Why declare impasse? Why now?

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Barbara Bowen, January 29

Earlier this week, with no advance discussion with the PSC, CUNY management declared that contract negotiations are at an impasse. Their temerity is breathtaking.

This is the same CUNY management that refused for five years to make an economic offer to the union, and then proposed a salary cut when the offer finally came.

This is the same CUNY management that has made one and only one economic offer, refused to make an economic response to the PSC's 14% counterproposal, and then promptly declared impasse.

This is the same CUNY management that has failed spectacularly to win contract funding from New York State, and then refused the union's offer to make a joint public statement about the need for more support.

This is the same CUNY management that consistently rejected the union's requests for round-the-clock bargaining, and then complains about how many issues are unresolved.

I am tempted to say that CUNY management has redefined chutzpah.

If there is an impasse in contract negotiations, it has been created by management. The declaration of impasse and the statement that went with it appear designed to portray the union as unreasonable and suggest that the problem in negotiations is merely a matter of discussion-when the real problem is management's failure to deliver on economics and their position that we should accept a salary cut.

Despite his repeated pronouncements about the priority of settling the PSC contract, Chancellor Milliken has failed to exhibit the political will to get the deal done. Milliken has been unable-or perhaps unwilling-to secure the funding necessary for a contract that merely keeps up with inflation or matches the modest raises provided to all other public employees in New York. As a result, he has failed the thousands of people who work for CUNY and imperiled the quality of CUNY students' education. The gap between the imagination and fierceness I see every day in members' work and the intellectual laziness of the CUNY administration is staggering.

Regardless of CUNY management's motives in declaring impasse, however, the PSC leadership is open to any legitimate approach that could lead to a fair and speedy resolution to our contract. CUNY management has requested that the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which acts almost as a court of law for union disputes, assign a mediator "to assist the parties in their efforts to reach a new labor agreement."

The PSC is happy to work with an appropriate mediator if it will advance discussions. Should a mediator be assigned, we will do our utmost to make mediation productive. But a declaration of impasse also has the potential to create enormous delay. If PERB does find that the parties are at impasse (a likely outcome once one party makes a declaration), time will be required to assign a mediator, familiarize the mediator with the issues, and allow the mediator to work. If mediation fails, the parties then enter into a process of fact-finding. Fact-finding for complicated contracts like ours can take up to a year. And the end-product of the fact-finding is a non-binding recommendation for settlement of the contract, not an agreement made by the parties themselves.

The PSC is adamantly opposed to anything that would slow the resolution of the contract. Management may have the luxury of enjoying their large salaries while waiting for a raise, but we do not. There are PSC members who have been evicted from their apartments because they cannot pay the increased rent and PSC adjunct members who have to rely on food stamps. We cannot wait. The union will continue to demand bargaining sessions directly with CUNY, and we will continue to work aggressively with Albany and City Hall for the funds we need.

The real issue in this contract is not mediation; it's money. What CUNY management should be doing instead of slowing down negotiations with a declaration of impasse is working with the PSC to secure the funds necessary for decent raises and restoration of CUNY's budget-without reliance on further tuition increases. There is a rare opportunity this year. In a breakthrough for the PSC, Governor Cuomo included in his budget proposal a line-item for $240 million "to support retroactive salary increases needed to ensure fair and affordable agreements with CUNY's labor unions." That addition is the direct result of PSC advocacy and pressure. The proposal is complicated, however, because it is linked to a massive proposed cut in State funding for CUNY and a call for the City to make up the difference. The Governor almost immediately issued a "clarification" that the cost-shift "won't cost New York City a penny." Mayor de Blasio repeated this promise at Tuesday's Legislative hearing on the State budget, where he also called for a new contract for the PSC.

We have from now till April 1, when the final budget is due, to gain support in Albany for a final budget that includes both the $240 million for retroactive raises and an increase in overall State funding. At a bargaining session on Monday, the union team called on management to seize the opportunity presented by the proposed retroactive money and work with us to get the contract done by the end of March. They declined.

Management may not have the will to fight for CUNY faculty, staff and students, but the union does. Start now-sign up here to do your part, whether it's a phone call to a legislator or a visit to a local office or a trip to Albany. Every action counts.

Here is the real lesson from CUNY management's attempt to blame the union for their own failure to gain the necessary funds for a fair contract: public action by the union has public power. Management's statement about their filing at PERB cites "the PSC's publicized campaign strategy to seek a strike authorization vote and a public commitment by its members . . . ." Of course it's public! What is the power of a strike authorization vote if not as a public statement of strength and unity? The union will negotiate with every drop of energy we have, and we will do everything we can to achieve a fair contract without a strike, but we cannot and will not apologize for organizing our membership to stand up for what we deserve.

Now more than ever it is important that we vote "yes" to give the union's executive council the power, if needed, to call a strike or other job-action. What gives the PSC leverage in negotiations in Albany, City Hall and CUNY's corporate headquarters is our track record of being strategic, acting together, and being willing to take risks for what we believe in. More than a thousand people signed up almost instantly when I invited members to pledge that they will vote "yes" on strike authorization. Today, I am inviting you again. We need all the power we can generate because we are up against a management that thinks we deserve a salary cut and a State government that has pursued a policy of austerity. CUNY's response to our strike authorization vote tells us how much power that vote has. Join me today in announcing that you will vote "yes." Every name makes the union stronger.

In solidarity,
Barbara Bowen