In the midst of a spirited NO campaign, PSC leaders are showing signs of feeling the heat. President Barbara Bowen took time out from attending the American Federation of Teachers convention in Minneapolis to submit a reply, posted by PSC Secretary Nivedita Majumdar, to Rita Tobin’s compelling Huffington Post piece explaining why she opposes the tentative agreement with CUNY that PSC leaders submitted to the membership on July 11. We reprint below Bowen’s sharp-elbowed but ultimately unconvincing reply, as well as responses to Bowen from several PSC members. Read Tobin’s piece first to get the context and then follow the debate below.
PSC President Barbara Bowen:
It’s odd reading Rita Tobin’s opinion piece while at the biannual convention of the national union with the largest representation of higher education workers in the country: I keep being stopped by adjunct leaders from other locals and states congratulating the PSC on what this contract achieves for adjuncts. “It’s huge,” said one adjunct leader; “the three-year appointments for adjuncts are huge”—and she had read the fine print.
I respect Rita Tobin’s right to vote “no” on the proposed union contract, but I hope her vote is not based on the misrepresentations she makes in her opinion piece. Tobin says, “Every other public sector union has won raises for their workers over the years that have at the very least kept up with inflation.” Sadly, that is not true. The PSC was working against a pattern of below-inflation agreements in the public sector. That we were able to win back-pay and an increase that keeps pace with inflation was possible only because we mounted a mass campaign and because we took a successful vote to authorize a strike.
The contract the PSC just negotiated is exactly level with inflation through the current increase, if one uses the standard measure of inflation—the Bureau of Labor Statistics urban index for our region. Given the projected level of inflation through the end of the contract in 2017, the agreement we reached is just about level. Is that enough? Absolutely not. But the breakthroughs on structural conditions of work, won through the power the union generated, add up to an agreement that merits strong support.
Tobin also writes that “few adjuncts can meet the criteria for a 3-year contract.” Her claim is not based on fact; it is completely wrong. Well over 1,000 adjuncts will immediately qualify for the initial two-year appointment, without an additional performance review, and hundreds more will qualify for the three-year appointment each year. That’s far from “a contract for which only a few adjuncts will qualify,” as Tobin writes.
Of course it’s true that it would be better to allow a qualifying period that includes breaks in service, and the union pressed hard for that. CUNY management would not agree to any form of multi-year appointment with that inclusion.
Tobin also fails completely to mention the other major victory—again for thousands of adjuncts, not a few—in this contract: individual health insurance on the same plan as full-time employees. The health insurance, dental, optical and prescription drug benefits are offered with no premium cost. They were won because of a campaign that involved even more full-timers than part-timers.
I agree with Tobin that adjunct pay is horribly low. The systematic underpayment of half of the teaching force is the scandal at the center of American higher education. The drop in pay since Ms. Tobin started teaching in 1974 is inexcusable, but the fault lies with the artificial austerity policies imposed by Republicans and Democrats alike, and the thirty-year history of planned dis-investment in public colleges and universities. That’s exactly what the PSC is working to reverse—and we won a significant battle this year when we averted a 30% cut in State funds to CUNY.
Finally, of course, the proposed contract covers many different employees, and won advances in several important arenas for Tobin’s colleagues. There were breakthroughs on the teaching load, a promotional path for professional staff, annual leave for library faculty, creation of full-time positions for formerly part-time instructors in immersion programs, and much more. Let’s have the debate about this contract, but let’s have it based on accuracy, not misrepresentation.
Rita Tobin responds to Bowen:
I’m pleased that Barbara Bowen took a break from the biannual convention to respond to my post. It sounds as though she’s having an enjoyable time. I also agree that the debate “should be based on accuracy.” So let’s be accurate.
For starters, I did not compare salaries or take into account inflation rates merely for the past 6 years. I began teaching in 1974. Adjuncts have been underpaid for decades and, as Barbara concedes, public universities have been systemically short-changed. Moreover, as noted in a comment, below, the salary increases in the proposed PSC contract do NOT keep pace with inflation. See
If the PSC’s sole contention is that, when all the math is done, the UFT and NYPD haven’t fared any better that we have—which remains to be seen, given that the increases must be averaged over a period beginning, not when the last PSC contract expired, but from the date of our last raise—that’s a pretty weak reason to vote for the proposed contract.
Barbara rightly points out that the contract applies to CUNY employees in several categories, including full-time teachers and library staff. In fact, as demonstrated by income and other disparities not remedied by the proposed contract, adjuncts and full-timers may have different, perhaps conflicting interests. Her post is, essentially, a pitch to full-timers to support the contract. I hope that those full-time employees will consider the issues carefully before doing so, particularly the plight of their colleagues, CUNY adjuncts.
