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Why I urge you to ratify the contract agreement

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PSC President Barbara Bowen discusses the tentative contract agreement at the union’s June 23 Delegate Assembly.
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PSC members worked harder for this contract than for any contract that came before it; you deserve as honest an assessment of the proposed settlement as I can provide.

Here is how I would sum it up:

Because the union organized a principled, militant campaign that escalated to a strike authorization vote, we were able to defeat certain fiscal austerity policies of New York State and wrest substantial economic and non-economic gains out of CUNY management. But because we are a single union working without a citywide or class-wide movement, we were not able to break the structure of economic austerity.

HIGH STAKES

The result is a proposed contract with a minimally acceptable 10.4 percent salary increase, significant retroactive pay and real breakthroughs on working conditions at CUNY.

The stakes are high when deciding whether to ratify a proposed contract after a campaign that elicited the courage and political hope of thousands of CUNY faculty and staff. Could a strike have enabled the PSC to break economic austerity? And what kind of strike would such a transformation require? Members may have different answers to those questions, but one thing is certain: The campaign positioned the PSC, for the first time, to consider such questions seriously.

It also gave us the leverage to negotiate a contract that defies austerity in critical areas other than salary. The massive strike authorization vote meant that we had an alternative to accepting the unacceptable. We could walk away from the table and start organizing for a strike if progress was not made – and management knew that.

At a time when the state had taken a firm position against providing funds for retroactive pay for CUNY contracts, and when CUNY management had failed for five years to change that position, PSC pressure unlocked a quarter-billion dollars for retroactive pay.

Don’t forget that it was only in late March that we were at Governor Cuomo’s office, holding a die-in and making three demands: 1) withdrawal of the proposed $485-million “cost-shift” of CUNY support; 2) funding for CUNY contracts, including retroactive pay; and 3) no increase in CUNY tuition. By mid-June, we had won all three.

The contract we negotiated defies the national trend of defensive labor contracts. Instead, it breaks new ground, particularly on working conditions and job security. These are structural changes and significant victories, especially given that the negotiations revealed CUNY management’s dangerous vision for the university – a vision that includes more contingency, weakened tenure, and enormous flexibility for management to pay high salaries to a few.

Because PSC members mobilized, you gave the bargaining team the power to insist on our three major structural priorities in addition to salary: greater opportunity for advancement for HEOs, greater equity for adjuncts and a reduction in the teaching load of full-time faculty. We were able to make gains on all three, something we had been trying to achieve for 16 years.

FIERCE FIGHT

The proposed contract contains sweeping changes that will create more humane working conditions for us and better learning conditions for our students. That is a defeat for austerity. For the first time, CUNY management has made a firm commitment with a timeframe for reducing the contractual teaching load by three credit hours; we have negotiated a wider and fairer path toward higher title and salary for HEOs; and we have created a system of three-year job security for adjuncts. Tellingly, the hardest-fought was the longer appointments for adjuncts.

The fierceness of the campaign came from our knowledge that more than our own contract was at stake: We were fighting for the right to higher education for all New Yorkers. The proposed contract speaks directly to that goal by including provisions that will give students additional support and academic continuity, such as the commitment to a reduction in the teaching load and the longer-term appointments for adjuncts.

I want to be equally forthright about what the contract does not achieve. The salary increases from 2010 up to the present date hover at just about the level of inflation for Northeast urban areas, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But they are far from adequate to cover the soaring cost of housing in New York City, or to make CUNY salaries nationally competitive.

With raises that just brush the level of inflation, there were no resources to make the additional investments in salary equity that the PSC has been able to negotiate in the past. There are two significant gains in equity, however, measures that distribute resources to provide greater value for lower-paid workers. The first is increased funding for the Welfare Fund to allow an improved dental benefit, available equally to all fund participants. The second is the landmark agreement reached earlier in negotiations to extend CUNY-provided health insurance to eligible adjuncts. That agreement is part of this contract and adds to its economic and ethical value.

But academia – at CUNY and nationally – is disfigured by its scandalous treatment of adjuncts. CUNY survives fiscal austerity because it relies on cheap labor to do its most important work: teaching, especially teaching the least-prepared students. Even though the biggest gains in the contract were made for adjuncts, the conditions of adjunct work remain atrocious, especially for the several thousand who rely on their work at CUNY for their entire income. Adjuncts are right that their conditions must be changed, and that allowing substandard wages for part-time faculty members depresses the salaries of all.

Inch by inch, PSC contracts are remaking adjunct conditions, but incremental change will not be enough. Radical change in the system of cheap academic labor at CUNY is likely to take a combination of legislative action, job action and a movement in the streets. The campaign for this contract at last positions us to take that step.

STRONGER POSITION

Together, we waged a strong and beautiful campaign for contract justice at CUNY. No single contract agreement, especially one that is embedded in a regime of economic austerity, will be enough to meet all the hopes of such a campaign. I am confident that we achieved everything we could through negotiations – and we did that because of our power on the campuses, in the media and in the streets.

The alternative to ratifying this contract is to prepare for a strike. Making that decision was not easy for the union leadership. Calling a strike would mean not getting raises or back pay this fall and risking the gains we have made. It would also mean weighing what a significant strike would win – and what it would risk. Neither answer is simple. I urge you to ratify this contract not because I think it meets all our needs or because I think the PSC could not wage a brilliant strike, but because the proposed contract accomplishes something important. The structural gains it includes are lasting and deep. They show us that further gains are possible. Consolidate what we accomplished together with this contract: Say yes to the contract and yes to seeing it as a step in building greater power.

This column is indebted to a forthcoming article on the PSC contract campaign by Nivedita Majumdar and Barbara Bowen.