The Contract Debate is Dead, Long Live the Contract Debate

The PSC-CUNY contract has been ratified by 94% of 72% of the union’s eligible voters, in a deal Governor Andrew Cuomo called “truly equitable for everyone involved”. While this victory for the status quo saddens us, it comes as no surprise. The PSC leadership did not campaign for a yes vote based on the strengths of the contract. Instead they played on the fear of what would happen were the contract not accepted, and the temptation to simply vote yes and receive a one-time signing bonus and back pay.

Fear mongering mass-emails from the PSC leadership admitted as much, flatly stating that this contract was the best possible deal and that subsequent offers would only be worse. PSC members, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, were asked to abandon till next time their hopes that the two-tier system would be addressed, and asked instead to calculate the cash the contract would bring them, with a reminder that these funds would only be delivered upon the passage of the contract.

The “NO” Campaign was well aware this was a David vs. Goliath fight. The vote was pushed through in the summertime, so it was impossible to organize public discussions or debates on our campuses. We had no access to the mass communication tools the PSC uses to contact every member at a moment’s notice, and had to throw together a communication apparatus and a media strategy on the fly. Defying the odds, we succeeded in mobilizing already existing activist networks, in drawing some new folks into the fight, and in garnering a significant amount of press around the unjust two-tier system and the PSC’s failure to adequately address it.

However this wonderful network proved no substitute for a broad base of support in the rank-and-file. Or, in a very basic sense, it did not sufficiently mitigate our inability to even communicate with a vast majority of our colleagues, as the PSC leadership abandoned all pretenses of democratic decisionmaking by disallowing our perspectives from the steady stream of pro-contract propaganda addressed to every member. Most tellingly, however, was that in our messaging we were forced to argue not against a clearly articulated strategy for the coming decades, which the PSC owes its membership, but against the widely held sentiment that “there is no alternative” to PSC-managed austerity at CUNY, sprinkled with a little cash incentive to hold one’s nose and vote yes.

No less surprising is that PSC leadership is representing this vote as a mandate for its long-term strategy (or lack thereof). In a mass e-mail to PSC members, President Barbara Bowen touted the vote as evidence of “testament to our shared vision of a better university”. Vice President Michael Fabricant told In These Times “94 percent of your membership voting yes, that speaks to a consensus that you’re going to get.” We ask: a testament to what, and a consensus on what?

Our colleagues are trying to make the best of a bad situation. The pervasive sentiment that “there is no alternative” to austerity explains the justifiable yet regrettable fact that a vast majority of PSC rank-and-filers, including a reported 84% of voting adjuncts, would vote for a contract that fails to keep pace with inflation, strengthens the two-tier system, and offers job security for contingent workers which is limited to a small strata of the workforce and otherwise wholly at the discretion of management (!).

As many “yes” voters will tell you, these election results are not a testament to any broadly shared vision for a better university, or a consensus that the PSC leadership is leading us in the right direction. Instead, they speak to shared resignation, to the widely shared feeling that there is no alternative to PSC-managed austerity, and no alternative to the two-tier system which is being used to dismantle the bargaining power and to devalue the labor of academic workers all over the country. The “victory” of this contract is nothing to celebrate; it is an index of disillusionment, and a harbinger of ultimate defeat.

This being said, the “NO” Campaign makes no excuses. Surely we faced insurmountable odds. But nonetheless we failed to organize, publicize, and successfully articulate a clear alternative in the minds of all but the 800 or so CUNY workers who voted no. We failed to connect the lack of faith in the PSC and distaste for this contract which are widespread across the CUNY system with an actionable strategy for charting a different path. But for us, this campaign was not the end, but the beginning.

We are laying the groundwork for a movement that does not take us to defeat via one concessionary contract after another, but nourishes rank and file power in tandem with student and community support, toward a renewed CUNY movement and ultimately, an offensive against austerity. We must fight the downward spiral of public sector unionism and public universities, carefully managed by business unions and their hopeless allegiance to the Democratic Party, in order to build broad support for the kind of broader offensive against austerity that even the PSC leadership knows is necessary to turn the tide in the class war at CUNY.  We will not bow to “there is no alternative”. There must be an alternative to the slow motion dismantling of our bargaining power, the value of our labor, and our existence as organized workers and students. 

The issues we fought for in the contract debate have not gone away, but have only been exacerbated by these results. We must organize rigorously to keep the momentum of our campaign going, to build our forces, and to turn the tide the next time around. It won’t be long now before negotiations begin for the next round. The contract debate is dead, long live the contract debate!

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