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Home » Clarion » 2014 » December 2014 » Grad Center Chapter Builds Membership

Grad Center Chapter Builds Membership


In October the PSC’s Graduate Center (GC) chapter kicked off an impressive membership drive, signing up around 200 members in just a few weeks. Many of those new members are graduate students who work at the University while pursuing an advanced degree. Chapter activists came up with a tabling plan, held organizing meetings and divided up lists for individual outreach. One of the most visible parts of the effort was a table near the front entrance of the Graduate Center.

Graduate Assistant Jeremy Sawyer (right) is recruiting new members of the PSC’s GC chapter. He talks to Jonathan Pickens (left) about signing a union card.

More Choice

“We had somebody stop by the table from the physics department who had been a union member before. He immediately grabbed a couple of cards to sign up some of his colleagues,” Luke Elliott-Negri, a graduate assistant and doctoral student in sociology, told Clarion. “It was awesome and inspiring.”

The success of the drive was facilitated by a change this semester in PSC membership rules. Previously, graduate employees’ membership affiliation defaulted to the union chapter at the campus where they taught. But three-quarters of graduate employees receive their paycheck from the CUNY Graduate Center, while teaching at a senior or community college, and many would prefer to be part of the union chapter at the GC. And now they can: graduate employees whose payroll campus is different from their employment campus can now choose which union chapter they would prefer to be part of.

“When I came here I felt like I was being bounced around from chapter to chapter,” Rebecca Salois, the PSC’s adjunct liaison at the Graduate Center, told Clarion. “It’s great to have some consistency.”

Now in the fifth year of her studies, Salois has worked at Brooklyn College, Baruch and Hostos. But like many graduate employees interviewed for this article, Salois sees her academic home – and thus the chapter she’d prefer to join – as being at the Graduate Center. “What I want to do is build our voice in one central place,” she explained.

Not everyone who signed up during the membership drive was switching chapters; many were joining the PSC for the first time. Many were unaware that they did not yet belong to the PSC: to be a union member, you must have signed a union card. Salois says that next year, she would like to see the GC chapter distribute union cards at new-student orientation.

New Member Push

Jeremy Sawyer, a graduate assistant and a third-year doctoral student in psychology and human development, sought potential new members at a GC community meeting, at a departmental conference and by meeting with coworkers one-on-one. “A lot of people haven’t thought too much about the union, and they’re not sure if they’re members,” Sawyer told Clarion. “Once you start talking to them, they’re generally receptive and curious.”

Sawyer says the deeper conversations take time, but those are the kinds of discussions that can help encourage future activists. It’s important, he says, to involve members early on in their studies when they spend more time at the center.

One reason people may be unsure about their membership status is that non-members still pay an “agency fee” equivalent to union dues to cover the union’s costs of representation. Often, fee-payers wrongly assume that this deduction means they’re already a PSC member.

The law provides for agency fee because the union is required by law to represent all employees in the bargaining unit. Raises and benefit improvements go to all covered employees, and the union must offer representation to any bargaining unit member whose rights are violated. (Read a past Clarion article for more info, including how to check your membership status.)

Mike Handis, PSC GC chapter chair, says the chapter is asking new members about their top concerns and scheduling a labor-management meeting with the new GC president, Chase Robinson, to discuss key issues.

“This great enrollment of graduate employees will certainly bring new energy to our chapter,” adds Penny Lewis, associate professor of labor studies at the Murphy Institute. Lewis earned her doctorate in Sociology at the Grad Center. “It is very exciting,” she said. The shared goal is to involve all PSC members in the decisions and actions of their union.

The new rules on chapter affiliation for graduate employees came out of discussions in the PSC initiated by the Doctoral Students’ Council’s Adjunct Project, which also played a big role in the card-signing campaign. With the change, graduate employees’ choices are now more similar to those available to adjunct faculty who teach at multiple campuses. Employees employed on adjunct lines can choose which campus chapter to affiliate with if they are simultaneously working at more than one CUNY college.

Shared Concerns

Professional staff at the Graduate Center belong to their own, University-wide PSC chapters, the Higher Education Officer (HEO) or College Lab Technician (CLT) chapters, This makes it easier to organize around the particular concerns of professional staff, such as the new timesheets recently implemented by CUNY. But other campus issues, such as health and safety questions or late paychecks, potentially affect both faculty and staff at a given campus, and all members are affected by the current contract negotiations. Joint meetings of all PSC members who work at the Graduate Center, such the one held on November 19, are aimed at addressing those shared concerns.

The goal is to “better understand each other’s issues and work situations,” longtime GC HEO Andrea Vásquez told Clarion. “Our strength at the university is involving more and more people on all fronts.” Vásquez, a member of the PSC Executive Council and the union’s bargaining committee, says it’s important to understand everyone’s issues when fighting for a good contract. Meanwhile, the visibility of the membership drive also helped boost union membership in a range of titles, including adjuncts and HEOs. Vásquez says she helped sign up 12 new HEOs as PSC members in two days.

With the Graduate Center chapter expanding, activists are talking with new members about their top concerns, and discussing what kind of organizational structure will help retain membership. But right now, the main task is still signing people up.

‘A No-Brainer’

Robin McGinty, a first-year graduate student in Earth and Environmental Sciences, is a new PSC member at the Graduate Center. McGinty’s parents and grandfather were union members, and for her, it was an easy decision to join the PSC. A community activist, she sees being a union member as an extension of the organizing in which she’s already involved.

“I was coming in and there was a table on the side,” McGinty told Clarion. “I decided to sign up right then and there – it was a no-brainer.”

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