UPDATE: On December 11, 2015, the day after Clarion went to press, Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed the "maintenance of effort" legislation discussed in this article. The measure would have provided funding for CUNY.
At a union-wide meeting at the Cooper Union’s Great Hall on November 19, PSC President Barbara Bowen called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to fund the PSC contract, and laid out a five-point plan for winning the union’s fight for a fair contract. In October, the union’s Executive Council announced that the union would hold a vote among members for authorization to call a strike, if necessary, and the membership meeting kicked off the organizing process for the vote. The PSC’s contract with CUNY expired in 2010.
Although public employees are barred from striking in New York under the Taylor Law, it is legal to conduct a strike authorization vote.
“We are holding Governor Cuomo accountable for his refusal to put money in this contract,” Bowen told the lively crowd of 900 members who packed the hall. “Governor Cuomo, you cannot present yourself as a progressive if you are not progressive on CUNY. You cannot be a progressive and pursue austerity economics on the higher education system of this city and state. We will not let you do that.”
CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken — until now the focus of PSC pressure — has failed to secure adequate funding from the state, Bowen said, leaving the union no choice but to take its demands directly to the governor.
Under the Cuomo administration, the level of state investment in CUNY has continued to shrink, with the state not funding such mandatory cost increases as building leases, utility fees and raises for CUNY employees, who have not seen a salary increase since 2009. (As Clarion went to press, the governor had yet to take action on a bill passed by the state legislature this summer that would cover such costs going forward. The deadline for his decision on whether to sign the bill, known as a “maintenance of effort” measure, was December 11.)
“We fight to press the larger issue of disinvestment in this university, and austerity,” First Vice President Mike Fabricant told the crowd. “We fight on the question of wages, and how that has consequences for the quality of education for our students. We fight for fair wages for part-time faculty and staff and full-time faculty so they can survive and stay at this university. And in the midst of all this, tuition is raised to fill in the hole left by disinvestment.”
On November 4, as hundreds of PSC members rallied on the street outside CUNY headquarters on 42nd Street and some prepared to take part in a planned civil disobedience action, management put forward an offer for salary increases that totaled a mere 6 percent over six years between 2010 and October 2016, and while failing to offer retroactive raises for four of the six. Within days of receiving the offer, the union countered with a proposal for a package of salary increases that would total 14 percent. Negotiations are still ongoing.
The plan Bowen put forward at the union-wide meeting includes the following steps:
- Taking the demand for funding a fair contract directly to the governor.
- Enlarging the fight by building and strengthening alliances with students, community groups and other unions.
- Amplifying the union’s message through increasingly aggressive efforts in both traditional and social media.
- Making a counteroffer to CUNY’s 6-percent offer, which is below the rate of inflation for the period covered.
- Organizing to win a strike authorization vote.
Buoyed by the successful rally and sit-in — which garnered coverage by television newscasts and The New York Times, and resulted in the arrest of 53 PSC members — the boisterous crowd in The Great Hall applauded frequently throughout speeches by PSC officers and representatives of the union’s various constituencies, and an officer of CUNY’s Student Senate. Members hoisted familiar signs (STOP THE WAR ON CUNY!) and several blew vuvezela horns.
Videos bearing greetings from leaders of unions that either won or were engaged in similar battles were greeted with enthusiasm, especially the appearance on the screen of Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which waged a successful contract battle that included a strike against the city’s school system. Introducing the video messages, Secretary Nivedita Majumdar noted that Lewis is presently battling brain cancer, but nonetheless recorded a message to PSC. (“Tell the truth!” Lewis said in her message. “Just let us teach.”) The video messages can be seen here.
“Our colleagues, like us, are fighting not just for salary raises, but for a quality education accessible to all students,” Majumdar said. “For management, the phrase ‘student success’ is usually nothing more than a rhetorical ploy to further their agenda of neoliberal education reforms.”
Also expressing solidarity with the PSC via video were Phyllis Campano, president of the Seattle Education Association; Tim Killikelly, president of AFT Local 2121 (which represents faculty at the City College of San Francisco), and Jennifer Eagan, president of the California Faculty Association. The CFA, Eagan said, won its strike authorization vote by 94 percent. The leaders spoke of their unions’ individual battles for fair contracts and respect for their students as part of a national fight, a point also made by Brooklyn College Chapter Chair James Davis in his speech from the podium.
