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Home » Clarion » 2018 » September 2018 » Gains despite the odds – we win when we stick together

Gains despite the odds – we win when we stick together


Strength after Janus

As editorialists around the nation cast gloom upon the future of American unions, the PSC, along with the rest of the public-sector labor movement, now faces a new challenge: organizing in the face of the Janus decision. Right after the close of the last academic year, the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector unions may no longer collect agency shop fees from non-members in the bargaining unit.

In a 5-4 decision this past June in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, the court’s conservative majority ruled that mandatory agency shop fees were a form of compelled speech – despite union arguments to the court that political speech by unions is paid with other monies and that the agency shop fee system was an integral part of maintaining labor peace in the public sector.

But no matter. The line of questioning by the conservative justices during oral arguments suggested that they had already made up their minds and would do their best to financially cripple public-sector unions.

The decision was far from a surprise – the anti-union right has been pushing cases like these for several years and had a shot in a previous case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which would have imposed the same problem on the labor movement had Justice Antonin Scalia not suddenly died, leaving the court in a deadlock.


Since the presidential election of Donald Trump and the restoration of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, union organizers, along with chapter leaders, delegates and rank-and-file activists have walked through the halls of every campus, signing up previous fee-payers as full-dues-paying members and getting longtime members to sign PSC “recommitment cards.”

As a result, when Janus went into effect, 95 percent of the full-time instructional staff members in the bargaining unit and over 60 percent of part-timers were full members.

The union told members by email in August that “more than a thousand faculty and staff at CUNY have joined or reaffirmed their commitment to the union” since Janus went into effect. It went on, “PSC members are defying the right-wing attempt to crush the power of working people and our unions. The PSC is at its largest membership ever.”

These membership levels put the union on strong footing as it goes forward in bargaining with CUNY for the next contract and in seeking more funding from the state for CUNY. Just as importantly, the PSC organizing model is forever changed. Union officers, chapter chairs, rank-and-file members and union staff will continue to build networks on campuses by constantly reaching out to members – old and new – and building power by creating a strong union presence at each campus.

Much of that is already happening – chapters are building a system of department representatives so that PSC activists can meet and greet new hires at CUNY, not only to sign up new members, but to organize new rank-and-file members in the traditional sense, as active participants in the union. This massive organizing effort has already reached a few milestones. LaGuardia Community College, York College and Bronx Community College all boast a 100 percent membership rate among full-time faculty as of the end of Spring 2018.

In short, if the right-wing forces that supported efforts like the Janus case meant to impose a mood of despair among public-sector unionists, the effect on the PSC has been the opposite. The union is energized by its recent wins in the face of austerity and is prepared to fight for salary increases and the fair funding of CUNY.

Adrián Rodríguez-Contreras

Associate Professor, Biology
City College of New York

When I started as a research assistant professor back in 2008, I was more focused on starting my research program and did not have time to think about issues outside my immediate professional realm. It was in 2010, after I joined the tenure-track faculty, that my awareness about the union changed very gradually, in part due to what I perceived as positive changes at the CCNY administration level.

At one of the science division retreats, I met physics professor Mike Green, and I heard about people actively working with the union. For me, union membership means the right to organize, build community and solidarity and ultimately improve working conditions for us that will benefit our students.

Paying dues is a fundamental way of supporting union efforts. For me, since the union answers to its members, unions help represent the interests of workers and serve to keep politicians from subordinating to power structures that do not benefit the population. As a faculty member at a public university, I believe I can make a stronger connection with my students knowing that the union works to improve my working conditions and thus their learning conditions.

Unfortunately, we all witness the gradual decay of support to the public institutions at the state and national level. I know the union will not only fight to maintain the resources that public education currently has, but create additional structures that will benefit the public good. We need to remain organized so future faculty have a voice and the opportunity to participate in improving their workplace – just as we have.

Vickie O’Shea said it is important for members to know that dues fund the services that protect their rights under the contract.

Vickie O’Shea

Student Manager, Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP)
Queensborough Community College

I started talking to people and asking them to sign the blue membership cards in late December. Most people that I’ve spoken to support the union and understand that if they don’t pay dues it’ll be devastating. People understand supporting the union means supporting the contract, and a major concern for them is the benefits.

What resonates with people is when I explain how dues directly support the union. I think a lot of people don’t make the correlation. So, if dues aren’t paid, the PSC cannot afford to pay the people who are there when they need them – whether it’s grievance officers or lawyers for the contract. Once I explain to them all the things that our union does with the money that we’re contributing out of our paychecks – that’s when it really starts to hit home. They’re like, “Oh yeah, I didn’t think about that.” And that seems to be what drives a lot of people to say “yes” and recommit.

For me, benefits are really important. My husband is a union member and I’ve seen how declining membership in his union has affected his benefits. Their benefits used to be excellent. Now, they don’t have dental. They lost vision care. At this point, my benefits are actually better than his. When I saw his union was declining, I realized that could happen to my union, too, unless people started stepping up. And I know that there is no better person to step up than myself. I can’t ask other people to get involved with this union if I’m not going to do it myself.

