What Would a Democratic PSC Look Like?

By Chris Natoli

Any active rank-and-file member of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) knows that our union is about as top-down and undemocratic as the Democratic Party. Although the PSC constitution seems to provide a reasonably democratic framework for the distribution of power and flow of decision-making, a sober examination of how the union is actually governed reveals that the structure delineated in the constitution is not tight enough to prevent the concentration of power in a clique like the New Caucus. Such an examination also suggests some crucial structural changes to further democratize our union.

In particular, an inspection of the process by which PSC policy is actually developed locates some of these structural flaws in the failure of the union’s representative body, the Delegate Assembly (DA), to democratically represent the membership. Policy and action rarely come from the DA or the rank-and-file members that delegates are supposed to represent. Instead, policy and action are developed by an informal inner circle around PSC president Barbara Bowen, transform into formal proposals upon recommendation by the loyal Executive Council (EC), and then get rubber-stamped by the DA to receive the veneer of an ostensibly democratic mandate. This occurs despite the fact that the constitution identifies the DA as the union’s “principal governing body” with the power to “formulate and adopt policies and resolutions to govern the actions and positions of the union.”

The DA fails to live up to this responsibility because it faces little pressure from below (i.e., from the chapters), clever procedural manipulations of DA meetings from above (i.e., the bureaucratic New Caucus leadership), and apathy from within. All three factors undermine the DA’s ability and willingness to lead the governance of the union, which opens a power vacuum filled by the New Caucus’s centralized, bureaucratic control.

Inactivity or passivity in most chapters allows delegates to remain in power without representing their constituents at DA meetings. Elections of delegates and chapter leaderships are generally uncontested and voters are apathetic: among thirteen chapter elections in 2014 only one was contested, among eleven chapter elections in 2016 only two were contested, and among fourteen chapter elections to occur in April of 2017 only one, the Graduate Center chapter, will be contested (by the CUNY Struggle slate). Moreover, chapters rarely hold meetings: according to the PSC calendar, which is admittedly not completely accurate, eight chapters (Baruch, College Laboratory Technicians, College of Staten Island, Hostos CC, Hunter College, Kingsborough CC, Lehman, and Medgar Evers) failed to hold at least two chapter meetings last semester, as required by the constitution. When chapters do meet, they are merely Q&A sessions rather than sites of participatory, democratic decision-making. Some important PSC decisions skip the chapter level altogether. For example, despite claims that the PSC’s early endorsement of Bill de Blasio was democratically supported by the membership, the decision was not discussed in any chapter meeting following the PSC’s announcement of the potential endorsement, and members were not provided any means to contact their delegates besides a list of names.

Since chapters are the primary site of interaction between the rank-and-file and the levers of power in the PSC, it is imperative that chapters become more active and more democratic. Chapter chairs should be penalized for failing to hold the constitutionally required minimum number of meetings, and meetings should be places where the rank-and-file can democratically discuss and decide on actions, chapter policy, and resolutions. Moreover, rank-and-file members should be encouraged and empowered to take on organizing work. If chapter chairs receive release time for holding fewer chapter meetings than they should, then release time should also be given to rank-and-file members to enable them to participate in organizing work, such as being shop stewards or running educational events. Active chapters with an energized, engaged rank-and-file will make both chapters and the DA more democratic, since they will hold their delegates responsible for representing their views and demands.

Whereas delegates face little pressure from below to perform their democratic duties, delegates do face a pressure from above that quells any resistance to decisions made in the New Caucus inner circle. At DA meetings, the chair along with loyal New Caucus members from the floor manipulate the procedures to their advantage. Loyal delegates quickly propose two-minute speaking limits on all attendees exempting, of course, the chair, who is allowed unlimited time to respond and intervene in the discussion. Moreover, delegates have speaking priority over the rank-and-file members who attend. This privilege most recently allowed a streak of several delegates to speak in favor of de Blasio before rank-and-file members from CUNY Struggle were allowed to speak against. At the same meeting, chairs and loyal delegates also made false points of information to try to quash a resolution that draws power away from the New Caucus-controlled EC: when the Graduate Center chapter leadership proposed a retreat for both officers and rank-and-file activists to develop an action plan for the next contract campaign, the leadership insisted that the DA was only allowed to decide policy, not actions, although the constitution (of which they had a copy in front of them) permits both. The leadership conspires against representative democracy between DA meetings, too. In January, when many members were out of town, the EC hurriedly pushed through an early endorsement of de Blasio, calling a special meeting of the DA in mid-January (which was cancelled since they couldn’t meet quorum) and finally succeeding just before the semester started, i.e., before any chapters could meet to discuss the endorsement.

