Clarion Masthead

Why we stay, what we need: low pay hurts all of CUNY

Barbara Bowen delivered a message to members and management at the rally. In the piece that follows, she gives an edited version of her remarks.

How many of you have considered leaving CUNY for a job that pays better? And how many have considered leaving for a job that has a manageable workload?

But how many of you have stayed because you believe in the project of expanding access to the powers and pleasures of learning? Or stayed because you have seen the explosive intellectual power of our students when they are given a chance at a serious education? CUNY students are not just any students – and that’s why they are under constant economic attack.

Coming as they do largely from communities of color, from working-class, poor and immigrant communities, they bring subjugated knowledge that has the potential to transform what can be researched thought and known.


The project of CUNY is bigger than the PR version of the university that appears in subway ads. It has a deeper collective meaning than moving individual graduates into stable incomes, essential as that work is. And it’s because we understand and even love that project that we stay.

Now tell me: how many of you are sick and tired of having your dedication to that project exploited by a university that doesn’t pay competitive salaries?

This contract is about forcing CUNY to restore competitive salaries at all levels. And we are not prepared to wait six years to get there!

If CUNY salaries had merely kept up with inflation, our salaries would be level with those at Columbia and Rutgers. Instead, full-time faculty salaries are tens of thousands of dollars lower and our workloads are significantly higher. Professional staff salaries would also be far higher than they are now, and adjuncts would, indeed, be paid nearly $7,000 a course. Since the current leadership took office in 2000, our salaries have generally kept up with inflation, but they haven’t regained the ground lost in previous decades.

And the salaries of the lowest-paid full-time employees, especially laboratory technicians and lecturers, have lagged far behind. That’s why we’re demanding a 5 percent increase in each year of the contract. No one goes into academia to get rich, but we are entitled to fair pay. And the university of New York’s working people is entitled to be able to pay its faculty and staff at a rate that makes our positions nationally competitive.

This rich city and this rich state, where public services help to enable the immense wealth accrued by finance, real estate and other sectors, has the resources to fund CUNY well. The CUNY trustees, who are political appointees by the governor and the mayor, should be able to leverage their power to make that funding happen.


That’s why we are here – to demand that they get busy. If the trustees seek to do more than manage the decline in public funding for the university with whose future they are entrusted, they have to take a stand and demand CUNY’s fair share of public resources. CUNY is not funded at anything close to the level appropriate to its importance to the city and state. While the trustees may be content with more and more austerity for the college education of working people, people of color, immigrants and women, the members of the PSC are not. We call on the trustees join us in demanding an alternative to austerity for CUNY – and that’s what our contract demands are about.

The solution cannot be at the expense of our students. It is unconscionable that CUNY students, some of the most economically disadvantaged college students in the country, should be expected to pay more in tuition because the State has not funded contractual raises that it approved.

At this critical moment in this economic history of the US, we call on New York City and New York State to reject austerity for CUNY.

The reason CUNY is underfunded is a lack of political will. It is not an accident or an oversight. Instead, it is the result of an active agenda – which we see now in the Republicans’ tax scam – to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich and to deny a top-rate college education to the people we teach.

The PSC has changed political will before, and we can do it again. We created the political will to add funds to CUNY to cover adjunct health insurance and graduate employee health insurance, to provide full-paid parental leave and 80%-paid sabbaticals. We can create political will again, but it will take a fight.


Perhaps the biggest contract fight we have ever undertaken in the one we embrace now – for $7,000 per course as the minimum adjunct pay. But no fight is more important.

The demand for $7K is a demand about full-time salaries at CUNY. It is also a demand about academic freedom and intellectual integrity, about ethical and professional standards in a public university. It is ultimately a demand about racial justice in New York City because it is about investment in the students we teach.

Working side by side with colleagues who are grossly underpaid diminishes all of us. But it also directly and materially affects all of our salaries. As long as CUNY can get away with paying anyone less than $3,500 to teach a course, CUNY can pay all of us less than our labor is worth. By demanding a living wage of $7,000 a course, we are asserting that the labor of teaching or working in a university – no matter who does it – is itself worth fair pay. Just as the $15-an-hour campaign asserted that the work itself was worth higher pay, regardless of whether it was a person’s main source of income or a part-time job, we are asserting with our demand for $7K that the work itself must be valued. CUNY has no incentive to raise salaries across the board to competitive levels as long as they continue to be allowed to underpay more than half of their teaching workforce.


And the idea that adjunct-teaching is always a side job, a little add-on to full-time pay elsewhere is a convenient myth. Of the 12,000 teaching adjuncts at CUNY, several thousand – all with advanced degrees – live on their adjunct income. That means an income of less than $27,000 a year. CUNY adjuncts stay for the same reason all of us stay – they believe in the work.

The shameful underpayment of adjuncts hurts all of us in another way. It establishes a floor for what constitutes acceptable pay. By demanding an increase in adjunct pay we are insisting that the floor be raised. One of the primary reasons for workers to come together in unions has always been to prevent employers from paying lower and lower wages at each place of work. The $7K demand is a demand that not only CUNY but our whole industry not be allowed to continue to undercut those who work in it.

And perhaps most important, the $7K demand is about the lives of thousands of people who have dedicated their professional lives to and invested their hopes in CUNY.

I believe that we can beat austerity, we can win fair pay, we can beat the fascistic Trump agenda of destroying unions so that the only remaining way for working people to have power against the rich finance class is destroyed. Tonight is just the start. We are in for the fight of our lives.