A major union grievance
One of CUNY’s most devastating and inhumane austerity actions in response to the COVID-19 crisis was the decision not to reappoint thousands of part-time instructors and staff. The layoffs are particularly inhumane because they affect CUNY’s most precarious and low-paid workers.
As part of a campaign that has included federal litigation, street demonstrations, congressional pressure and campus protests, the union is fighting back with two class-action grievances. One is on behalf of all adjunct faculty who were eligible for three-year appointments and were improperly denied. The other is on behalf of adjuncts who were eligible for semester-long or one-year appointments and were improperly denied. Adjuncts in the middle of a three-year appointment were protected by the contractual provisions the union negotiated.
The Step 2 hearing for the three-year appointment grievance was held in two sessions this fall; the Step 2 hearing on the other grievance will be held on November 19. In the first hearing, held in September, the union argued that administrations at several colleges bypassed the recommendations of departmental personnel and budget committees that the adjuncts should be given three-year appointments. Medgar Evers College and Bronx Community College were responsible for the largest number of three-year appointment denials.
HEARTLESS JOB CUTS
A PSC summary of the case stated, “The decision by the university to not only allow but tacitly encourage the layoff of almost 3,000 adjunct faculty in the midst of a pandemic is one of the most egregious acts taken by an institution that has become more corporatized with every passing year. A significant number of those were adjuncts eligible for a three-year appointment, though we don’t know exactly how many because CUNY is obstructing our request for that data.”
The union summary went on to say that their primary concern was “that colleges failed to conduct the comprehensive review of both performance and programmatic and fiscal needs required by the contract and upheld in two critical arbitrations won by the PSC. In some cases they instructed departments to lay off adjuncts without review, in others they disregarded the department recommendations and non-reappointed adjuncts on arbitrary and unfounded bases.”
Franky Laude, an adjunct assistant professor in communications on a three-year appointment at Medgar Evers College, has been an adjunct since Fall 2009. He testified that he had no expectation of not being renewed when he became eligible for a second three-year appointment this fall.
When asked how the loss of his job at CUNY affected him, he said, “I’m most concerned about health insurance in the middle of a pandemic. This especially concerns me as a person of color. In New York, black people are twice as likely as white people to die from the coronavirus; this statistic is available from nyc.gov. I’ve had black friends and family and students who’ve had the virus and a few who died. The question goes through my mind: ‘What if I have no insurance and I get COVID?’”
Howard Pflanzer, an adjunct associate professor of English at BCC, also received an unexpected non-reappointment decision.
“I had a lot of indications that I would [be reappointed],” he said. “My observations have been very good. My student evaluations are strong, with some glowing. I was assigned two courses for Fall 2020, as usual. The [department] chair told me that the committee approved me. I was shocked to receive a non-reappointment letter from CUNY Central. So were all of my part-time colleagues in my department.”
Pflanzer added, “I have a crucial loss of income, which affects what I am able to do in life. I applied for an emergency arts grant. I lost my health insurance. I don’t want to go onto Medicare; it’s going to cost me thousands of dollars. I had once looked at COBRA, and would hate to spend more. The CUNY health insurance is very good.”
Tamar Rothenberg, the chair of the history department at BCC, testified, “The administration did not provide the chairs with the information…about the total numbers of reappointed and non-reappointed adjuncts until after we found out through other channels. My department, for example, knew earlier than some and fared better than many, with all of the adjuncts we recommended (which was 100%) receiving reappointment letters for the three-year appointment.”
The union presented documents and testimony noting that Medgar Evers administration’s decision to issue non-reappointment letters went against the college’s own governance plan.
In fact, Professor Jean Michelet Jean-Michel, the chair of the mathematics department at Medgar Evers, said that his department had gone forward with a staffing plan on the assumption that three-year appointments would be issued to those who were up for renewal.
“My department only has about 15 full-time faculty members,” he testified. “As of [this month], we had 40 sections of intermediate algebra and trigonometry on the schedule, almost all of which are taught by adjunct faculty. Even if we are forced to offer half that number of sections in the future, we would still need our three-year adjuncts. Their years of experience dealing with the student population that we have in courses like intermediate algebra make them indispensable to the department.”
Jean-Michel said the administration’s decision to cancel work for four of his department’s adjuncts has been hard. “We’re scrambling,” he said. “These are tried-and-true adjuncts. How do we find not only the right fit for our college and student population, but someone already seasoned enough at online teaching in college math?”
WEAK ADMIN RESPONSE
In the continuation of the hearing on October 19, CUNY management responded to the union’s case. Susan Fiore, labor designee and assistant legal counsel at Bronx Community College, said that the non-reappointments were made in response to projections that the COVID-19 pandemic would continue a three-year decline in enrollment.
“This was an academic judgment of the [BCC] president in light of his responsibility to maintain the viability of the college,” Fiore said.
PSC Grievance Counselor Carol Rial, who represented the union in the grievance against the College, responded that the administration’s case for the mass layoff of part-time instructors showed a “lack of concentrated analysis of not only department but individual adjuncts.” She added that departments were forced to impose a “feast-or-famine approach” to reappointments, or as PSC Treasurer Sharon Persinger observed, adjuncts were reappointed on an “all-or-nothing basis.”
Rial asked, “We’re not hearing about the individual analyses that are required under the contract.”
Rial also questioned why the university had only responded to the case about non-reappointments at BCC and not at Medgar Evers. The union had previously submitted several pieces of testimony and evidence regarding mass layoffs at the Brooklyn campus.
Jerry Rothman, CUNY’s executive director of instructional staff labor relations, responded that the BCC statement “mirrors the pressures that other colleges were facing.”
Worse, CUNY didn’t even respond to the union’s case that administration had ignored basic protocol and personnel and budget committee decisions.
Renée Lasher, PSC’s director of contract administration, told Clarion, “The response from CUNY was insulting and dismissive. They refused to respond to the PSC’s presentation about the extraordinary disregard for and violations of the contract and the negative impact it had in specific departments as well as the grave human cost for affected adjuncts, and instead responded with a story about a BCC dean who ran models on imagined projected enrollment declines and a president who made arbitrary decisions based on that modeling.”
THE FIGHT AHEAD
The odds, at this stage, are stacked against the union. The hearing officer who will decide the case answers directly to the CUNY administration and, thus, is not an unbiased arbiter. But there is a road ahead for victory. All of the information that the union has presented can be used, ultimately, to win a just decision for laid-off part-time instructors.
The union expects to fight the layoffs on all fronts. Rosa Squillacote, the union’s vice president of part-time personnel, told Clarion, “Adjuncts regularly experience an extraordinary amount of precarity in their employment. The PSC’s hard-won right to a three-year contract for adjuncts offered a buffer against that precarity. By targeting adjuncts with three-year appointments for layoffs, CUNY is exposing how little regard it has for the union, and for the part-time workers who make CUNY what it is.”