We are here to put power behind a message to Wall Street and the CUNY Board of Trustees.
To Wall Street, we say: We will not stand silently by while you make the rich even richer, enabled by Trump’s corporate tax giveaway. Wall Street posted $25 billion in profits just this year. CUNY’s whole budget is $3 billion. A fraction of Wall Street’s profits would lift CUNY out of poverty and support the life-chances of the workers who help to generate this city’s wealth. New York’s working people, its communities of color and its immigrants – documented or not – produce much of the wealth that makes Wall Street buoyant. That wealth must be shared.
And to Bill Thompson, in his Wall Street office high above us, we say: You are entrusted with the wellbeing and the future of a precious resource, a university that was the result of a radical movement to democratize college education – The City University of New York. It’s time for you to stand up and demand what CUNY needs. Stop accepting the underfunding of CUNY as inevitable. Another funding policy is possible.
FINDING A VOICE
I am tired of hearing how progressive New York State is when the city’s public university is chronically, deliberately underfunded. Where is the voice of the CUNY Board challenging the practice of cutting CUNY’s per-student budget every year? The PSC is now the only public voice consistently demanding adequate funding for CUNY. I am proud that we are that voice, but we should not be out there alone. Where is the voice of the CUNY board calling for a contract for the people who make CUNY work? The voice saying that hiking tuition every year is not an acceptable way to fund a public university?
And where is the voice refusing to accept the bizarre practice of New York State government of not funding union contracts? Yes – that’s what’s happening and it’s going unchallenged by the Board of Trustees.
New York State routinely agrees to contracts for public-sector workers but then does not provide the funding to cover the cost. The PSC won a titanic battle in the last round of bargaining and secured more than $200 million for our members from New York State in back-pay. But the State has apparently taken the position that public-sector contracts will not be funded. That’s why senior colleges are being told to cannibalize their own academic budgets to pay for a contractual obligation. In what world is it fair to approve raises for public-sector workers and then expect the institutions where they work to gouge their own inadequate budgets to pay for them?
The PSC’s contract demands are a call to stop normalizing substandard salaries and conditions. The union has had productive sessions at the bargaining table, but now it’s time for an economic offer from the Board of Trustees, an offer adequate to the need. Salaries for full-time faculty at CUNY, once a source of pride, have been eroded in value, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2000, the PSC leadership has been working hard to catch us up. But senior college salaries are now 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars lower than those at comparable institutions – like Rutgers or Penn State. Full-time salaries for the lowest paid, especially college laboratory technicians and lecturers, are way below those in New York’s high schools. I get a little sick every time I hear the protesting-too-much slogan “the greatest public university in the world.” No one believes more in CUNY’s capacity than those of us right here, those of us who have dedicated our professional lives to the hope it offers. But CUNY cannot even begin to be the greatest urban university in the world while it continues to offer substandard salaries and conditions.
THE HARDEST DEMAND
In this contract we are also fighting for basic supports for academic life, such as tuition waivers for our children, long-overdue improvements for graduate employees and adjustments in the important structural changes we made in the last contract: HEO salary differentials and three-year appointments for adjuncts.
And this year, as you know, the PSC is taking on perhaps the hardest demand we have ever attempted: raising adjunct pay to $7,000 a course. Why $7K? Because that amount would bring adjunct pay level with the comparable fractional pay for full-time Lecturers. And it would bring CUNY into the 21st century. Adjuncts at Penn State earn more than $6,000 a course; at Fordham they earn $7,000-$8,000.
The bargaining team has told management across the table that we will not settle without having this demand addressed. We have also made it clear that public funding beyond the typical level of contract funding will be needed to make it happen. Adjunct salary increases have to be an addition to, not a subtraction from the rest of the economic package. I can’t promise that we’ll win. I can’t promise that we’ll do it all in one contract. But I promise that we will fight.
The demand for $7K is not just about adjuncts. It is about all of us. Why? First, because CUNY’s low pay for adjuncts is a clear injustice and it should be opposed by everyone who cares about justice. Second, because it sends a message to our students that their education is not important enough to have decently paid instructors. Third – and this may be less obvious – because we will all gain materially when adjuncts are no longer paid a near-poverty wage.
Paying anyone $3,000 to teach a college course is an injustice. It’s just plain wrong to expect someone to live on $25,000 a year for college teaching in New York City. CUNY survives its gross underfunding because it pays half its teaching force substandard wages. That has to stop.
Substandard pay for adjuncts sends an unforgiveable message to CUNY students, who are 77 percent people of color. It tells them: Your college education is worth only low-wage pay, you are not worth public investment. We cannot allow that message to stand.
Here is our message: The work of teaching is itself worth fair pay, and our students are worth being taught by well-paid instructors. It doesn’t matter if you are a full-time accountant teaching one course or a long-time adjunct depending entirely on her adjunct income. The work itself has value. The work is worth $7,000 a course or more.
CUNY’s ability to pay anyone less than their work is worth helps to hold all our wages down. Unions began as an effort to lift the wage floor, in part because lifting the floor also lifts the ceiling. We will never fully lift the top salaries at CUNY until we lift the bottom.
CUNY’s ability to hire adjuncts at low pay provides a disincentive to hiring more full-time faculty. It weakens tenure by creating a faculty workforce in which far fewer than half the faculty are tenured or on tenure-track lines. And then the full-time faculty who are hired carry much more departmental work than we should.
Because adjuncts are so underpaid, they have to rush from their CUNY jobs to the waitressing, dog-walking and proofreading jobs they take on to make ends meet. Even though they work many more hours than they’re paid for, they cannot be on campus full time. One result is that the workload of all full-time faculty and staff is increased to fill the gap. If adjuncts were fairly paid, CLTs would see their workload decrease; HEOs would see their workload decrease; full-time faculty would see their workload decrease. We could all stop subsidizing CUNY with our extra work.
The only way the union has ever won anything hard is by working for it together. The adjunct demand is a demand for all of us. The climate activists told us that to change everything, we need everyone. Changing the adjunct wage would change everything at CUNY. We need everyone.
This union has done hard things before. We have won paid parental leave – the first public-sector union in the state to do so. We have won adjunct health insurance, graduate employee health insurance, junior faculty full-paid research leave, sabbaticals at 80 percent pay – higher than at most private universities. We have lowered the teaching load, raised the salaries and won $200 million in back pay in the last contract.
I believe that we are the union that can break the low-wage work paradigm for adjuncts. If any union at a public university can do it, it’s the PSC. I believe we can settle a good contract without striking, and without a six-year wait. The PSC leadership is prepared to be militant, and we’ve been militant before. We will do whatever it takes, but if you keep showing up and speaking up, we will have the power to win.
All of us have been inspired by the waves of teacher uprisings and strikes this year. For me, the most inspiring thing is that the teachers taught as they fought. They taught their states that the quality of pay for themselves is the same as the issue of quality education for their students.
All of us who work at CUNY are teachers, whether we work in a lab or a counseling office or a library or a classroom. So let’s be teachers in the fullest sense of that word. Let’s do what teachers do: expose the lies and uncover the truth. Let’s expose the lie that there is not enough money for CUNY or our contract, the lie that austerity for CUNY is inevitable, the lie that substandard adjunct pay is all we can ever expect. Together, let’s teach, let’s win the change we need.
The above is adapted from remarks made at the September 27 demonstration.