This special section of Clarion is dedicated to the union’s campaign to prevent the loss of health insurance for CUNY adjuncts. The campaign may be the most important the PSC has waged in a generation. The urgent and irreducible issue, of course, is access to health care for hundreds of our colleagues. But the stakes are high for all of us, whether we are full professors, retirees, higher education officers or assistant professors just starting a career at CUNY.
Across the country unions and public employees are coming under fierce, ideological attack and seeing their salaries and benefits gouged. The PSC must send the message that a concession such as the loss of health insurance is unacceptable – whether for any of us or all of us. As members of an academic community we should also demand that our university stand for something other than exploitation of its most vulnerable workers.
In late August, the 1,700 adjuncts who currently receive health insurance through CUNY – generally the adjuncts who have taught most and taught longest – received a letter informing them that unless an alternative source of funding or additional funds are made available, their health insurance will be discontinued one year from now.
The news was obviously catastrophic for those who received it. In a country still without universal health care, loss of health insurance can be literally a matter of life and death. But even those of us not directly affected should be stirred to action. If CUNY goes unchallenged when it allows health insurance for any of its employees to fail, the University will be “emboldened,” as Distinguished Professor Rosalind Petchesky remarks in this section, “to compromise the rights of full-time workers.” One look at the massive concessions for public employees in New Jersey, Ohio and New York in the last few months tells us that this is not an idle threat. New York’s largest statewide union, squeezed by Governor Cuomo’s threat to lay off thousands of its members, just ratified a contract that increases the cost of health care and actually reduces salaries because of furloughs.
Brooklyn College adjunct Brian Pickett, also quoted in this special section, makes a key point: “It’s important to understand how the potential loss of adjunct health care coverage at CUNY fits into a broader climate of austerity measures being enacted around the country.”
The campaign to save adjunct health insurance is the PSC’s anti-austerity campaign, a continuation of the union’s intense battle last spring against budget cuts to CUNY and our ongoing fight for a fair contract. Contract negotiations in this round have moved slowly – a result of the difficulty of both State and City budgets. The union’s contract priorities, however, remain unchanged, including increased salaries, reasonable teaching loads, promotion for professional staff, and adjunct job security. But given the economic climate, the PSC has approached negotiations largely through informal talks and discussion of non-economic issues. It’s the approach that makes most sense right now, and it has allowed us to make some real progress.
The issue of adjunct health insurance, however, cannot wait. Hundreds of our colleagues face losing a life-sustaining benefit, and the countdown to the date for the potential end of health insurance next August has already begun. We have one year to engage CUNY in finding a solution. If the union can prevail in this tough campaign we will emerge much stronger for every other issue that faces us, including our contract fight. Taking a stand against concessions may be less glamorous than fighting to break new ground, but it is at least as important, now and historically. As students of history we should not be surprised that the threat of concessions comes first to our lowest-paid colleagues and those with the least job security.
CUNY has put adjunct health insurance at risk by dramatically increasing its use of adjuncts while refusing to increase the funding it provides for their insurance. Since 2000, the number of adjuncts teaching at CUNY has nearly doubled, rising from 6,258 in Spring 2000 to 11,450 in Spring 2011. The number of full-time faculty has also increased over that period, but far less quickly than the number of adjuncts. Adjuncts now teach a larger share of CUNY courses than they did five years ago – they now teach more than half.
CUNY FALLS SHORT
At the same time that CUNY has increased the number of adjuncts, the cost of their health insurance has skyrocketed from $3,264 per person per year in 2002 to $8,061 per person in 2011. With both the number of participants and the cost of insurance exploding, the total cost of health insurance for CUNY adjuncts is now four times what it cost in 2002.
Yet CUNY has refused since 2003 to change its contractual contribution for adjunct health care. The University provides an unchanging $2.8 million annually for adjunct health insurance – regardless of the number of adjuncts participating or the cost of the insurance itself. That makes no sense, economically or ethically. Health insurance for the small portion of adjuncts who qualify is now shamefully underfunded: CUNY’s contribution covers only 20% of the cost.
That’s why the Welfare Fund, through which adjunct health insurance is provided, made the painful decision that adjunct health insurance cannot be sustained with CUNY’s current level of funding. Because the PSC and the Welfare Fund, on whose Board the PSC has the majority appointment, have a commitment to maintaining adjunct health insurance, the Welfare Fund has done everything it can to stretch existing funds, cut costs and keep the benefit afloat. But with an 80% gap in funding and shrinking reserves with which to cover it, the Welfare Fund had no choice but to decide as it did.
CUNY officials will argue that the University has met its contractual obligation for funding of adjunct health insurance. That’s true. But what’s also true is that CUNY has absolutely refused to change the contract to match the reality of the University’s use of part-time labor.
The PSC has bargained aggressively on this issue, demanding in every round of contract negotiations that CUNY change the structure of adjunct health insurance funding. CUNY has steadfastly refused, and agreed only to temporary infusions of funds or partial fixes. But with the current intense pressure on the cost of the benefit, the temporary measures and infusions of funds are no longer enough.
The only solution is the simple solution: treat adjuncts, especially those who contribute most to the work of the University, like the core part of the faculty they are. Provide health insurance for eligible adjuncts on the same basis that health insurance is provided for full-timers. That’s what’s done at SUNY, where adjuncts who meet eligibility requirements much like ours receive the same health coverage as their full-time colleagues. The University may believe its own PR and think of CUNY as an institution populated only by star senior faculty, but the truth is that there would be no CUNY without adjuncts. Distinguished Professor of Finance Terry Martell, who also writes in this special Clarion section, comments, “We have seen part-time faculty become a central part of the University’s teaching resources.”
ADJUNCTS ARE FACULTY
CUNY’s willingness to use adjuncts to do most of the University’s teaching and unwillingness to treat adjuncts like faculty is the real problem. The threat of losing adjunct health insurance is only a symptom. But it is a life-threatening one.
I believe the PSC can move CUNY to solve this issue, and we must. Few of us could look our adjunct colleagues in the face a year from now and know that we did not do all we could to save their health insurance. The campaign has already begun. Become part of it by joining me in a show of support at the CUNY Board of Trustees meeting on September 26. It’s the right thing to do—and the life we save may be our own.
RELATED COVERAGE: FAQs on Adjunct Health Insurance, The Adjunct Health Care Crisis: A Welfare Fund Trustee’s Perspective, Save Adjunct Health Care, Views on the Crisis: PSC Members Speak Out and What You Can Do