Notes on the Impasse and PSC Bargaining Agenda

The notice of impasse issued late last month amidst the PSC’s ongoing contract negotiations gives the public a rare peek into a process that has been opaque to a vast majority of PSC members. The notice, issued by CUNY management, asserts that bargaining has broken down and requires a third party mediator in order to move forward. President Bowen’s November announcement of a strike authorization vote features prominently in CUNY’s argument as evidence that good faith is no longer present in the proceedings. We now hear that mediation sessions are moving forward, though the timeline for actionable decisions remains open ended.

In a piece published on the PSC website last month, Bowen explained what the notice of impasse means for the coming weeks and months:

Should a mediator be assigned, we will do our utmost to make mediation productive. But a declaration of impasse also has the potential to create enormous delay. If PERB does find that the parties are at impasse (a likely outcome once one party makes a declaration), time will be required to assign a mediator, familiarize the mediator with the issues, and allow the mediator to work. If mediation fails, the parties then enter into a process of fact-finding. Fact-finding for complicated contracts like ours can take up to a year. And the end-product of the fact-finding is a non-binding recommendation for settlement of the contract, not an agreement made by the parties themselves.

In short, the impasse notice changes little for on the ground mobilization, and if anything, means that the impasse could drag on indefinitely while we continue to organize as before. In the interim, the PSC has taken this opportunity to further rally around their strike authorization pledge, which is the first step of a strike authorization vote we are now hearing will happen in April at the earliest. And this vote, if and when it happens, is itself no guarantee of any action. It only authorizes the leadership to call a strike — an “authorization”, by the way, that the union leadership already possesses. In this ongoing publicity campaign the PSC has announced a small coalition of sympathetic NGOs, political and student groups, and labor unions under the banner CUNY Rising (a moniker borrowed from a massive development project aimed at raising enrollment standards in the CUNY system). Whether the PSC’s reach extends beyond the paid staffer or activist core of these organizations to the communities they represent, and whether this tie is sustainable beyond a one-day mobilization, remains to be seen.

What is clear is that politically mobilized adjuncts and graduate students, many of whom have circulated or signed alternative strike pledges calling for the PSC to better champion the cause of contingent workers, are feeling pressure to abandon this critical position and fall in line behind union leadership. At a recent PSC Delegate Assembly, President Barbara Bowen cited the notice of impasse and suggested that the PSC has been negotiating all along for the very issues that adjuncts demand, especially pay equity, and argued therefore that adjunct agitation for equity is superfluous. Members were referred to a lengthy list of demands, outlined in the notice of impasse, which Bowen purported to have been negotiating for all along, once again portraying the PSC leadership and bargaining team as champions of the part-time faculty.

These are the demands cited in the above report that specifically mention adjuncts:

  1. Identifying additional funding to support previously negotiated benefits, such as paid parental leave, Educational Opportunity Center (“EOC”) Adjuncts health insurance, and PSC-CUNY Research Awards
  2. “equity salary increases for adjuncts”
  3. “multiyear teaching appointments for adjuncts”
  4. “Decreasing the semester requirement and crediting University-wide service for teaching Adjuncts to qualify for tuition waivers”
  5. Expanding eligibility for tuition waivers to non-teaching Adjuncts;
  6. Employer recurring contributions or a one-time cash contribution to the Adjunct Professional Development Fund;
  7. “Authorizing Graduate Assistants’ service to be credited toward Adjunct benefits”
  8. Establishing penalties for the employer for late disbursement of payroll checks to Adjuncts and Graduate Assistants;
  9. “Authorizing a one semester break, owing to lack of course assignments, to serve as a bridge for Adjunct benefits”
  10. “Authorizing the accrual of leave for Adjunct employees”
  11.  “Restoring Adjuncts who have experienced up to a one-year break in service back to their pre-break salary”
  12. “Incorporating provisions of previously negotiated agreements, including the provisions on Adjunct health insurance, paid parental leave, and the PSC-CUNY Research Awards.”

It is of course a sad commentary on the lack of internal democracy in the PSC that this had to come from management, and couldn’t be revealed as part of a transparent bargaining process. But putting this aside, we must ask: what does it mean to see these demands listed in black and white on a legal document, and attributed to the PSC bargaining team? Actually, not very much.

What this document proves is that each enumerated item was mentioned one time in negotiations. There is no way of telling for sure if any of these demands have been bargained for vociferously, or have remained on the table in various offers and counter-offers. The brass tacks of these negotiations have remained shrouded in secrecy, even while PSC rank and filers are being mobilized to pledge for a strike over which they will have little to no control. Unfortunately we just can’t say which demands have been central, and which sidelined, and until the process is made more transparent, the burden of proof rests squarely on the PSC.

In terms of seniority and course load demands, even this list does not pave the way for meaningful adjunct job security, which would protect adjuncts from the tyranny of a bad review, or arbitrary non-hiring. It also fails to address the 9/6 rule, limiting adjunct work hours per campus, which was posed recently by a group of adjuncts who have issued a petition calling for its repeal, and does not address the unpaid wages done by adjuncts in grading and student consultation, which could be partially ameliorated by an additional office hour per class.

Further, even the impressive mention of “equity pay” (a cornerstone adjunct demand, featured prominently on a t-shirt that got one adjunct rank and filer removed by PSC staff from a photo op at the mass arrest outside CUNY Central last Fall) is hopelessly abstract, and couldn’t be met even if management wanted to. What does “equity pay” mean in this case? Pay equivalent to full timers per class hour taught — a massive raise? Or pay increases equivalent to full-timers’ pay increases, which do not close the pay gap? While it is not impossible that Bowen and the bargaining team have been pushing for full “pay equity” for adjuncts in the most generous sense, this would fly in the face of Bowen’s repeated response to adjuncts privately that the PSC leadership has prioritized job security over equity pay for this contract. And we really have no way of telling. All signs point to the current demand as a 14% increase across the board, which will only widen the gulf between adjuncts and full-timers, and further ossify the two-tier system.

In short, the suggestion that this notice of impasse demonstrates anything approaching the satisfaction of adjunct demands points itself to another seemingly intractable impasse: the failure of trust between PSC leadership and the contingent members who make up a majority of the union. As of this writing, adjuncts are being told behind closed doors that the mediator has no control over CUNY’s purse strings, and no more money than is currently on the table is going to materialize, no matter what the PSC says or does. Further, we are hearing that the additional office hour adjuncts have been fighting for is off the table altogether. Therefore if we are serious about getting what we want, a strike may be on the horizon. If we are to proceed down a path toward breaking the Taylor Law and risking our necks for the future of the PSC, it can only be done on conditions of equality, transparency, and accountability, which are direly missing from the current status quo. Until then, we must struggle within the PSC and outside of it, to advance the CUNY struggle to a point where we can fight for what we actually want, not just the crumbs we think we can possibly get.


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