Although tweaking the procedures of the DA, such as making speaking time uniform, could mitigate the problem, it is more effective and far-reaching to address the problem at its root: an ossified, bureaucratic leadership, which must be structurally reformed to restore democracy to both the DA and the EC. First, a two-term limit should be imposed on the PSC presidency: Barbara Bowen has been president for sixteen years, a degree of incumbency that would be laughed at by the liberal media if it occurred in the Global South. Second, the president’s combined income from both CUNY and the PSC should be reduced to the average annual income of all members of the bargaining unit who work full-time (including adjuncts who teach a full load and graduate assistants), with the rest donated to PSC coffers. Not only would this motivate the president to focus on alleviating adjunct poverty, but this reform, combined with a two-term limit, would help reduce the bureaucratic ossification that has paralyzed the leadership for nearly a decade.

Democratizing the leadership and the chapters would not, however, be enough to democratize the DA, since apathy would still inhibit delegates’ capacity to represent their chapters. Most delegates don’t even attend monthly DA meetings: judging by the minutes posted online, the DA met quorum only once in 2016, namely, in June when the contract was proposed and recommended. Delegates should be required to attend a minimum number of DA meetings per year and if they don’t, they should be penalized, perhaps by recalling them or by prohibiting them from running in the next chapter election. Moreover, slate voting should be abolished or at least restricted, since the New Caucus has historically exploited slate voting by filling their slates with cronies (who are too apathetic to attend DA meetings) in order to prevent independent delegates and small competing slates from winning a few seats.

Not only should delegates themselves be more representative, but the composition of the DA should also better represent the different sectors of the bargaining unit, e.g., adjuncts, graduate assistants, HEOs, full-time professors. Right now, very few delegates are adjuncts although a plurality (about 45%) of the bargaining unit are. It should be no surprise that policies passed by the DA rarely improve the lives of adjuncts (and, in fact, often widen the gap between adjuncts and full-time faculty) when most delegates don’t feel the economic hardships that adjuncts face daily. Same goes for the bargaining team: few are adjuncts and, unsurprisingly, adjuncts win only the smallest crumbs in each new contract. The composition of the DA and the bargaining team must therefore proportionally reflect the composition of the bargaining unit.

All that said, we harbor no illusion that the constitutional amendments embodying these structural changes to the EC, DA, chapters, and bargaining team are much more than words on a page. They are a bare minimum to ensure that the PSC has a more democratic underlying structure. However, that structure must be constituted by active rank-and-file members, demanding participation, representation, and their own seats at the table by running in union elections against the New Caucus. With national right-to-work legislation coming down the pipe, it is more urgent now than ever that PSC members and fee-payers feel genuinely represented by their union. Only a democratic and deeply organized union can guarantee this and, therefore, protect us from the crippling anti-labor laws of neoliberalism’s latest manifestation.

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1 thought on “What Would a Democratic PSC Look Like?”

  1. Thanks for this. I’m the Acting Vice Chair at Baruch and the Part-Time Liaison there. Baruch has only had an acting chapter for a few months, and our election will be in spring (unfortunately, despite best efforts, the slate is uncontested). We’re currently planning a chapter meeting for March, and we’re getting an Adjunct Committee off the ground as well. Any Baruch members who are interested in implementing some of the organizing and structural changes above should please feel free to contact me at carly.smith@baruch.cuny.edu.

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