Activist leader moves on
As she stepped down from office at the end of May, Barbara Bowen sent a message to PSC members expressing her thanks for their vision and commitment. An adapted version of her message is below:
Thank you for entrusting me with the leadership of the union. It has been the privilege of a lifetime.
When the current leadership first took office in 2000, our aim was to make the PSC a fighting union. Thanks to you, individually and collectively, that’s what the PSC has become. We just saw an edgy demonstration by the Brooklyn PSC chapter about spending federal stimulus funds and a demonstration planned for next week at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). PSC members and students protested at BMCC on June 1 against racist austerity, CUNY’s failure to rehire laid-off adjuncts, and the racist defacement of a college building. These events come after a PSC town hall on reopening in April that drew 1,500 participants and the release of the union’s detailed COVID safety standards.
None of these actions would have been possible without an active membership. What I love about the union we have built together is that members have risked investing some part of their political hope – whether for a better university, a better city or even a better world – in the work of the union. All a leader of such a union can do is try to be worthy of people in struggle.
In a historical period of anti-worker organizing and obscene income inequality, the PSC was strong at the bargaining table because we did not limit our horizon to bargaining. We refused to accept that subpar working conditions for staff and faculty are inevitable at an institution that serves primarily people of color, the working class and the poor. We challenged the racist austerity policies that underlie our working conditions and understood the fight for a contract as a fight for our students’ right to a beautiful, imaginative, life-changing education.
As a result, we were able to break years of contractual stalemate and win salary increases, paid parental leave, increased sabbatical pay, targeted raises to address inequities of race and gender, health insurance for adjuncts, professional staff salary differentials, paid adjunct office hours, junior faculty research leave, professional development funds, graduate employee health insurance, dedicated sick leave, improvements in the reclassification system, gains in annual leave, a reduction in the teaching load, three-year appointments for adjuncts and more. Through the power of an organized membership, we were able to save the Welfare Fund from near-insolvency, and the Fund has now been able to enhance dental, prescription drug and vision benefits.
The PSC unapologetically asserted that unions are strongest when they work in the interest of all workers and their communities, not just of their own members. PSC members defeated a half-billion-dollar cut to CUNY imposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2016 and responded by advancing our own agenda for funding CUNY. We worked with students and their communities to develop the New Deal for CUNY, legislation that reinstates free tuition, repudiates austerity, and dramatically increases the University’s public funding. Over the last six months. The New Deal for CUNY has ignited support in Albany, and an equally ambitious proposal for New York City is rapidly gaining ground. It calls for payments in lieu of taxes from the rich untaxed private universities, with the income dedicated to supporting CUNY.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
At the same time, PSC members pushed our national union to reverse its support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; campaigned against stop-and-frisk, against racist travel bans and for the rights of undocumented students; supported teachers’ and workers’ struggles in this country and internationally; defended academic freedom; and worked to keep our students and each other safe during this traumatic year.
Anyone who steps down from leadership, however, must be sharply aware of what has been left undone. Although the PSC has defeated the worst austerity proposals in Albany and won new funds, CUNY is still desperately, deliberately underfunded. And although the PSC achieved major gains against the exploitation of adjunct labor, we have not yet won full pay parity and job security for CUNY’s teaching majority, its adjunct faculty. CUNY management continues to race towards increasing contingency, and we are still in a fight to restore the positions of the adjuncts CUNY preemptively laid off last spring.
What gives me hope, though, is our membership and the stirrings of political change. Consider the extraordinary way the entire faculty and staff transformed our work in a matter of days to keep CUNY going during the pandemic; the hundreds of members who have been trained by other members to monitor the safety of their own workplaces; the outpouring of members joining anti-racist protests last summer and organizing anti-racism coalitions on the campuses; the thousands of members who have rallied, marched, petitioned, testified and risked arrest in PSC actions; the members whose artwork and anger have fueled the recent demonstrations to free the federal funds and reject racialized austerity.
A year ago I would not have imagined that the New York State budget would include $2 billion for undocumented essential workers, achieved largely through a tax increase on the rich. Nor would I have predicted federal stimulus funding in the billions of dollars for higher education. And few observers foresaw that the structural inequities laid bare by the pandemic, together with the murder of George Floyd, would spark a massive, sustained, worldwide demand to abolish racism.
The coming years may see new openings for political change, and I believe the PSC is in a position to contribute to and expand those openings. We have a membership with imagination and courage, and a new leadership ready to make the possible real. James Davis, Andrea Vásquez, Felicia Wharton and Penny Lewis come to their positions with proven success as leaders and organizers for the current political moment – they bring intelligence, commitment and strategic sophistication. I wish them joy in the work.
And I thank the staff of the PSC, who work their hearts out every day for our members, and the principal officers who have served with me in PSC leadership: Steve London, Mike Fabricant, Cecelia McCall, John Hyland, Arthurine DeSola, and my sisterhood for the past term –Andrea Vásquez, Sharon Persinger and Nivedita Majumdar. Only they know how much I owe them.
Thank you, PSC members, for your generosity to me and each other, for your challenges, your criticisms and your hope. I’ll see you in the fight
A legacy of progress
In a series of five contracts for which Bowen was chief negotiator, PSC power increased salaries and benefits across the board, lifted pay for the lowest paid, added benefits and pay for part-time employees and introduced changes many had thought impossible to achieve at CUNY. Highlights of the union’s gains include:
• Salary increases for all titles
• Dramatic improvements in PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund benefits: vision, dental, prescription drug, and more
• A series of additional “equity raises” for lowest-paid titles, targeted at salary inequities of race and gender
• Sabbaticals at 80% pay
• Adjunct health insurance
• Establishment of graduate employee health insurance and tuition waivers
• Establishment of a professional development fund for HEOs and CLTs
• Professional development fund for adjuncts and Continuing Ed faculty
• Paid sick days for adjunct CLTs and non-teaching adjuncts
• Protection of Continuing Ed faculty
• Creation of hundreds of full-time positions reserved for current adjuncts
• Pay differentials for CLTs and Assistants to HEO with master’s and doctoral degrees
• Paid parental leave for all full-time staff and faculty—the first won by any public-sector union in New York
• A dramatic increase in adjunct faculty pay, including paid office hours
• Major gain in annual leave equity for full-time faculty librarians
• Restoration of annual leave days for Counselors
• HEO salary differentials and improvements in HEO reclassification
• 24 hours of reassigned time for untenured full-time faculty for research
• Professional Development Funds and Research Awards
• Teaching load reduction for full-time faculty by three hours