Something unprecedented happened at CUNY this fall. The central administration, under intense pressure from the union, shifted a position it has held since 1986 and accepted that the cost of health insurance for eligible adjuncts instruction should be a normal part of the University’s budget. That was only the first step in the process of achieving permanent health insurance for adjuncts who teach multiple CUNY courses, but it’s the step without which nothing else is possible.
Another seismic shift, less welcome, is the implementation of Chancellor Goldstein’s “Pathways” resolution, which ushers in the most profound change in the University’s curriculum in decades – and totally bypasses the governance role of elected faculty bodies. This management-driven initiative on General Education is a defining moment in both the meaning of a CUNY degree and the concentration of power in the central administration. The union has taken a strong position in response: we are preparing to litigate the violation of the Bylaws.
But the biggest shift in terrain came from an unexpected place. Occupy Wall Street brilliantly focused national and world attention on economic inequality by naming Wall Street as its source. Organized at a moment when income inequality in the U.S. is greater than at any time since the eve of the Depression – and in the city and state with the most extreme inequality in the nation – Occupy Wall Street has opened new political space. A successful effort to prevent New York from giving a scheduled tax break to millionaires now appears possible, as does resistance to the imposition of further austerity on “the 99%.”
It is in this changed – and changing – political landscape that we are negotiating our contract.
By way of a quick review: the PSC’s most recent contract expired a year ago, in October 2010. Since then, however, we have been working under the full protection of that contract, because of the terms of the 1982 Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which governs public-sector union negotiations in New York State. Even during the Great Recession, we have continued to benefit from the substantial gains of our most recent contract, and those of us eligible for annual salary increases continue to move up in steps each January. (That’s one of many reasons we fought so hard in the last round to maintain the salary steps.)
What does not occur until a new contract is negotiated, of course, is any across-the-board raise or other economic advance. Costs are rising, conditions at CUNY are becoming even more pressured as enrollment rises; there is urgency on our side. But if contract negotiations are about power, they are also about timing. The job of the union bargaining team is to be responsive to members’ sense of urgency while also being smart about the political conditions in which we bargain – and how those conditions can be changed.
The PSC is fully prepared to negotiate and campaign for our demands. Our priorities are unchanged: salary increases; a more manageable teaching load; promotional opportunities for higher education officers; and significant progress toward fair salaries, benefits and job security for adjuncts. One priority, adjunct health insurance, was brought to crisis by CUNY’s historical underfunding of the benefit, but we have already begun to make progress on it by gaining CUNY’s agreement to seek funding from the State.
The union bargaining team has also advanced in other areas, through informal and productive talks with University management. We have reached an agreement in principle to extend paid parental leave, which had been set to expire on December 31 of this year. We have also signed agreements with CUNY about improvements in the way salary is paid to new employees, and have begun discussions of further improvements to the PSC-CUNY Awards. These are real gains, but we still have not had an economic offer from CUNY and economic bargaining has not begun.
Why not? In other rounds of bargaining, when economic offers had been made to other public-employee unions but not to us, the PSC campaigned aggressively for CUNY to put an offer on the table. This round is different. Contract offers have been made by the City and State to other public-sector unions, but the “offers” consist largely of wage freezes and concessions – sometimes enforced through the threat of layoffs. Both New York City and New York State, which jointly provide the funding for PSC contract settlements, have declared budget deficits and, to various degrees, are using the framework of austerity to make deep slashes in the pay and working conditions of their workforces. It’s the “disaster capitalism” Naomi Klein describes: create a crisis and use it to ram through anti-worker, anti-middle-class policies.
The State and City deficits are real, but they are caused by political policies that have led to inadequate revenues. In the climate for collective bargaining the policies have created, we have not demanded an immediate contract offer. The PSC is in one of the most complex bargaining positions of any union in the state, because our contract must be funded by both the City and the State. Thus it involves approval by the mayor as well as the governor. In addition, because of the expiration date of our last contract, the PSC (like the United Federation of Teachers and a few other unions) should receive an increase that was received by most public-sector unions in New York City for 2010.
But the bargaining team is not just waiting, or asking you to wait. While we continue informal talks with CUNY on contract issues, we are also part of the union’s larger campaign to contest the policies of “disaster capitalism.” The PSC is a leading force in the effort to prevent New York from giving a tax break to millionaires, a change that would transform the budget from deficit to surplus.
The best way to campaign for our contract is to campaign for a change in economic policy. I believe we may have a chance we have not had in a long time to change at least our corner of the political and economic landscape. While we stand ready to force movement at the bargaining table, we will also work toward a movement that would shift the ground on which the table stands.