Barbara acknowledges that adjuncts are “horribly underpaid.” That the PSC was unable to close the gap between us and the full-time faculty—indeed, has widened that gap—supports the contention that the interests of full-timers and part-timers are at odds. While I do not have the CUNY salary scales for 1974—perhaps the PSC can supply them—current UFT salary schedules set out the salary for a beginning NYC elementary school teacher at $51,650, or $10,564.08 in 1974 dollars, while The National Center for Education Statistics table states that the average salary for teachers nationwide in 1974 was $10,411.(https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_075.asp). Therefore, the UFT teachers’ salaries have kept pace with average teacher salaries nationwide, whereas my salary has gone down by half, and most adjunct salaries have dropped by 60%.
Further, while Barbara may be correct that up to 1,000 adjuncts can now obtain 3-year contracts, sixty-percent of CUNY courses are now taught by adjuncts. According to CUNY’s website, there are 6,700 full-time teachers at CUNY. That means that at least 10,000 teachers are adjuncts, and only 1 out of 10 will qualify for a 3-year contract. Another commenter puts the number of adjuncts at 16,000. I would call 1 in 10 “a few,” and 1 in 16 “a very few.”
Barbara writes that “Of course it’s true that it would be better to allow a qualifying period that includes breaks in service, and the union pressed hard for that. CUNY management would not agree to any form of multi-year appointment with that inclusion.” No kidding. By refusing to allow for so-called “breaks in service,” including canceled classes, CUNY effectively eliminated hundreds, if not thousands, of adjuncts from eligibility for the 3-year contract.
The proposed contract does affirm health insurance coverage for part-timers who are teaching a sufficient number of courses—Barbara is correct on that point, too. Note, however, the qualification “a sufficient number of courses.” The July 30, 2014 Memorandum of Understanding requires that an adjunct teach two courses in a semester to be eligible for health insurance. With no job security, and only a limited number of adjuncts eligible for extended contracts, an adjunct can lose her health insurance as quickly as a course is canceled.
According to the Bureau of Labor Standards inflation calculator, inflation over past 40 years has been 388.9%. What cost $1 in 1974, now costs $4.89. Instead of nearly quintupling, my salary has decreased by half. Instead of being granted a contract based on seniority—over 10 years at Hunter—I am told that, because one of my classes was canceled three years ago, I am not eligible.
I have indeed read the fine print, and horribly underpaying part-timers and allowing CUNY to continue to refuse to provide us with job security, while offering health insurance that can disappear and a 3-year contract that may also evaporate, even for the 1 in 10 (or 1 in 16) who qualify, does not add up in my view to a contract that deserves a “yes” vote. I voted “no.”
Glenn Kissack responds to Bowen:
I’m sorry, but this reply isn’t consistent. It begins by saying that the PSC was up against a “pattern of below-inflation agreements in the public sector,” but then asserts that the PSC managed to escape that pattern. Even though it accepted the same 10.41% over seven years that DC 37 accepted the week before. Not only did the Governor refuse to break the below-inflation pattern he established with other state unions (PEF and CSEA), he insisted there be no increase for the first 18 months of the PSC contract, a huge loss of retroactive money for CUNY faculty and staff.
The last contractual increase that members received was October 2009. A member can reasonably hope that when a new contract is signed, their salaries will have at least the same purchasing power as they did in 2009. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics tables are very clear that they do not. See the table here:
The table shows that the inflation-adjusted salary for CUNY faculty and staff was 102.8 in 2009, which drops to 100.3 in 2017, the last year of the contract. That’s a decline of 2.5%.
But that loss of purchasing power pales to the 60% decline in real wages for adjuncts that Rita Tobin cites in her poignant and informative essay. This is not only heartbreaking, it is at the root of the massive growth of contingent labor at CUNY and other public universities. Unless we begin to address this brutal system of underpaid academic labor, it will continue to spread and drag down conditions for everyone at the university, including students.
Andy Battle responds to Bowen:
It is unfortunate and telling that Majumdar and Bowen place more stock in the passing comments of “leaders from other locals and states” than in feedback from their own members. Unfortunately, their reply is not only inconsistent, but trots out many of the standard canards PSC leaders use to justify their unwillingness to confront in a meaningful way the two-tiered system of academic labor that keeps the majority of CUNY faculty working at poverty wages.
Unfortunately when you’re an adjunct at CUNY you have to read the silences in statements from PSC leaders to figure out what’s really going on. What Majumdar and Bowen carefully do not address is the forty-year-old elephant in the room—the growing wage gap between a shrinking but privileged minority and a growing, immiserated stratum of part-time faculty who now teach well over half of all classes at CUNY. The trends are clear but the leadership still devotes itself to protecting the privileges of the minority who is their real constituency while allowing the majority, who are radically underrepresented in the decision-making bodies of the union, to fall further and further into distress, as Tobin’s piece makes clear. This contract, like all others negotiated by this leadership, increases the wage gap between the two strata by applying the 10.41% raise equally to people who make $100,000 and people who make $15,000. The other major provisions of the contract are similarly stratified. The workload reduction touted by Majumdar and Bowen (which, strangely, the school has not guaranteed but has sort of promised to look into) will benefit only full-time, tenure-track faculty. The execrable “signing bonus” (read “bribe”) is pro-rated to dock adjuncts and graduate student employees.