A National Fight
While budget cuts and attacks on collective bargaining are fought and felt locally, Davis explained, they are “fueled by national movements…that seek to delegitimize higher education as a public good, and rebrand it as a private investment.
“We have an opportunity to change that narrative, to reframe higher education not only as a public good, but a good for the particular public that we serve –—working-class students, students of color, immigrants and their children.”
Dexter Roberts, vice chair of the University’s Student Senate, declared student solidarity with the PSC in the union’s contract fight. “If there is no you, and there is no me, there is no CUNY,” he said. Roberts also reminded the crowd of the Student Senate’s resolution passed in September that called on CUNY to “prioritize the needs of the adjunct professors.”
Those who attended the mass meeting were treated to a clip from an upcoming documentary by Rehad Desai about a successful struggle at South African universities in which students and faculty came together to stop the outsourcing of campus labor.
Michael Batson, an adjunct lecturer in history at the College of Staten Island and Kingsborough Community College, acknowledged the risk adjuncts feel in considering the strike authorization, but prevailed upon his colleagues to get behind the effort. “Many adjuncts live on the edge of poverty,” Batson said, “and all adjuncts face income insecurity from semester to semester. This contract must deal with those issues.” The University’s 13,000 adjuncts, he said, are “victims of CUNY’s casualization of our profession.”
Along with speakers Andrea Vásquez, Iris DeLutro, James Davis and the PSC officers on the stage, Batson was among the 53 PSC members arrested for participating in the November 4th sit-in.
CUNY staff represented by the union found colleagues at the podium in Vásquez, a higher education officer at the Graduate Center who also serves on the Executive Council, and DeLutro, who is also the union’s cross-campus vice president. Both are on the union’s bargaining team. “Why did I sit down in front of CUNY and risk arrest?” Vásquez asked, rhetorically. “Because, as a member of the bargaining team, I’ve been sitting across from CUNY for a year and a half now. We’ve introduced CUNY to our real part-time and full-time faculty, to our real professional staff and librarians, college lab technicians, and CLIP (CUNY Language Immersion Program) and CUNY Start teachers, to our doctoral students…. After presenting issues of importance to all of us, despite some progress at the table, they still don’t get it.”
PSC Treasurer Sharon Persinger brought members to their feet by asking people who had participated in important actions, such as the sit-in at CUNY headquarters and the Wake-Up Call protest in front of Milliken’s luxury apartment building, to raise their hands and stand up. Then she asked attendees to show their commitment to organizing activities by standing. “Stand up and let us know that you’re going to be part of the effort to organize our strike authorization vote to make sure that we get a vote that will be useful to us in our contract negotiations,” Persinger said. The crowd rose, cheering, and before the night’s end, baskets were filled with signed pledge cards bearing members’ promises to attend training sessions for conducting one-on-one conversations with colleagues in preparation for the vote, for which a date has not yet been set.
Yet, during the question-and-answer session that followed the program, a number of adjuncts expressed fear of management retaliation should they take part in a strike, while others indicated that they felt the PSC was not demanding enough on their behalf, in terms of job security and other issues, at the bargaining table.
Bowen responded to a question from Ruth Wanger, an adjunct at the College of Staten Island, by making the case for unity, and reminding attendees that the PSC won health insurance for adjuncts in 2012 because “full-timers stood up for part-timers.”
Call for Unity
In the current negotiation, Bowen said, “the union’s position in our bargaining demands that we took to the table initially was absolute parity in pay and benefits. We are working our way toward that, but I don’t think we’re going to solve that in a single contract.... We will have unity if we fight together. The more we get in this contract to work with, the more we get economically to work with, the more we will be able to do for everyone.”
“The consequences of breaking the Taylor Law are severe — at least on paper,” James Davis told the crowd earlier in the evening. “But the stakes of inaction are high. And I think there are real consequences if we decline to take the steps that are more militant and more public. It’s important to recognize the power we have and the role we play in the national conversation about higher ed.”