Hey, CUNY, I am missing my ‘pay Czech’
Were I teaching modern Czech literature, this would be a “teachable moment.” After a week and a half of unanswered emails and calls to the Baruch HR department, from whom I was requesting insurance benefits, I received this Kafkaesque response: “According to our records, you are not employed at Baruch.” This was during the third week of the semester, after six sessions of two classes I was most certainly teaching. But this is the essence of bureaucracy. I don’t exist on paper, or whichever records excluded my experience, and have no rights to healthcare. The language of the email was clear: It was a machine response to a human being. There was no greeting, no closing. There was input, my name and no output.
But that wasn’t the only erasure. This happened on the day of the first pay period. And when I looked at my bank account, there was no output there either. There was no pay. I still have not been paid by CUNY this semester. Yet I continue to do my job.
The subsequent emails have been just as cold and machinated. They lack a subject, rely on passive voice and sound like ATM-speak. They use words such as “unfortunately” and describe “machine error.” There is no human actor involved. The only human is the person not receiving the output.
I don’t need to read Franz Kafka’s fiction. My partner, the mother of my child, comes from the former Soviet Union. She has suggested that I stop doing a job that doesn’t pay. This situation has echoed her family’s experience in the USSR. There is no accountability. “Mistakes were made.”
It’s now six weeks into the semester. I have not been paid. I am contributing very little – wages from tutoring and other freelance work (which I’ve struggled not to neglect while I do work for Baruch at a fixed rate, unpaid) – to my family. But I am trying. I’m still a human being. I do exist, despite what the record doesn’t reflect.
This is CUNY Central, the essence of this bureaucracy. This is the state, under a governor who opposes the president but is friendly with school privatization. We need $7K per course. We’re human beings, not machines.
Working for members
At the start of the Fall semester, my occasionally misguided employer, CUNY, attempted to reclaim $4,600 in unemployment insurance (UI) benefits that I had received over the summer. But we won. I say “we” because it was a team victory involving PSC grievance counselors, unemployment insurance experts in the Workers Defense League (to which the PSC donates) and a union brother in my own department at Lehman.
Back at the end of May, I had filed my application for UI correctly and the NYS Labor Department had set my rate. But the six-person Unemployment Insurance & Workers Compensation unit in CUNY HR kept challenging my claim, delaying the payments for most of the summer. Then, when I was back in the classroom, I and Professor Ryan Raaum, interim chair of my department, were summoned to show up for a hearing on September 10 in Brooklyn. CUNY’s evidence was all wrong on the facts, but they demanded their right to a hearing. This meant, according to Jon Bloom of the Workers Defense League, that I’d be needing a proper one-year reappointment letter to show the judge. Some departments at Lehman have not been in the habit of issuing those, and I’d never thought anything of it because we have good professional relationships in my department.
As they say in Ghostbusters, “Who you gonna call?” PSC, of course. Almost instantly, grievance counselors Stan Wine and Carol Rial sprang into action. Carol called Raaum to explain about the one-year reappointment letter. Meanwhile, the Workers Defense League examined my file.
I got a call from the administrative court that there would be no hearing. So I kept my money and nobody had to travel from the Bronx to Brooklyn. Like they say, “Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong.”
Outside the classroom
With 46 years as an adjunct faculty member at Queensborough Community College, the piece on adjunct pay (Clarion, “The email I will not send,” June/July 2018) caused me to think about my own situation and that of many of my colleagues.
There is no question that for some, teaching many classes on a few campuses with low pay might lead to poor quality of education scenarios and a list of personal problems that could reflect in the classroom. However, there is another “type” of adjunct not mentioned in the article. We are retired high school educators. We easily spend extensive time preparing courses, meeting with our students and grading. We have the time to do this and our schedules are a luxury, in terms of total time, when compared to our former programs in secondary schools.
Low pay is one of the reasons that we rarely avoid controversial material and couldn’t care less about what our students may write in our required, annual student evaluations. We enhance the quality of education and enjoy what we are doing while both CUNY and our students save money!
Bernard A. Bilawsky
Queensborough Community College
New York magazine recently reported that the Graduate Center investigated a PhD student for criticizing Israel in an email.
CUNY continues to be manipulated by members of the board and administration who support the current policies of the Israeli government. As Israel murders large numbers of unarmed civilians in Gaza, and passes newer apartheid laws with stricter divisions of daily civil rights based on race, we see rapidly escalating CUNY complicity with punishing expression, speech, assembly and thought of students, faculty and staff who are compelled to speak out against these atrocities.
These legally and ethically indefensible actions by the CUNY apparatus against individual students and employees are couched in false dichotomies and distorted language. At the root of this drive to punish and repress opposition to Israeli government policy is the sinister campaign designed to conflate “Jewish” with “supporter of occupation and apartheid.” By imposing a radical racist content on a diverse and multifaceted people, the Israeli government has come up with a bureaucratic strategy that pretends that something is true that is not true. I, for example, along with 13,000 other Jews belong to Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization devoted to Palestinian rights and liberation. Yet the standards being imposed by the CUNY apparatus render our existences impossible by removing our Jewishness if we oppose murder and racism.
CUNY, a public organization, is subjected to the First Amendment, and thankfully we have organizations like Palestine Legal to insist, year in and year out, over and over again, that CUNY students and employees have this right. But even more importantly, as a university in service to the people of the city of New York, CUNY has a moral obligation to defend individuals and groups who stand up against oppression, in all its manifestations. CUNY has some hard work to do to meet its mandate, and this involves dismantling any punitive system aimed at New Yorkers who want freedom and autonomy for Palestinians.
College of Staten Island
The PSC difference
As a member of the PSC, a delegate and a chapter chair, I am often asked, as I walk through my campus, what is the state of contract negotiations. I don’t always have a lot to say, since I’m not on the bargaining team, but people know, since I attend the Delegate Assembly and the Chapter Chair meetings, that I sometimes have information.
What used to surprise me was the fact that I was always being asked about negotiations not only by faculty, HEOs and CLTs but also by public safety and buildings and grounds workers – these members of other unions would stop and ask me. I thought it was because they were interested in our negotiations and wanted to compare them to their negotiations, so in the spirit of union collegiality I’d tell them and ask how their negotiations were going. Usually they didn’t have any answer. This confused me until I analyzed the situation.
My brothers and sisters, I’d like to share my conclusion with you. We are very lucky. Public safety workers are represented by Teamsters Local 237, who also represent NYCHA workers, public school safety officers and a smaller group of CUNY public safety workers. Guess who gets most of their attention – it isn’t public safety. College Assistants and other office workers at CUNY are represented by District Council 37, which is a very large union, but they also represent public librarians, workers in the Mayor’s Office, public hospital workers, museum workers, etc. and a smaller section of workers at CUNY. Guess who gets most of their attention – it isn’t a small local. Faculty and staff are represented by the PSC-CUNY. Everyone they represent is at CUNY. CUNY workers and their needs are all they handle!
I am grateful that my needs are what our officers concentrate on. That is why I share information with my fellow York College workers. They need it from us. At your campuses build a unified body of workers by talking with everyone.
Editor’s note: Clarion reserves the right to edit all letters that are submitted for publication.