Following a four-year moratorium on discretionary salary increases, CUNY last spring lifted the ban, allowing administrators to offer raises they termed “merit pay” to individual faculty members of their choosing. At John Jay College, the resistance put forward by the PSC has been organized and steadfast, and when a similar plan was put forward by the administration at LaGuardia Community College, the chapter there followed suit.
“We object to management-administered merit pay initiatives because they’re rarely about merit,” PSC Secretary Nivedita Majumdar, a former John Jay chapter chair, told Clarion. “‘Merit pay’ is usually a thinly veiled mechanism for favoritism and for undermining solidarity among colleagues. If management is genuinely interested in nurturing merit, it’d allocate all possible resources to creating working conditions where the meritorious can thrive.”
Last spring, Jane Bowers, John Jay’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, issued a memo titled “Good News for Full Time Faculty,” in which she announced the college’s plan to give “a limited number of one-step increases” to full-time faculty in the current fiscal year. The raises are slated to come directly out of the college’s budget at a time when, system-wide, the senior colleges are facing budget cuts of 3 percent, and CUNY management has put no money on the table to resolve the PSC’s long-expired contract, even though no faculty or staff have received raises in the last six years.
The discretionary salary increases, says Paul Narkunis, who was then acting chapter chair at John Jay, would have run afoul of any contract the PSC has negotiated in the past.
Academic departments were asked to nominate potential awardees of the discretionary raises at the rate of one for every 15 department members, a ratio that was later trimmed to one for every 10. Narkunis notes that the process is anything but transparent: after the nominees are forwarded, the names of those granted the increases would be kept confidential. Likewise, no specific criteria were offered for what constitutes the “merit” such raises were intended to reward. To union members, it looked like a scheme ripe for favoritism, and one designed to divide faculty members against one another.
A memo from the union circulated by Narkunis in response to Bowers’s request notes that in contract negotiations with CUNY, management demands the removal of salary steps in favor of a lump-sum allocation to be given to college presidents “to dispense at their discretion for merit.”
“By merely putting forward the names under the category of ‘merit,’” the memo explains, faculty risk “authoriz[ing] the program and giv[ing] it legal status as precedent, thereby undermining faculty’s and the union’s position during a grievance or lawsuit.”
The PSC chapter went to work, urging department chairs and department personnel and budget committees to decline to put names forward for the raises, and to encourage the administration to instead use the money set aside for these selective raises for overall workload mitigation. By the start of the next semester, some seven departments (of John Jay’s 26) had opted out of the program by declining to put names forward.
After the academic year closed in June, LaGuardia President Gail O. Mellow put forward an initiative similar to John Jay’s discretionary raise scheme. Sigmund Shen, president of the PSC’s LaGuardia chapter, rallied department chairs to resist the plan. Narkunis and others from the John Jay chapter shared with members of the LaGuardia chapter their organizing materials and experience resisting the Bowers plan, and the LaGuardia chapter passed a resolution calling for “a full, college-wide discussion” of the program advanced by Mellow.
The time frame mandated by Mellow for academic chairs to forward nominations to the president for discretionary raises, the resolution states, “rules out the possibility for authentically democratic decisions by faculty within their own departments.”
When the September 18 deadline for the nominations passed, nearly all the department chairs at LaGuardia had declined to put forward nominations.
“The faculty’s successful campaign to block LaGuardia’s merit pay scheme was made possible by the sharing of experience and information from an earlier struggle at John Jay,” said Shen. “This victory also demonstrated the importance of keeping department chairs in the union, elected and accountable to faculty.”