Facing the hurdles
In order to secure a contract with livable wages and benefits, PSC activists at the Research Foundation’s (RF) on-campus locations know they must engage in a multifaceted contract campaign – that’s why they’re planning their campaign now ahead of their contract expiration date at the end of June 2021. The 600 RF workers on the campuses whom the PSC represents are part of what some have called “the shadow university.” Many do work very similar to that of CUNY employees, but most are paid through grants. Through their contracts, PSC members on the RF payroll continue to make gains in pay and job security for this sector of the vast contingent workforce at CUNY.
And with the RF board having not yet ratified the current contract as this newspaper went to press, members’ emotions among members were running high.
“We’re hoping more and more RF members become very active at their sites,” Iris DeLutro, PSC Vice President of Cross Campus Units, told RF members in attendance at a summer strategy meeting held at the PSC Union Hall in June. “This is the moment to do that,” she said.
RF activists from the Graduate Center, LaGuardia Community College and New York City College of Technology also attended the planning meeting, and represented the three CUNY RF field units and about 600 workers in the bargaining unit. Because RF workers mostly work in grant-funded positions, their employment is often tenuous and they are scattered in different departments. A unique challenge for the RF members is identifying and contacting to all members in their unit.
At the planning meeting, members came up with ideas on how to conduct member outreach and increase chapter visibility on campus. They discussed setting up a steward structure in order to reach out to all the RF employees on a given campus.
Jay Klokker, an ESL instructor at City Tech, served on the bargaining team for the first contract. He knows that this kind of organizing takes time.
Describing the work behind the first RF field unit contract, Klokker said, “The organizers were trying to have face-to-face meetings with everybody. It was a long process...The thing that got people the most upset was year after year with no raises whatsoever.”
Ultimately with that first contract in 2011, RF field unit members were successful in winning a 2-percent annual raise, something that had seemed impossible before organizing. The unit’s most recent contract, ratified this summer, includes a minimum of 2 percent raises per year or $575, whichever is greater, and requires employee contributions to the health insurance premium to remain at 19 percent.
But RF workers need more than a basic salary increase; they need changes in their working conditions to ensure that they are not treated as a disposable workforce. Because almost all positions in these units are grant-funded, many RF employees are sometimes required to take their vacation time before their grant cycle ends or forfeit it completely. Many RF workers want to fix this situation. This is an issue that can be addressed before the next round of bargaining, because management has the discretion to allow people to carry over the time if they will be working on the same grant.
Another major concern among workers is job security. Other important issues are continuing education reimbursements and paid holidays for part-time employees. The RF workers plan to systematically identify the issues through one-on-one conversations with members and surveying members across the unit.
Many RF members say their jobs are more tenuous because of funding cuts at the federal and state level, and they reiterated the importance of joining the PSC’s legislative work.
Another perennial issue is the large number of employees hired for 19 hours or less per week who are unable to increase their hours and therefore do not qualify for benefits. In addition, CUNY health and safety issues plague campuses. The challenge for the RF activists is building cohesion within a workforce that is scattered and largely part-time, but they’re developing a plan to win their next contract.
“I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen [the union] progress to what it is today,” said Migdalia Ramos, an ACE enrollment specialist, who has been at LaGuardia Community College for almost 30 years. She has seen the chapter’s presence grow and she plans to be involved in increasing its visibility for her own benefit and that of all RF workers. “When we unite as one – and in numbers – that’s what makes our union strong,” she said.