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Home » Clarion » 2016 » February 2016 » Building power, one conversation at a time

Building power, one conversation at a time

Frank Cioffi (right), professor at Baruch, in an organizing conversation role play with Katherine Johnson (left), lecturer at Borough of Manhattan Community College, at a union training session on January 21, 2016.

At campuses across the CUNY system, hundreds of PSC members are taking their activism into the realm of the personal, talking to their colleagues about the union’s upcoming strike authorization vote. These organizing conversations have several aims: assessing members’ commitment to a “Yes” vote, building the collective power of the union by determining workplace concerns – from workload to salary – and connecting those issues to the union’s five-year battle for a fair contract.

“People have just had enough,” said PSC bargaining team member Andrea Vásquez, who has been going door-to-door at the CUNY Graduate Center to talk to colleagues about the vote to authorize the PSC Executive Council to call a strike or other job action. “Even [members] who could not yet commit have usually said they would definitely reconsider if we do not get a good contract soon.”

Strike authorization vote

CUNY faculty and staff continue to work without a contract, as they have for the past five years, making it six years since they have seen an across-the-board raise. After more than 16 months at the bargaining table and numerous union demonstrations, CUNY management put forth an initial economic offer to the PSC on November 4, the same day 53 union activists engaged in civil disobedience, protesting the lack of progress in contract talks. The offer included a salary increase of 6 percent – well below the rate of inflation – and no back pay for four of the six years (2010 – 2013) in which members have seen no raises.

PSC President Barbara Bowen characterized the offer as “inadequate” and “unacceptable,” saying it amounted to a “salary cut.” At a November 19 union-wide meeting, Bowen outlined a plan to broaden the struggle for the CUNY contract, taking the fight to the governor, the community and the membership. During the meeting, which took place at the Great Hall at Cooper Union, participants signed up for training to conduct one-on-one organizing conversations to mobilize members’ collective action.

By the start of the Spring semester, more than 1,500 members had signed a pledge stating their commitment to vote “Yes” for a strike authorization, indicating that “[they] are prepared, if necessary, to join a strike, or other job action.” Signing the pledge helps the union and member activists gauge the level of commitment among the membership to taking a job action. As of mid-January, the PSC has trained more than 350 members on how to conduct personal, one-on-one conversations designed to help organize a strike authorization vote, and more training sessions are scheduled this winter. (See list at the end of this article.)

Cindy Bink, director of counseling services at New York City College of Technology, says that engaging in the conversations is a process that is as much about opening her ears to a colleague’s experience as it is to providing answers on union issues. It put her in touch with her own commitment to authorize PSC’s Executive Council to call a strike if deemed necessary, she says.

“I think that talking about [a strike authorization vote] makes people motivated,” Bink told Clarion. “It’s really about listening to people.” When a member discusses her workplace and compensation concerns with Bink, “that’s when I want to go out and do something,” she says.

On January 6, Bink attended a union training session at City Tech. PSC staff organizers covered ways to approach “intentional” conversations about the issues. Designed in part to learn where colleagues stand on a strike authorization vote, these conversations also address very real fears and concerns members may have about a possible work action.

Difficult conversations

In the first few weeks of the new year, Bink talked to several of her colleagues at City Tech, putting her training to good use. She says she has encountered a range of reservations from colleagues and Bink doesn’t take their concerns lightly. One fear that her colleagues often express, she says, is concern they could suffer a loss in pay if they vote for the strike authorization. Voting for strike authorization does not violate state (or city) law, nor would a “Yes” vote affect a member’s salary. It isn’t until a member actually takes part in a work action that penalties apply.

However, should the PSC Executive Council call a strike or a work stoppage, the New York State Taylor Law, which prohibits public employees in the state from striking, would then exact a cost to both the union and to individual members who participate in a work action. Under the law, for each day or a part of a day that a striking employee is not at work, the employee loses two days’ pay.

Bink says she understands that there’s no magical assurance that she can give to her colleagues, but, she says, she draws on past experience, confident that PSC leaders – as they did when organizing November’s arrest-risking disruptive action – will carefully weigh actions and consequences when deciding what strategic move is needed next.

Jonathan Epstein, an adjunct associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, concurs. “It’s important for the union that everyone goes into this with their eyes open,” said Epstein, who sees the one-on-one discussions as a chance to address members’ questions. Of the 11 colleagues with whom Epstein has conducted conversations, six signed on to the strike authorization pledge, four said they would need more time to make up their minds, and only one was a solid “No,” Epstein told Clarion.

Mobilizing one’s colleagues is not an easy task. For Ronald Platzer, who has worked at City Tech for more than 25 years, his “Yes” vote is a signal to management that a job action is a possibility – a way to apply pressure for a satisfactory settlement of the PSC’s contract. At the time Clarion interviewed Platzer, he had only had the chance to speak with three colleagues, all of whom declined to sign the pledge. But he’s pressing on with another three conversations on his schedule. It is important to continue reaching out to his colleagues, Platzer said.

Stephanie Boyle, an assistant professor of history at City Tech, is ready to start the semester engaging in these “difficult” conversations. The tipping point that moved her to get involved was the November 4 disruptive action, when PSC members blocked the entrance to the CUNY headquarters building in Midtown Manhattan and were carted off by police. (See Clarion’s December 2015 issue, “Militant action highlights contract fight.”)

“I was like, ‘Wow, these people got arrested for me.’ That really was a game-changer for me,” Boyle told Clarion. “People were talking about it.”

Boyle, who is all-in for joining the fight, says that it is still “a little terrifying” for her to have these conversations. She is in her second year at the college, and she says, she doesn’t want to seem like the new person trying to shake things up.

She has had informal conversations with new faculty about the lack of a contract, as well as the recent proposal to settle current contract negotiations put forward by CUNY management (and deemed unacceptable by the union), which included a 6 percent raise with no back pay. One new member told Boyle she assumed the offer was exclusively for back pay, and that it did not really affect her. But, Boyle says, when she began to explain how the amount of raises affects step increases, her new colleague began to reconsider.

For Boyle, the fight for a contract is personal. While at her current salary Boyle says she manages to make ends meet, she knows that any extra expense, any hardship, will push her into real difficulty.

A better union contract

“If I break my leg, my car insurance goes up, it will severely negatively impact me,” Boyle, a single mother, told Clarion. In addition to juggling these everyday living expenses, she has been slowly chipping away at her “ominous” student debt. The light at the end of the tunnel for her could very well be a decent contract offer. “I can’t believe I went to school for this long [but still have] to struggle,” said Boyle.

As a new faculty member, Boyle says that the PSC contract with CUNY amounts to more than a better salary and conditions for her and her colleagues right now; it is the foundation for a better future for faculty, staff and students.


Attend an upcoming organizing conversation training at your campus:

Monday, February 8 | Lehman College / 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm (CA 201)

Tuesday, February 9 | Queens College / 10:00 am – 12:00 pm (G Building, Room 200) / 1:30 pm – 3:30 pm (President’s Conference Room #1, Rosenthal Library)

Wednesday, February 10 | Queens College / 12:30 pm – 2:30 pm (G Building, Room 200) / also 3:30 pm – 5:30 pm (President’s Conference Room #2, Rosenthal Library) / 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm (President’s Conference Room #2, Rosenthal Library)

Thursday, February 11 | College of Staten Island / 2:30 pm – 4:30 pm (Room 1-P201)

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