Members fighting against austerity
PSC President Barbara Bowen, left, spoke at a rally at Hunter College Campus Schools.
The experience of the past months has made it clear to PSC leaders and activists that we will need to work in a new, strategic, union-wide way if we are to be able to protect our interests and our members in the continuing pandemic crisis. It is still a fight to save lives, save jobs and save CUNY. It’s also a fight for the integrity of our profession and the education of our students. As always at CUNY, the struggle boils down to an effort to prevail against the political and economic interests that keep CUNY poor because those interests do not want our students – our black and brown and working-class and poor students – to thrive.
For many of us, the past seven months have been a time of unremitting stress, whether because of illness, anxiety, rage or a massive increase in workload. By calling us to action, the PSC offers an alternative.
I see two primary threats that could demand swift, union-wide action.
First, New York State could turn the current 20% “withholding” of funds into a permanent cut, and it could enact even bigger cuts. The City, also contending with a huge budget hole that it has failed to address with energy, could deliver a cut to community colleges. CUNY management could attempt to impose even deeper cuts in programs, resources and positions than we have already endured. Earlier this year both the City and the State moved to delay collectively bargained back pay and contractual raises for other public-sector unions. In past years the PSC has fought back – and won – against an attempt by New York State to impose furloughs. We may have to fight again. My point is not that we should get scared, but that we should get organized.
At an extreme, the CUNY trustees could declare financial exigency and invoke the policies of retrenchment. Retrenchment is strictly regulated with guidelines, timeframes and contractual protections, but at its most severe it allows the trustees to abolish departments and jobs. I want to be clear: I have not heard a single public or private discussion about imposing retrenchment. My own sense is that the City, State and CUNY will do a lot to avoid it. But the CUNY administration and trustees have already made it abundantly clear that they will not stand up against budgetary pressure. They laid off thousands of adjuncts even before cuts were imposed. We cannot count on them if the State and City try to gouge CUNY’s budget.
The second threat is about reopening. The current CUNY administration has repeatedly violated its own inadequate reopening plans and has now taken the position that the union does not have the right to bring independent safety inspectors onto campus if we believe that a building may not be safe. The extraordinary teachers at the Hunter Campus K-12 Schools represented by the PSC were on the brink of a strike before management finally relented and allowed an inspection. If CUNY management decides that some segment of PSC members must return to campus and we believe that our health and our lives may be at stake, PSC members may need to be prepared to take action on a greater scale than we did at Hunter.
The union’s response to the threats we have identified is to get organized – in two ways. First, through sharp, immediate campaigns – against increases in class size, unsafe buildings and New York’s failure to impose fair taxes on the ultra-rich. Second, by preparing to take more militant and potentially disruptive union-wide action, including preparing for a strike authorization vote, if that is the only way to prevent devastating cuts, massive workload increases or unsafe conditions. The PSC cannot wait until disastrous changes are upon us to start organizing. If members are called back to work in conditions that threaten their lives or New York State demands even more severe cuts, we cannot start then to discuss with each other what action is needed and whether we are willing to take it. We have to start now – and hundreds of PSC activists have already begun.
TALKING TO MEMBERS
Union activists have already conducted more than 3,000 individual organizing conversations with colleagues to begin to build the network of mutual support we need. I am asking you to join them. The key to winning in any collective workplace action, especially actions that involve sacrifice or risk, is knowing where your coworkers stand. We are only as powerful as we are united. That’s why the PSC has organized to hold systematic conversations with every union member to assess where they stand and urge them to be ready to stand up for each other.
I hope that PSC members are not put in a position where every other tactic we have tried – litigating, media campaigns, legislation, mass demonstrations, collective bargaining and more – is still not enough to save lives, save jobs and save CUNY. But if we are in that position, the union cannot rely on waiting, pressuring and hoping. We need to be ready. We need to have done the strategic planning and honest assessment a job action requires. We need to be in a position to consider using labor’s unique power to withhold our work.
IT IS UP TO US
One thing PSC members know already is that we cannot count on the CUNY administration under Chancellor Matos Rodríguez to demand an alternative to austerity. We have to count on ourselves, together with our allies among student groups, labor, and our political and community organizations. If we ever needed proof of whether we could count on management to defend us, we have it now. Despite their blandishments about how much they value the faculty, staff and students, CUNY managers during this crisis have delivered cuts instead of resistance.
There is an alternative. A CUNY administration could demand publicly that the university serving the communities hardest hit by the pandemic and its economic aftermath should see increased investment, not cuts. It could stop romanticizing scarcity and start offering a vision for what CUNY students need. In the Great Depression, CUNY built or established three new colleges. Now, we find Chancellor Matos Rodríguez imposing punishing cuts on the senior colleges even before the reductions are demanded by the State. We find CUNY management refusing to spend even a small portion of the millions of dollars in federal CARES Act money CUNY received to sustain adjunct jobs – despite the provision in the law that mandates keeping university employees on payroll. This is not an administration that can be counted on to resist austerity – or to keep our workplaces safe.
The resistance has to come from us. We have to organize ourselves to protect our safety in the workplace, to defeat budget cuts, to save our colleagues’ jobs and even our own. If we organize ourselves, others will join us. Right now, as we anticipate the results from a turbulent presidential election, as millions of people have put their lives on the line to demand an end to racism and working people are taking the brunt of this crisis, there are also new possibilities for resistance and change. If PSC members can work with each other to develop collective power, we can be part of that change. It’s worth everything we’ve got to try.