Raises that keep up with inflation
(Illustration Credit: Jud Guitteau)
My father came to America as a young immigrant speaking no English, and when I attended City College, I knew firsthand the significance of having access to public higher education. For decades, I taught at Queens College. Like many PSC members, I know the importance of public higher education for the children of the working class in New York City. I also know the role CUNY has historically played, and why it must be properly funded to enhance its capacities to preserve in this role.
As the PSC looks forward to a new round of contract negotiations with CUNY, when a new mayor and a new governor will play key roles in the outcome of these negotiations, it is imperative that these elected leaders and others involved be aware of the significance of CUNY, and acknowledge the role we play in securing the future of our young people and the economy of the city and state. This is, as the union leadership state, the focus of the PSC’s long-term strategic plan to fight for more funding for CUNY, both through the budget campaign and the New Deal for CUNY legislation.
The PSC is also a beacon to other faculty and staff in public institutions elsewhere; our role in struggling for quality education and maintaining the quality of our colleges and the Graduate Center is part of a national crusade for a better future. As union members, we serve not only our own material interest, but coalitions fighting against austerity and for funding the public sector. This broad perspective is important.
We are in kinship with the teachers who have won victories in the “Red State Revolt,” the teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona from 2018 that offer important lessons for activists seeking to build progressive power. Teachers from states where unions are weak or nonexistent, took on conservative governors and legislatures – and prevailed. These teachers won hard-fought raises when their salaries had been worn away by inflation.
We face a liberal state legislature and a Black mayor, Eric Adams, who has support in the communities from which many of our students come from. (Adams, for his part, received his associate degree from City Tech and his bachelor’s degree from John Jay College.) The struggle here at CUNY is therefore different than it has been in the past decade. There are similar goals across red states and blue states, for example, in Chicago teachers mobilized community and coalition support for the common cause of advancing the excellent public education that unionized workers can provide. CUNY provides life-altering opportunities for its students. The education it offers needs to be paid by raising taxes. That is always a hard sell, since business interests are experts in threatening government with moving to lower tax jurisdictions. In fact, businesses rarely move, since high tax states that provide better public services grow faster than the low-tax, austerity-driven jurisdictions in the country.
A fair contract would retain and attract the faculty and staff needed to educate students, who not only earn a degree, but get an education that can fill the jobs necessary to make New York prosper. The mayor and governor must be bombarded by letters and demonstrations. Legislators need to be met in their offices by constituents, parents of CUNY students, CUNY students and faculty. The union can help organize such pressure, but only if union members who have sat on the sidelines become activists.
The last contract, with its hard-won annual pay gains and heavy pay boosts for adjunct members in particular, has not kept up with the crises since its passage. The COVID-19 pandemic and skyrocketing inflation have dramatically raised the cost of living in New York. While the prevailing annual salary increases were based on an estimated 2% rise in inflation per year, economists have talked about an inflationary increase nearing 7% as recently as November.
The annual raises and step increases for city and state workers aren’t keeping up with the financial reality. Union members are finding that their wage increases don’t matter as much when the utility companies, grocery stores and pharmacies are taking more and more of their paychecks every week.
The financial forecasts predict banks will be more profitable in the coming year with the expected rise in interest rates. Other large corporations headquartered and doing business in the city have seen their profits increase as they have taken advantage of shortages to increase their profits far more than their costs. In contrast, the income of PSC members, after adjusting for inflation, has gone down considerably and threatens to be reduced still further by continued inflation.
Nationally, labor’s share of the national income has fallen while the profit share has reached record proportions, not seen since the 1920s. The dangerous growth of anti-democratic, violent political forces has acted as a cover for regressive economics and the attack on the public sector.
The PSC contract expires in the Spring of 2023. Next year will be a test of the city and state labor movements and of the new governor and mayor. The PSC and its sibling unions shouldn’t just advocate for dramatic wage increases that respond to the financial realities of COVID and inflation, but use the contract fights as a call for public investment. In light of this economic reality, we must say, “We need less austerity and more social investment in general in our public institutions, like CUNY,” not only to fund wage increases but to grow these institutions and revive them, in order to provide services that residents depend on. Think of it as a labor-led New Deal.
In our struggle for a just contract, we are also engaging in the wider battle to reverse these developments. In our teaching of critical thinking skills, we are contributing to a better world. We can also set the example for our students that the powers that demand low pay and concessions can be defeated by worker militancy. Teachers are not simply researchers and intellectuals, but working people who understand the meaning of struggle. They know how to act on this knowledge.