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Home » Clarion » 2011 » December 2011 » 'It's Not Optional': Organizing to Preserve Adjunct Healthcare at CUNY

'It's Not Optional': Organizing to Preserve Adjunct Healthcare at CUNY

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Hostos students gather around an information table the campus PSC chapter set up November 16 to help promote the campaign to preserve adjunct health insurance.
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This semester CUNY faculty and staff, both full-time and part-time, pressed the University to maintain health insurance for eligible adjuncts. “It’s not optional,” said Blanca Vazquez, an adjunct assistant professor at Hunter, at a November 21 public hearing.

On September 26, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein told the Board of Trustees that, for the first time ever, CUNY planned to include funding for adjunct health insurance in its annual budget request. The announcement came as hundreds of PSC members rallied in the street below the meeting. And at the board’s subsequent November 21 hearing, more than three dozen part-time and full-time faculty and staff urged CUNY to follow through on this commitment. Due to the University’s past failure to provide adequate funding, 1,800 CUNY adjuncts are at risk of losing coverage next August.

PRIORITY

“Health insurance for adjuncts needs to be made a priority,” testified Alexandra Story, an adjunct professor at BMCC. “We teach more than half of the University’s courses. We put in the same work for each course as the full-time professors. We deserve to have our health needs treated equally,” she said.

Story urged the trustees “to look at what we as adjuncts have brought to CUNY, the hard work that adjuncts put in for really very little money.” That work often seems taken for granted, she said – except for “the appreciation I receive [from] my students for helping them approach their writing skills in a new way they had never thought of before.”

As someone who had thyroid cancer three years ago, Story knows that maintaining her health insurance is vital. “On the wages I make as an adjunct,” said Story, “I am just able to barely get by as a single mother of two boys, ages 5 and 8. The loss of my health insurance would be crippling to me. And as much as I love teaching and find it gratifying, I would have to change careers” if coverage is not continued.

STUDENTS LOSE TOO

Jennifer Hayashida, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter, noted that more than 80% of her program’s courses are taught by part-time faculty. “If I can no longer offer potential candidates the promise of health insurance after two semesters of teaching, I am afraid to think of what kind of turnover that would lead to among our adjunct faculty,” Hayashida said. “The ones who would suffer the most would be our students who benefit from the kind of attention, mentorship, and letters of recommendation our adjuncts provide.”

“The adjuncts who rely on CUNY’s adjunct health insurance benefit are often the most experienced,” said Annette Gourgey, an adjunct assistant professor who has taught at Baruch and other CUNY colleges for more than 15 years. “It would be a great loss to CUNY if…experienced and committed adjuncts were forced to find other work because they could not continue uninsured.”

Jane Clark, an adjunct lecturer at BMCC, noted that the engine of education at CUNY could not run without adjunct labor. She asked the hearing to consider “what it would mean to have that engine constantly plagued with disease and sickness.” Maintaining adjunct health insurance is “a practical measure to take care of the majority of the workforce,” Clark said – and is also “the right and humane thing” to do.

“I personally will face a life-or-death health crisis when our benefits are cut,” said Emily Benson, an adjunct at LaGuardia who was recently diagnosed with late-onset Type 1 diabetes and must take insulin six times a day. “I see doctors all year to make sure that I will not end up with debilitating health conditions as a result of this chronic disease,” she said.

Full-timers and part-timers alike said it is both a moral obligation and a practical necessity for CUNY to ensure that adjunct health coverage continues. Even the current system falls short on both counts, said Frank Kirkland, professor and former chair of the philosophy department at Hunter. “Many of my fellow chairpersons…found it disconcerting that part-time faculty members who their departments held dear were unable to gain access to health care or found their health care coverage tenuous at best,” Kirkland told the trustees.

TABLES & TEES

Assistant Professor Heidi Jones said, “For us at the CUNY School of Public Health, a failure to insure access to health care for colleagues within our institution would contravene the foundations of our professional ethos,” and reminded listeners that 45,000 people die every year in the US due to lack of health insurance.

Arlene Geiger, an adjunct lecturer in economics at John Jay for the past 20 years, testified that if benefits are cut, she will have nowhere to turn but her hospital’s emergency room. “This is not the way that a great university such as CUNY should treat its faculty.” Geiger said. She welcomed CUNY’s inclusion of adjunct health care funding in its budget request. “I urge you to hold firm to that commitment during the long budget process,” Geiger concluded.

The large PSC presence at the Board of Trustees hearing occurred in tandem with organizing at the campus level. Activists at Bronx Community College held a rolling series of actions, including announcements at departmental meetings, a rally outside Meister Hall, and “T-shirt days” in which union members wore matching T-shirts to declare their support for the union’s demands. “It makes a strong statement when you’re teaching in front of your class while wearing a T-shirt calling for adjunct health insurance,” said Lenny Dick, an adjunct in math and computer science at BCC.

Dick also spoke about CUNY adjunct health care at a social justice teach-in the Hostos chapter organized on November 16. The Hostos chapter has used a hallway table to distribute flyers, buttons and posters on the issue, and to ask people to sign a petition in support of adjunct health care.

College of Staten Island adjuncts set up an information table on November 3 and 17 outside the student union and gathered 600 signatures on a petition in support of the union’s position. Students “were amazed when I told them that CUNY might not pay for our health care anymore,” said William Smith, who has taught at CSI since 1985. “They couldn’t wait to do something.”

At City College, the chapter leadership pressed the president, provost and other top administrators to express support for adjunct health care at their October 27 labor-management meeting – and got a positive response. Administrators took “Save Adjunct Health Insurance” stickers and wore them throughout the day, Chapter Chair Alan Feigenberg reported.

‘WE ARE ALL CUNY’

From college presidents to the co-worker in the next office, PSC members have been working to make the issue of adjunct health care inescapable across the University. Rebekah Johnson, an assistant professor of English at LaGuardia, has spoken with about a dozen adjuncts in her department about the campaign, and has distributed posters that other full-timers have put on their office doors. Johnson, who is president of New York State TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), won unanimous approval from her department for a “Resolution on Adjunct Faculty Health Coverage” supporting part-time faculty’s right to health insurance.

“We are all CUNY,” she told Clarion. “We all need to support each other.”


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