Clarion associate editor Shomial Ahmad sat down with PSC Vice President Mike Fabricant to talk about the importance of the union’s political strategy.
Q: The ability to settle a contract at CUNY is contingent on New York State and New York City agreeing to the contract terms and providing the funding for them to CUNY. In this most recent contract campaign, the PSC had a multipronged strategy that included campaigns on the campus level, citywide protests and civil disobedience, and lobbying and political action. How do the connections between the different actions work?
A: In order to promote change in this state, you have to have an “inside” and “outside” game, period. You cannot win changes simply by engaging with legislators and imagining that’s going to make the difference. And by going public alone – on the campuses and in the streets – you’re not going to be able to influence the elected officials who control budgetary purse strings. It’s got to be a combination. The idea has always been to maximize pressure on the outside while negotiating on the inside.
Frankly, the $240 million for contractual back pay for members would not have been gained without the dogged “inside” work of educating legislators – PSC members and allies meeting with them and sending letters – and the “outside” public and visible contract campaign. There was a point at which legislators in Albany basically said, “You’re never going to get it.” We achieved it. PSC also pushed back hard against the proposed $485 million state funding cut to be exacted against CUNY. PSC and CUNY Rising were the public face of opposition, and the union pressed legislators, from the city and upstate, to see the fallacies in the proposal.
Part of the “outside” game is not simply mobilizing PSC members. It’s also working with community and other groups who have a stake in this university, and working with students who, like our members, have a very large stake in the university.
Another part of the equation is public relations and media. How do we produce the kind of narrative, the kinds of stories that attract broad public attention? In the case of the proposed $485 million cut, the story had its own legs. Our job really was to maximize its visibility and continue to press the governor to reconsider the proposal.
The multipronged strategy also includes pressure on CUNY, internally, at the bargaining table and with the chancellery and college presidents, and externally, rallies, sit-ins, demonstrations at Board of Trustees’ meetings. A lot of what we won in the last round had to do with the back-and-forth between negotiation and external pressure. The union doesn’t win job security for part-time faculty without a lot of external pressure and a lot of internal negotiations. The same dynamic was true for winning improvements in HEO advancement and the teaching load reduction.
Q: With today’s political reality and ongoing budget austerity, it’s easy to lose sight of the gains that unions have made since it seems they are often on the defensive. But the PSC, through lobbying lawmakers and rank-and-file actions, has been able to secure gains from the state legislature, the city council and other local bodies. What are some of the most recent wins on this front?
A: First of all, there would have been no new substantial investment from the city without our political work in the 2013 Mayoral election. We were, with 1199SEIU, one of the two unions that came in early for De Blasio in the primary, when only 10 percent of the electorate was saying they would vote for him. The fact that we were one of the two unions that came in early meant something to him. We were clear on the importance to the city of a serious commitment to increased CUNY funding.
He has come through; he has committed about $150 million new dollars to the university over the course of the past three or four years. A large part of it’s been an investment in ASAP [Accelerated Study in Associate Programs] for students at community colleges to have the support they need to stay in college and graduate on time. And the city’s share of funding our last contract was never in question.
Simultaneously, the city has done their work on their version of maintenance of effort. They have supported year over year costs for the university in a way that the state has not. So that has made a significant difference, not only for the University but for our members and for students.
On the state level, I mentioned our recent victories earlier. We have also been able to push forward on an enhanced Maintenance of Effort provision. The State Senate and the Assembly passed it almost unanimously. But the Governor has to sign the bill for it to become law, and that is going to be a very steep climb. The PSC and our allies will have to mobilize all our influence and then some to get the Governor to see the importance of this provision to the state and its economy.
Q: The PSC and its affiliate unions, NYSUT at the state level and AFT on the national level, endorse political candidates in many prominent races. What’s the PSC’s role in the endorsement process?
A: PSC makes its own endorsements in local elections. The work begins with the union’s legislative committee, and everyone and anyone is welcome to committee meetings, interviews and the decision-making process when endorsements are recommended. All recommendations go to the union’s Executive Council, to the Executive Council, and to the Delegate Assembly in the case of citywide offices such as mayor. At the state and national level, the PSC cannot endorse unilaterally. So we will have a set of recommended candidates for state office, for example, approved by the Executive Council, that we bring to the statewide endorsement conference of our state affiliate, NYSUT. We will fight for those candidates, but the decision to endorse is not ours alone. Finally, the endorsement of national candidates, senators and congresspersons is the responsibility of AFT. We try to influence their process as well. For presidential candidates, the decision is made by the Executive Council of the AFT, and Barbara Bowen sits on that council, knows PSC’s positions and will lobby others on the EC to vote with us.
Q: Once you endorse a candidate, what does that mean for the union?
A: The union is on record, so the candidate will often use our endorsement to amplify his or her campaign along with other endorsements. The PSC Political Action Committee contributes money to some candidates for city elections. We may send some of our members to do canvassing on behalf of selected candidates or to phone bank through targeted lists we have of our members and their voting districts for City Council, and State Assembly and Senate.