They are carefully vague about the other supposed “breakthroughs” achieved in the proposal. The language on teaching load is quite weak and commits the school to very little that is concrete. Basically what they have agreed is to keep talking about it. The “promotional path for professional staff” is similarly discretionary. What it amounts to is a promise by management to consider ameliorating the consequences of the relentless speed-ups CUNY professional staff have endured–in individual cases and at the discretion of management. This is hardly a “breakthrough on structural conditions of work,” as Majumdar and Bowen claim.
Unfortunately, Majumdar and Bowen’s reply also illustrates some of the short-sighted tactics PSC leaders use to manage the internal politics of the union. When they are on the defensive or when it proves convenient, they are happy to resort to the divide-and-rule tactics they decry when used by management, as when Majumdar and Bowen scold Tobin for inattention to the welfare of her “colleagues.” Leaving aside the strange notion that the most exploited segment of the union is somehow selfish or petulant—a claim that has been made more explicitly in internal communications by surrogates for the leadership—we should ask whether exploiting the divisions within the workforce by pitting professional staff against their adjunct colleagues for the sake of ramming through an agreement that injures both is a thoughtful strategy for the long-term.
In all, the leadership is flailing because they got clobbered and now have to to sell a weak contract, achieved not through “union power”—another of the empty signifiers so beloved by union leadership—but through a carefully stage-managed campaign that employed simulated civil disobedience and a cynical strike authorization vote, to a membership that shows signs of growing wise to what this top-down strategy can achieve. The alternative is to engage the rank-and-file, especially adjuncts, to broaden our political vision beyond the narrow purview of conventional collective bargaining, and to employ the only real power working people have ever had, which is our numbers and a commitment to the welfare of the majority—a commitment that is ratified by what we in public higher education do when we go to work every day. To me, voting NO on this contract represents my opposition to austerity, to the two-tiered system, and to the failed strategy employed by union leadership. At the same time, we are working to put meat on the bones of PSC leadership’s rhetorical gestures toward “union power” by building rank-and-file solidarity and a culture of militancy from the ground up. I invite Majumdar and Bowen, when they return from their meetings with leaders from other states, to learn what is going on in their own organization and join us in this task.
Steve Zorn responds to Bowen:
No, the 3-year adjunct provision is not “huge.” CUNY has roughly 14,000 adjuncts. Ms. Majumdar’s reply states that “well over 1,000” will qualify for long-term appointments initially. That’s just creating a new stratification among adjuncts with less than 10% in the new top tier. Meanwhile, the vast majority of adjuncts will continue to have no job security and all will continue to earn an obscene $3,300 per course, despite the union’s stated commitment to a $5,000 minimum. As one of the very small group of CUNY adjuncts who teach in professional schools, I earn $7,500 per course. That should be our target, and if we achieve it, we might even slow the flight from full-time appointments and start the process of restoring CUNY to something that looks like a real university and that truly serves our students.
Andrea Vasquez, member of the PSC bargaining team, responds to Tobin:
You are certainly correct that 10.4% raises we managed to get in this contract isn’t enough. Staff and faculty working at CUNY deserve better and, as importantly, if we we got the influx of funding we deserve, students would also fare better. It is unconscionable that CUNY has not been willing to acknowledge and make changes to their system of exploitative adjunct labor. Majumdar and Bowen’s piece fully acknowledges the limitation of the contract in not being able to break the pattern of austerity on the financial offer.
But you claim that the contract does “nothing yet again to address the divisive and unjust two-tier system.” That would be news to the around 2000 adjunct faculty who will be eligible for the first time for multi-year contract with a guaranteed minimum number of courses. The number of such adjuncts will increase every subsequent year.
Equally surprising, you don’t even mention the gain of health insurance—at the same level as full-time employees—for all eligible adjuncts.
You speak of the need for “aggressive and radical actions.” I am one of the 5,400 members of the “non-teaching” professional staff at CUNY, but for over ten years I participated in demonstrations, have been arrested for civil disobedience actions, organized and participated in scores of meetings, conducted dozens of one-on-one conversations with other members about the strike authorization vote and the necessity of possible job actions. Many of these actions was to gain adjunct health insurance. In fact, it was the first issue for which I went to Albany with the PSC.
The gains for adjuncts, plus the non-economic advances that were made for staff like myself in this round of bargaining are important and will benefit many of us. Although many adjuncts have health insurance from other full time employment or as retired teachers, those who rely solely on CUNY for their income are relieved to have this coverage and will have made some other important gains when, and if, this contract is ratified. It took the sustained union solidarity of thousands of PSCers for adjunct health insurance to be won and for us to get the contract we are now voting on.
CUNY staff and others need that same union solidarity in accepting this contract so we can implement the much-needed gains we won. Then, I hope to see you at a meeting, or a training, or a demonstration, or in Albany as we come back even stronger.