Karen Johnson

Career Educator, Center for Career Engagement and Internships
Queens College

Before I came to Queens College, I hadn’t worked in a unionized workplace. I remember growing up and my father mentioning what his union did, but I wouldn’t say I was anti-union or pro-union. I was indifferent. But once I stared working at Queens College, I learned about the union and I received an HEO handbook, and I thought, “Oh, this is great.” Soon after I started, a union organizer came to my office, closed the door and explained what it meant to be a member. That meant a lot to me.

I started at Queens College in December 2013, and I started going to union events. I wanted to get a better understanding of the union. Part of it was self-serving because I wanted to know what my rights and benefits were. Seeing where I was when I started and where I am now, I know I got here because of the union. With the new contract, I got the long-awaited raises. The contract also made reclassification possible for me. When I talk to people about signing the membership card, I give them a sense of what’s in it for them. I start by telling them why union membership is important to me. I then ask them about their concerns and ask them, “Do you see yourself overcoming the issues as an individual or in a union?” Most realize that there’s power in numbers together.

Valerie Schawaroch

Associate Professor
Natural Sciences
Baruch College

I have directly seen how being a PSC member has benefited me, my colleagues and my workplace. I know that many of the positive changes that we have attained at CUNY could not have been achieved without our collective power. The union amplifies an individual’s voice so that the administration listens.

There were health concerns with building construction on the Baruch campus, and with the PSC’s support, administrators began to take note, met with concerned representatives and are addressing issues as they arise.

The union has also improved health benefits to include more people. Eyeglasses are an extremely expensive necessity for me. My lenses cost more than the frames – even expensive designer frames. The new improved Davis Vision eyeglass benefit covers everything: the frames plus lenses with prisms, transition features, progressive focus and corrections for astigmatism.

The union has also been proactive in improving the workplace for all. Positive changes don’t always directly benefit me, but I see the indirect benefit to us all when we’re able to hire outstanding professionals. The seven-year tenure clock with 24-credit-hour release time has been a boon to new hires. The 18-hour workload currently being phased in makes CUNY more competitive with similar colleges.

As a faculty member at a public university, I know how important it is that our university be accountable and transparent to the taxpayers. By being a union member and joining with my colleagues, we all work together to create a better workplace. We vote for our union representatives, so the union is accountable to us.

Ernst Gracia

Senior College Laboratory Technician, Mathematics
Medgar Evers College

I have been making sure that CLTs, both adjuncts and full-timers, who have not signed a card fill out the forms to make them union members.

Union members ask: Why is the union important? Remember, PSC-CUNY has been there in any situation, to assist you in contract negotiations and things like that. Just become a member.

If you don’t sign, we all lose.

Rebecca Smart

Adjunct Instructor, Psychology
BMCC and Baruch College

I do a lot of work with the PSC because I’m an adjunct and I teach six classes on three different campuses, at BMCC, Baruch and at Fordham, where we just negotiated a great contract. It’s important to stay in the union, because if we’re going to have any hope of negotiating any thing reasonable in terms of pay, the union is the best route for that.

I have spent a lot of time talking to other adjuncts, because at BMCC, we have shared office space, so when I meet someone, I ask them if they’re part-time or full-time and if they’ve signed their union card. It’s important to step up. The PSC got us health insurance; we’re one of the few unions to have that for adjuncts. These are all important.

Rebecca Smart used the struggle at Fordham as an example for PSC to follow.

I think the Fordham contract shows that it is possible to provide parity pay with full-time faculty. When you look at the salaries for the tenured professors and you do the math for all the work done outside of class, they’re still dramatically underpaid. But it’s worse for the part-timers.

Now, at Fordham we have a contract that reflects parity, and that’s the language the PSC has used. The Fordham contract sets a precedent, and many other colleges in New York City have much higher pay. If CUNY wants to stay competitive, we have this precedent now, CUNY just needs to get with the program.

Robert Farrell

PSC Chapter Chair
Associate Professor, Library
Lehman College

In every conversation I have about the PSC, I stress that “the union” is not some abstract entity in a Lower Manhattan office tower. Rather, we – every member of the bargaining unit, all 30,000 of us – are the union. It’s our collective power that constitutes our union and makes it so important. The strength we’re able to exercise together when our elected union officers sit across the table from management in negotiations, when our chapters help us address contract violations or organize campaigns around campus safety issues, when we speak truth to power in Albany, City Hall and in the streets – that’s our union and it’s only possible because of what we all contribute through our dues, our voices and, most importantly, our actions.

I became more involved in the work of the union in 2004 at BMCC where I saw firsthand how local organizing can solve pressing problems in the workplace. Through the PSC Library Faculty Committee, I learned that every constituency of our bargaining unit, no matter how small, is central to the success of every contract campaign and that solidarity across titles is key to collective victory.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the last contract was seeing our adjunct faculty gain access to the city health plans and win the first path to any form of guaranteed adjunct work in our university’s history. It took unity, power, trust and courage to authorize our leadership to call a strike after a long contract campaign. Standing together, we achieved significant gains on many fronts, not to mention our backpay.

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