On July 14—Bastille Day—CUNY Struggle and Adjuncts and Graduate Students for a Fair Contract hosted a demonstration outside the offices of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union that represents over 27,000 faculty and staff at CUNY. As CUNY Struggle readers know, PSC leadership wishes to compel us to accept a profoundly unsatisfactory contract in which they made little effort to oppose the two-tiered, divide-and-rule academic labor system, all the while collecting accolades and even something called a “militancy award” for their strident verbal condemnations of our predicament.
The demonstration was intended as a show of organized public opposition to both the contract and the failed strategy that produced it. CUNY Struggle and Adjuncts and Graduate Students for a Fair Contract have spearheaded the campaign to vote NO on the contract and to rebuild the union from the ground up as a militant organization capable of going on the offensive and linking up with the city’s broader working class—including our 450,000 students—to make CUNY a truly public university and reverse the forty-year-long assault on working people that has reduced us to our present state of weakness.
We spoke to reporters from several news outlets and both Politico New York and The Chief-Leader, New York’s “Civil Service Bible,” ran stories on our opposition movement. We reprint below the text of the article that appeared in the Chief-Leader but the Politico New York article remains inaccessible behind a paywall. As CUNY Struggle is an authentically grassroots organization with a war chest of precisely zero, we encourage you to send us the Politico article so we can read it! Hit us up on Facebook, Twitter, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PSC Leader and a Dozen Dissidents Debate Pact: Reality vs. Aspiration
Despite Big Delegate Nod, Some Adjuncts Object
By RICHARD STEIER
Four weeks earlier, Professional Staff Congress President Barbara Bowen had taken a figurative victory lap after prodding the City University of New York to get off a state bargaining pattern it had held to for the previous five years and give her “a strong, imaginative contract in a period of enforced austerity for public workers because our members mobilized.”
She was referring to the series of demonstrations held by the union, including one three months earlier at which she was among 52 people arrested for protesting what she called an “insulting” offer by CUNY. By May, 92 percent of her rank and file had voted to authorize a strike, which she deferred until the fall term, hoping the threat would give her the leverage to reach the deal she announced with jubilance on June 16.
Not Militant Enough?
On the steamy afternoon of July 14, however, she found herself assailed by union dissidents for not having been tough or resourceful or determined enough to do better than bring back a deal they claimed wouldn’t keep pace with inflation and had actually widened the gap between pay for adjuncts—who make up a bit more than half of the union’s 27,000 members—and full-time faculty.
Fortunately for her, only a dozen of them were making that case, one rooted in the conviction that the adjuncts still aren’t getting nearly what they deserve and the belief that this was the time to make a stand by striking.
Ms. Bowen would counter later that afternoon that their grievances were legitimate, but that bargaining realities told her that the deal she signed off on—which will be voted on by union members through Aug. 3—was the best that could have been obtained. She said in a phone interview that she believed most of her members agreed: “the overwhelming majority of messages have been ‘thank you,’ ‘I’m supporting it,’ and ‘It wasn’t everything I wanted but I’m pleased with what we were able to get.’”
She also noted that the PSC’s delegate body had voted 111 to 11 to recommend ratification to the rank and file.
And so, Ms. Bowen said, “I hope it will be ratified, and I think it will be.”
‘Here to Force Change’
Those marching in a small circle around the PSC’s lower-Broadway headquarters seemed to believe that the deal’s fate was beside the point, even though they had organized the rally to try to galvanize opposition in the final weeks of the balloting.
“We’re here to force a change in the way the union is run,” Andy Battle, a history instructor at Hunter College, declared as the small gathering of PSC members listened raptly. He is scheduled to teach three classes in the fall term, and under the proposal deal, his pay for each class during that period would jump from just over $2,900 to roughly $3,200.
“I work several other jobs,” he noted earlier during an interview, including as a research assistant for persons working on books and the task that really pays his bills: toiling for a moving company.
“I made more money moving furniture for nine days than I did for an entire semester of teaching,” Mr. Battle said.
Ruth Wangerin, an anthropologist who began working at City College in the 1970s as a graduate student and has taught sociology and anthropology as a single course as well as her current regimen as an anthropology instructor at Lehman College, lamented that adjuncts continued to lag behind the Modern Language Association’s “definition of $7,000 a course” as an appropriate salary, despite pledges going back a dozen years that by 2010 adjuncts would reach parity with full-time instructors with the same level of advanced degrees.
Goal Deferred Again
“But right now they’re saying we’ll build on what we’ve got next time,” she said of the PSC’s leadership.
The frustration she and some colleagues feel has prompted at least five of them, Ms. Wangerin said, to explore the ramifications of decertifying from the union. “If we had our fair representation according to our numbers in the union, they couldn’t just vote us down,” she said.
