to the classrooms.

The Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies does not have any of these facilities. After a day’s work, our students hang out in the streets by themselves, perhaps grabbing a slice of pizza and a beer from a deli, killing time. A few students do arrive at school early; some head straight to the computers and to the writing coaches to work on their homework. Others turn off the lights in the classrooms and take a nap. They are tired, but their options are limited: they have no gym, no swimming pool, and not even a cafeteria. But this is not all they do not have. They also do not have professors who are paid a living wage, and this is a direct challenge to the mission of workers’ education, as we will see presently.

To paraphrase President Obama, the Corona virus has torn back the curtain on the claim that wages are equal to the value of the work that they pay for. We now know that grocery workers are essential to our lives. Why do they, then, make just $15/hour in NYC, and even less than that outside of the city? Our students are essential workers too. Right now some do electrical or plumbing work for the City Department of Environmental Protection, making sure that when we turn on the faucet clean water would come out; others work in the city hospitals; and still others work in the subway stations. This work is also always essential. Why is the highest paid among them earning just $22/hour, then? Why do some people earn low wages and some people earn high wages? When I ask my students this question, their unanimous answer is that their wages are low because the value of their work is low. We then go over what they themselves did at work that morning before coming to class and discover that their explanation cannot be right. Since this is an econ class, we naturally ask what Adam Smith said, and we learn that he thought (in 1776) that wages are determined by the ability to “Just Say No.” “No” to high wages by employers, and “No” to low wages by workers; employers usually win, however, Smith explained, because they can hold out longer. David Ricardo (1817) agreed but thought that the privations that workers are willing to put up with before they cry uncle are determined by the “habits and customs of the people,” and these differ over time and place. The habits and customs of student-workers, their expectations, are shaped to a large degree by the working conditions of their professors.

Our students are, for the most part, taught by adjunct professors who receive just $3,379 per course. To support themselves, each of these professors (many of whom have PhDs) teaches in numerous places and is therefore constantly in transit, constantly planning classes, constantly grading, constantly trying to find more classes to teach, and constantly figuring out how to pay the rent and feed themselves and their families. You might think that because of the working conditions the quality of these classes suffers. It does, but not in the way that many might think. Our professors stretch themselves beyond the breaking point, and the material on the syllabi gets covered effectively. But underpaid and overworked professors who model impoverishment and who teach in a college without any amenities are a four-year signal to our students about their own worth.

Paying professors a living wage? Building a campus in NYC? Where will the money come from, you are probably wondering.

When we talk about funding we must start with real estate. Perhaps you already know that the increase in rent of our current location is due in large part to government policy. The classrooms and office space we currently rent are located at 325 Hudson Street. Google is moving to a building across the street and Disney is moving to the next block, and now the city has decided to “improve” the neighborhood by the use of the Hudson Square Business Improvement District. The street will be narrowed, sidewalks widened and lined with trees, flowers and benches an inviting “grand avenue” teeming with outdoor restaurants and cafes. BIDs like the Hudson Square raise property values by 43%. Had our consent been sought for this “improvement,” we would have welcomed it because the planned changes would have provided our students with places to congregate before classes start; but we would have agreed only under the condition that the commercial rents be regulated. But by city law Business Improvement Districts are governed by landlords, not by the businesses that are supposed to be improved, a real case of governmental doublespeak if ever there was one. Our past students built the building we are in and our current students will, no doubt, build the buildings that are going to rise around us. But now that the neighborhood is improved, they must leave because the “improvements” are for the benefit of highly paid workers, not for them.

Compare this with what New York State and New York City have done for Columbia University. Alma Mater, a sculpture of “nourishing mother” that is perhaps Columbia’s best-known symbol, sits in the middle of a huge open space of the most expensive real estate in the world. Yet when Columbia wanted to expand its campus, not an inch of this space was touched. This university that charged its students tuition of $62,000 last year and is projected to charge $71,000 for the coming year acquired the land that it needed for expansion through eminent domain by claiming that it was transferring it to public use.

Not only are our students members of the public, they are actually the ones who built both Columbia’s newest Northwest Corner Building [your name here] which is on the old campus, and Columbia’s new second campus further north. Yet neither they nor their families could ever afford to attend Columbia. How could the government classify Columbia’s land grab as a transfer to public use?

When our college needs to use one of Columbia’s many auditoriums for our students’ graduation during Columbia’s Summer break, this university that is ”for public use” and that pays no property taxes, charges us $10,000 rent (we are charged for security and cleaning separately). Why does our government pass one law that hurts the education of workers and the businesses that serve low income customers like them, subvert another law in order to help a richly endowed private university like Columbia, and then not apply that same law for the benefit of its intended beneficiaries, members of the public like our students?

Using eminent domain would cut the cost of building our campus substantially, but it would not pay to end the exploitation of our adjunct professors. To raise the pay per course to a livable $10,000 would require an additional $1.2 million a year. Raising tuition isn’t an option because our students’ wages are so low. Higher taxes is the only option. But thanks to how extreme income inequality in NY is, the required increase in the tax rate would be infinitesimally small. The top 1% of New York taxpayers earn $431 billion a year, and generating this much revenue would require an increase in their tax rate of .3 of one one thousands of one percent. Of course, our labor center is not the only program that desperately needs funding. But if 3,500 like ours were as dramatically improved, the total increase in taxes on the 1% would be just 1%.

You may argue that now that the state’s tax revenues are uncertain due to the Coronavirus, you have no choice but to diminish, not increase, the quality of the education of workers. But this is not so. There are several proposals for new taxes that our legislators are currently considering in order to close the projected small gap of $13 billion (3% of the $431 billion annual income of the top 1%), and I assume that whichever ones are adopted, you will sign the bill. I am confident that nobody intends to use this pandemic as an opportunity to hurt workers, but this has often been the outcome when we deal with disasters. Naomi Klein wrote about this in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and if your bookstore is closed, why, Amazon is open, and its workers are risking their lives and the lives of their families to deliver it to you. The pandemic has been so good to Amazon’s business, Jeff Bezos has just added a fourth NYC apartment to his existing three, all stacked in one column below his penthouse, and whatever work is needed to turn them into one space will be done by our students. Surely it should be easier for you to approve a slight increase in taxes on the very rich than to oversee the diminution in the quality of the education of the workers who help produce this wealth.

Sincerely yours,

Moshe Adler
Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies
Empire State College


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Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. He is the author of Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science That Makes Life Dismal (The New Press, 2010),  which is available in paperback and as an e-book and in Chinese (2013) and Korean (2015) editions.

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