The Contract Struggle at CUNY: A View from Below

Last Fall some folks affiliated with CUNY Struggle penned a response to The Nation‘s uncritical coverage of the ongoing PSC contract dispute. As the ruling class offensive on US trade unionism ever intensifies, far too many comrades in leftist media confuse unquestioning support for existing union structures and leaderships with support for the working class against capital, and we find this to be a major miscalculation. The Nation declined to print our response, and though the situation has changed since December, we are sharing our opinion below as an invitation to dialogue and critique. 

The Contract Struggle at CUNY: A View from Below

The November 30th article on the campaign by the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) to reach a new contract with the City University of New York correctly notes the disregard shown by Governor Cuomo and the New York State legislature for funding public higher education. However, in its enthusiasm for the recent course of actions taken by the PSC leadership, most notably the preparation now underway for a strike-authorization vote to happen ostensibly in the spring semester, the article fails to acknowledge the leadership’s near-total lack of attention to the ongoing struggle of the union’s largest and most vulnerable contingent. Adjuncts are essentially casual academic workers who, while making up the majority of CUNY faculty and thus also the union, consistently suffer from low pay, few benefits, and a total lack of job security. Yet in the current round of negotiations, the PSC has effectively refused to bargain on behalf of adjuncts. It is increasingly clear that when the contract agreement is reached, there will be no movement toward pay parity for adjuncts, who make at best a third of what full-time faculty make, nor toward the creation of a real job-security system that could actually protect workers in the long term. These are among the demands that we, along with many other adjunct and contingent CUNY faculty, would like to see centered both in bargaining and in discussions of a possible strike.

It bears noting that while the PSC leadership often denounces the poor pay, working conditions, and job security of adjuncts, the actions that same leadership has taken concerning these inequities have in fact actively contributed to further entrenching them. In current contract bargaining, the leadership, as it has done for previous contracts, is pushing for an across-the-board percentage raise that will disproportionately favor full-time faculty. Given that full-time faculty have significantly higher salaries to begin with, a flat percentage-based raise means much more for them in real terms than it does for those on the low end of the pay scale. The effect is a contract that actually widens the pay disparity between adjuncts and full-time faculty rather than closing it. Further, although the union is bargaining for a job-security proposal, it is not one developed by longtime adjuncts, who fear the leadership’s proposal will actually introduce more job insecurity.

The widespread frustration of CUNY adjuncts with the PSC leadership was openly voiced at the union’s mass meeting at Cooper Union on November 19. During the comment period—when anyone not hand-picked by the union leadership was permitted to speak—the majority of speakers took aim at the two-tiered labor system, demanding that the leadership adamantly oppose it rather than reinforce it in its bargaining strategy. Many adjuncts also handed out flyers containing the three most popular adjunct demands: actual movement toward pay parity via an additional dollar amount beyond an equal-percentage raise; genuine job-security by way of a seniority system; and an end to the PSC-imposed rule preventing adjuncts from teaching more than nine credit hours at one campus and six credit hours at another.

In response to this activity, PSC president Barbara Bowen promised that the PSC was “moving toward” pay equity, that the adjuncts’ day would come, maybe in the next contract. But we demand that President Bowen and the PSC leadership at large act now, in this contract, on behalf of its most exploited members. Anything less is not movement at all, but the status quo of today’s neoliberal university.

-Concerned members of the PSC Rank and File

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