Ms. Bowen responded, “The priorities that our adjuncts committee expressed were health insurance and job security. We got those” under the pending contract, which gives adjuncts the right to enter into three-year employment contracts and provides health insurance for those teaching at least two courses per semester.
Rachel Youens, a fine-arts and art-criticism instructor for the past nine years at La Guardia Community College who gets $3,600 per class but made by her estimate just $25,000 teaching even with summer and winter-recess assignments, protested that “there’s no structure for adjuncts to go from one class to two and be eligible for health insurance.”
Compromised With CUNY
True enough, Ms. Bowen said, but “CUNY wanted it that you have to teach three courses” and ultimately the two sides had compromised. “Someone who is just teaching one course is almost certainly not relying on that course for their income.”
And, she said, employer-paid health insurance was “almost unheard of for part-timers in academia.”
The three-year-contract provision “really is a tremendous breakthrough,” Ms. Bowen said. “That was the hardest thing to win in the contract,” and the union had been ready to walk away from the bargaining table until CUNY agreed to it as the final piece in the tentative deal.
Ms. Youens lamented that qualifying for such job contracts was pegged to continuous service in the system, with those who had long service at CUNY who may have taken a semester or two off in recent years not eligible.
As she was speaking, her fellow dissidents chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, this poverty contract’s got to go.”
1st Time on Receiving End
It’s the kind of rhetoric that is familiar to the point of being a cliché at union rallies. What gave it some life was that such chants are usually aimed at management, not uttered outside a union’s offices.
Ms. Bowen, a scholar of both 17th-century English literature and African-American studies who has headed the PSC since 2000, said that in her memory there had never been such a demonstration. “We have a lively membership,” she said with some humor in her voice.
Mr. Battle had charged that the primary economic gain under the deal—a 10.4-percent raise over slightly more than seven years—would not keep pace with the cost of living for the period beginning in the fall of 2010, and that the across-the-board nature of the raises meant adjuncts would actually lose ground to full-time staff for whom the pay hikes would be applied to higher base salaries.
Ms. Bowen conceded the point, while noting that some past contracts had featured “equity increases” to try to narrow the pay gap, with the previous pact providing a 16-percent boost at the top step of the pay scale for adjuncts, compared to raises totaling 13.8 percent for full-time instructors.
Topped State Pattern
“We did not do it in this contract,” she said, “because we had such a struggle to get any salary increase on the table.” Through much of the bargaining, CUNY had confined its offer to what Governor Cuomo forced state workers to accept five years ago by threatening to lay off up to 10,000 of them: raises that over a five-year period amounted to 4 percent. The final terms members are voting on are consistent with what municipal unions got for a similar period from the de Blasio administration, as Mr. Cuomo was prodded to raise the amount of state funding available for pay hikes under the state budget adopted in early spring.
“It’s an increase that is just at inflation,” Ms. Bowen said, although the dissident claimed it wouldn’t even reach that level by the end of the pact. “The reason I feel this is not an austerity contract is it breaks the pattern in some areas other than the wage increases.”
Among them, she said, in addition to the health-insurance and job-security gains were a reduced teaching load for full-time faculty that would give them more time to meet with students, and a better path for promotion provided to non-teaching union members.
‘Leverage Got Retro’
“We were able to get retroactive pay with no deferring or delay,” Ms. Bowen continued. “CUNY management gave us those things because they knew we had alternatives,” alluding to the potential strike that the rank and file had overwhelmingly authorized.
Mr. Battle wasn’t convinced, declaring “We’re here to combat the dead-end strategies that have gotten us into this sorry state.” He said union leaders had told those who insisted they hadn’t gotten enough from CUNY that “‘you’re naïve—you want too much too fast and that’s not the way the game is played.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Jay Arena, a full-time instructor at the College of Staten Island with eight years’ experience who said the deal “doesn’t deliver for full-timers as well.” Further, he said, “Our students are screwed over,” predicting CUNY would look to cover future labor costs by raising tuition. Mr. Arena said the union should be pushing for “free, open-admissions CUNY,” concepts which faded away beginning with the 1975 fiscal crisis that brought an end to free tuition, and the raising of admission standards in recent years.
The lofty aspirations and tough rhetoric are familiar to Ms. Bowen, who has taken militant positions often in the past that have included advocating strenuously against tuition increases for students. Asked about dissidents like Mr. Battle floating the possibility of running a slate against her in the next election, she said, “We’ve had contested elections in this union before, and members have made their choice.”
‘Prepared to Build on It’
For now, she said, her concern was getting the contract ratified, adding, “I’m prepared to build on it and keep fighting.”
There was no question, Ms. Bowen continued, that adjuncts had a right to feel aggrieved about “scandalously low wages—that’s how CUNY survives its radical underfunding. It’s a very big example of universities that run on exploited labor.”
But, she concluded, “I would ask people to work on this with us, in the streets, in the Legislature.”