As dozens of students and PSC members marched though the cafeteria in Boylan Hall at Brooklyn College on March 1, the message echoing off the walls was clear: “No!” to tuition increases, and “Yes!” to a new, just contract for faculty and staff.
“We find that when we speak to students, it’s very clear there are shared budget struggles,” said PSC Chapter Chair James Davis, a professor of English and department chair.
With the PSC openly discussing a strike authorization vote, chapters are reaching out to students to build student solidarity, mainly on grounds that the lack of pay increases for faculty and other CUNY employees is intertwined with threats to quality education and rising costs borne by students. Both stem from the steady trend of state disinvestment in CUNY, which has continued under the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In his most recent executive budget, Cuomo cut $485 million from the state’s allocation to CUNY for senior college funding, calling for the cost to be shifted onto the city. The budget is set to be finalized by April 1, if not before, and the PSC and its allies are prevailing upon legislators to increase — not decrease — the state’s funding of CUNY, which has declined 17 percent in real dollars per full-time-equivalent student at CUNY’s senior colleges since 2008. Linked to the reduced state allocation is a set-aside of $240 million for back pay once contracts are settled — the PSC contract expired in 2010; others in 2009 — that is still not enough to cover the six years of missed raises endured by all CUNY employees.
“It’s self-imposed austerity politics” by the governor, explained sociologist Alex Vitale, the PSC vice president for senior colleges. “He is a neoliberal, austerity politician. His campaign was backed by hedge funds. He’s doing their bidding.”
But in that problem, Vitale saw leverage. Politically, Cuomo paints himself as both a fiscal conservative and social progressive whose power rests in the ability to properly manage the state government. Further, almost the entirety of his political support comes from downstate.
Faculty and staff taking action against Cuomo’s austerity plan CUNY-wide would sully his image as an effective manager, Vitale says, as well as stir up discontent against him downstate where he needs to maintain support. And pitting himself against the city’s public college system ruins any message that says he’s a socially conscious progressive.
While student turnout for the march suggested a good start toward forming alliances, members realize that building solidarity with students is a difficult task. As their classmates participated in the action, many others simply took photos of it with their phones.
Davis noted that in the PSC’s outreach to students, it is critical to explain how labor conditions for faculty and staff affect learning conditions. For example, he said, the lack of a contract settlement combined with the general cuts have made it hard for the entire CUNY system to attract and retain top academic talent.
“We’re losing good people, and not getting them in the first place,” he said.
“We need more support, we need to go into the classes,” said Zee Diallo, a second-year student majoring in television and radio, who participated in the march. “We need 30,000 people.”
Davis said it was imperative to keep organizing as the state goes through its budget planning process, which he admitted was deeply affected by the constant fighting between Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“We’re refusing to be pawns in a chess game,” Davis said, before adding that chess was more sophisticated than the current fight between the executives of city and state. “It’s a petty, schoolyard squabble.”