Bargaining committee member James Davis said the team had a lot of work ahead but that there was ‘cause for optimism’ in contract talks.
For the PSC’s contract bargaining committee, the summer was anything but sleepy.
As this newspaper went to press, the union bargaining committee –- which is made up of full-timers and part-timers, faculty and staff, from senior colleges and two-year campuses -– engaged in its ninth bargaining session with CUNY management, and the sixth since Memorial Day weekend. Against a backdrop of contract settlements with other municipal and state government unions as well as statewide elections and CUNY’s search for a new chancellor, the PSC has made significant progress in highlighting the union’s economic demands. “Overall, there has been real progress in terms of the PSC unpacking the list of the bargaining demands and delving in and making arguments on behalf of a number of the key demands,” said James Davis, the Brooklyn College PSC chapter chair and a member of the union’s bargaining committee. “CUNY is very, very serious about managing the scarcity that it’s been handed. So that is a kind of sobering reality about the context in which all these discussions are taking place.”
The other major state unions – the Civil Service Employees Association, Public Employees Federation and United University Professions of SUNY – all settled contracts with the Cuomo administration that adhere to an economic pattern of 2-percent annual salary increases. At the city level, the largest municipal union, District Council 37, agreed to a contract with yearly raises of 2 percent, 2.25 percent and 3 percent, but with longer time frames for certain raises. While unions feared that this round of bargaining at the city level would involve massive health care concessions demanded by management, higher cost for employees in terms of health care in these contracts have been relatively limited.
And public-sector unions are starting to catch up with the PSC in a major respect: this year, the United Federation of Teachers announced that its members would be able to participate in a paid parental leave program, a benefit PSC members already have. At UUP, the union of SUNY faculty and staff, negotiated inclusion in the state’s new paid family leave program, which provides partially paid leave for a range of family care needs.
At the bargaining table, CUNY management has repeatedly cited the other union agreements as the basis of a collective bargaining “pattern” to which New York City and State are likely to hold CUNY and the PSC. But management has not yet made an economic offer. PSC president and chief negotiator Barbara Bowen said, “There is a long history in this state of enforcing austerity for working people through ‘pattern bargaining.’ The PSC has argued that imposing the pattern on CUNY doesn’t work. Salaries for full-timers never fully recovered from the economic downturns of the 1980s and 1990s, and they are not competitive nationally. Salaries for part-timers are a disgrace.” Bowen continued, “The PSC has a history of finding creative ways to address members’ needs, even while wrestling with the confines of a limited pattern. We are prepared to do that again, but we will need the force of the membership.”
At a recent forum, Rebecca Smart, who teaches as an adjunct at both CUNY and Fordham, was asked how her small union at Fordham had the power to win a breakthrough contract. Her advice was: “Show up and yell.” PSC members will have the chance to follow that advice on Thursday, September 27, when the union will take its demand for a fair contract to the heart of the state’s financial and political power: Wall Street. Bowen commented: “CUNY management and New York’s state and city governments will not make our contract a priority unless we do. We are 30,000 people! We should make our numbers visible.”
The power of the membership is especially important in this round, Bowen added, because the union is tackling longstanding issues of competitive pay and salary equity, in addition to other demands such as the need for tuition waivers at CUNY for members’ children. The PSC contract must be approved by both New York City and New York State governments, in addition to the CUNY Board of Trustees, and the union can expect strong pressure to conform to the economic terms already approved for other unions. But the PSC bargaining team is committed to finding creative ways to improve all salaries, and is advancing a major demand that will require funding beyond the usual settlements. The PSC’s demand to end the near-poverty wages of adjuncts seeks to address conditions that have developed over decades and will require additional State and City funding. “This is the moment to tackle adjunct pay,” Bowen said. “New York State under Governor Cuomo has sought to define itself as a leader in addressing low-wage work. Adjuncts must be included.” She added that raising adjunct pay will benefit all faculty and staff at CUNY because it will lift the floor of salaries.
Over the summer, rank-and-file members came to bargaining sessions in order to make the case personally to management about why particular demands were important.
“Having rank-and file members speaking at the table has been a good thing. University management has to see them, be introduced to them and put real human beings behind these demands,” Davis said. “Having a human presence in the room is not going to immediately convert CUNY management in conceding a demand. But I do think they listen differently.”
He added, “There is cause for optimism in the sense that the arguments that the PSC is making across the table are really being heard. They are being taken in. And [those arguments] are really based on real issues on the ground on the campuses and in the offices.”
“We expect the frequency of bargaining sessions to increase as we move into the fall,” said Michael Batson, a lecturer on the bargaining committee. “The bargaining team has been pretty active over the past six months discussing how best to present particular demands across the table, working in committees to work on the details of demands, and most importantly, strategizing ways to mobilize the membership.”
A bargaining session was being held as this newspaper went to press, and another is scheduled for October 4. The two sides hold frequent informal discussions and are meeting in subcommittees on specific issues.
The previous contract expired late last year, although the terms of the last collective bargaining agreement remain in effect until a new settlement is reached in accordance with the state’s Triborough Amendment. The campaign for a just contract requires the participation of all members of the union. While the union recognizes that the contract campaign will not take nearly as long as the last one – state and city bargaining were stalled due to a variety of factors including intransigence by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis – the union also knows that grassroots organizing for a new contract remains paramount.
The union held a major contract campaign kick off rally in Manhattan last December and held campus demonstrations to push for a new contract.
The next step comes soon.
All members are encouraged to participate in a contract demonstration Thursday, September 27, from 4 to 6 pm on Wall Street. “It’s your contract,” Bowen said. “If your salary and health benefits and working conditions matter to you, you need to be there. The only way we win things is by showing that the union has the power of its members.”