Now that PSC members have voted “yes” – by a total of 92 percent – to authorize the Executive Council to call a strike if it should become necessary, the union has sent an unequivocal message to CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken and to lawmakers in Albany that PSC members are determined to fight for what we need – and what our students need.
PSC President Barbara Bowen at the American Arbitration Association on May 12, as AAA workers tallied strike authorization ballots.
The union remains committed to achieving an acceptable contract through the negotiating process, but the membership has now authorized us to take action if there is no alternative.
Ninety-two percent of those who cast ballots voted “yes,” and the number of ballots was well over 10,000, giving us an absolute majority of “yes” votes. That is a landmark result. It would be a powerful result in any context, but it is especially powerful for a union whose members have worked six years without a raise and who understand that a strike would come with financial and legal penalties.
The vote empowers the union leadership to demand a contract that addresses the austerity conditions in which we work and our students learn. No one wants a strike – but nor will we accept an unfair contract. CUNY management has one way to show that they mean what they say about respecting the faculty and staff: Put a decent economic offer on the table.
The union bargaining team will walk into our next negotiating session with the power of a 92-percent “yes” vote at our backs. Contract talks with CUNY are ongoing, and the union is doing its utmost to reach an acceptable agreement within the next few weeks.
The union leadership is also working with lawmakers in Albany to build on the support many have expressed for funding our contract. But responsibility for making a fair financial offer rests with CUNY; management must do what it takes – in Albany and internally – to provide sufficient funds.
The New York State budget passed in Albany last month has been justly praised for lifting the minimum wage and introducing paid family leave. Both are gains for all New Yorkers – and both were strongly supported by the PSC.
QUICK ACTION NEEDED
But the budget left a major piece of the economic justice agenda unfinished. By failing to fund our contract it has endangered the university that serves exactly the people affected by a higher minimum wage. Albany must act quickly if it is to deliver on its promise of reducing economic inequality.
The value of our salaries has fallen as the cost of living in New York City has soared – by 23 percent, according to The Economist.
Even before the current crisis, CUNY faculty salaries were thousands of dollars lower than those at comparable institutions, such as Rutgers or University of Connecticut. Now they are completely uncompetitive. One professor took a $30,000 salary cut from her job as a high school teacher to come to CUNY after earning her Ph.D. And that was before she went six years without a raise.
CUNY’s secret has always been that professors and other academic staff who could work anywhere choose to work at CUNY because we have a vision of a world in which college education is accessible to all, not restricted by race and class. Working at CUNY is a labor of love; we do it because there is nothing like teaching CUNY’s brave, committed, resilient students.
After six years without a raise, however, the thread that holds many of us to CUNY is starting to snap. Salaries are so uncompetitive that academic departments are struggling to keep the professors they have or to fill open positions. You can read on pages 4-5 in this issue of Clarion how eight department chairs are experiencing the impact of CUNY’s failure to provide reasonable salaries. I’m sure every one of us who works at CUNY has a version of the same story to tell. The lack of a contract has begun to hurt CUNY’s core mission – teaching and learning.
FACULTY ON FOOD STAMPS
CUNY has been on a forced austerity diet for decades; it already balances its budget by relying on instructors who are paid by the course – at a fraction of the rate of full-time professors – for more than half of its teaching. These faculty are hit hardest by the lack of a raise; some have been forced to rely on food stamps.
There is enough money in this rich state to support high-quality public college education. The issue is policy, not resources. Albany’s failure to fund our contract reflects a political decision not to invest in the students we teach. If Albany wants to take serious aim at inequality, it must allow us to do our jobs well and fund the contracts of CUNY employees.
CUNY has champions in Albany, and there are promising signs that a resolution will emerge. But lawmakers must act with urgency; the legislative session ends in June. What is needed now is the political imagination to value CUNY students – and the political will to support those who have the privilege of working with them.