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Home » A Letter From Barbara Bowen: A New Level of Resistance Starts Now

A Letter From Barbara Bowen: A New Level of Resistance Starts Now

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August 27, 2015

Dear PSC Members,

Today is the first day of the new academic year at most CUNY colleges, and I’m sure you are eager to hear whether there has been progress on the contract. The news is not good: after more than a year in office, Chancellor Milliken has failed to offer a single dollar for raises or back-pay. He appears to be content to allow the CUNY faculty and staff to go six years without a raise—while collecting a $670,000 salary himself. We have all been patient long enough. Starting on this first day of the new academic year, the union will accept no more excuses.

The union’s executive council has spent the summer building alliances and developing a plan to create enough pressure to force a resolution on our contract. At the same time, the PSC has been pressing the Cuomo Administration to provide the necessary funding. We have planned an escalating series of actions that begins with emergency campus meetings, includes a demonstration at Milliken’s apartment, and builds toward a mass public disruption later in the fall. If the contract is still not resolved, we are prepared to escalate further. Members will also have the opportunity to participate in training sessions on disruptive protest tactics and militant picket lines. Sign up here to let us know that you want to be part of the campaign for your contract.

We plan a systematic escalation of pressure so that Milliken, the CUNY Board of Trustees and others will feel the urgency we are feeling after six years without a raise. The campaign starts this week with emergency union meetings on campus; check here for the date at your college. On the morning of Thursday, October 1, the day of the first CUNY Board meeting of the year, PSC members and allies will deliver a “wake-up call” to Chancellor Milliken at his Manhattan apartment, where CUNY pays his rent—of $19,500 a month. We take the campaign to the classroom from October 19 to October 30, enriching the curriculum and teaching in public about the relation between our contract and the quality of education at CUNY. If the contract is still not resolved by November, we will engage in a disruptive mass action on Wednesday, November 4. And we will hold a mass meeting on Thursday, November 19 to assess progress and plan next steps, escalating further if needed.

The plan will work only if all of us are behind it. This is a fight for your own contract—your salary, your teaching load, your job security, your respect on the job. I am writing to ask you to make a commitment today to be part of that fight, even if you have never participated in a union action before. Join the hundreds of your colleagues who have already taken a stand against the erosion of our living conditions and the stealth attack on our students through the failure to resolve our contract. Click here to let us know that your colleagues can count on you.

The PSC made a serious salary proposal in May. We have held six full bargaining sessions and a dozen smaller negotiating meetings since then, and have yet to receive anything more than a statement that our reasonable proposal for raises was overly ambitious. Meanwhile, New York State has so far failed to provide funding for retroactive pay or assure support for future increases. Contract negotiations continue, as do discussions with the Governor and his staff. After the union’s demonstration last spring demanding movement on our demands, CUNY management began to make meaningful progress at the bargaining table on some of the union’s non-economic demands. But even on these issues, CUNY needs to reach agreement. In the context of a complete failure to produce decent salaries, there is no excuse for management’s unwillingness to accede to reasonable faculty and staff demands that do not involve money. The main issue, however, remains the economics. Six years without a raise is unconscionable. There is simply no excuse.

There is plenty of money in New York State and New York City to fund a good contract for the PSC; the local economy is expanding, and both City and State have budget surpluses. If Chancellor Milliken wants to separate himself from the economic austerity agenda that is behind New York State’s failure to fund our contract, then he will have to do what it takes to produce a decent economic offer, whether that means more effective advocacy with the State or a reduction of the management payroll and a reallocation of CUNY’s budget reserves. Milliken has repeatedly claimed that a new contract and higher salaries are his priority. If raising salaries is your priority, you find a way to do it.

Faculty and Staff under Attack
At this point, with nearly all other public-employee contracts in the state settled, the failure to make an economic offer on the contracts for CUNY workers (those in the PSC and several other unions) has to be understood as an attack on us as CUNY employees.

The attack is part of an austerity agenda being fiercely pursued around the globe, and evident in New York State’s approach under Governor Cuomo to public employee contracts. With the support of scores of legislators the PSC led a vigorous campaign for legislation to stabilize annual State funding for CUNY and SUNY. The maintenance-of-effort legislation was passed last spring, and we are hopeful that Governor Cuomo will signal a new direction by signing it. Meanwhile, the City of New York has indicated that it is prepared to provide funding for its share of our contract at a level commensurate with the funding provided to other City unions. While recent City contracts have provided lower settlements than CUNY faculty and staff need, they have included raises and, in some cases, back-pay. Most of CUNY’s public funding, however, comes from the State, as New York State has financial responsibility for the four-year colleges. The biggest hurdle to our contract funding remains the State.

We are under attack through our contract because CUNY students and their communities are under attack. More than half of CUNY undergraduates have family incomes of less than $30,000. Three-quarters are Latino, Black or Asian. For hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in an economy that offers few other chances or protections, CUNY represents the only viable route out of permanent poverty. It offers a shot at a stable life—a fulfilling life—in a period of relentless downward pressure on working people and people of color in particular. For all its flaws and contradictions, CUNY remains one of New York’s most powerful mechanisms for redistributing wealth more equitably.

That’s why CUNY faculty and staff have been singled out: austerity politics, planned disinvestment in people of color—and the failure of Chancellor Milliken and the CUNY Board to mount a successful challenge to either.

Students under Attack
Without a new contract and decent salaries, the quality of education at CUNY is put at risk. As a member of the faculty and staff, you do not need to be told how CUNY’s failure to produce a fair economic offer harms the quality of education. All of us working on the ground at CUNY feel it every day. Departments are struggling to recruit and retain the faculty they need; staff workloads interfere with the ability to assist individual students; students receive less attention from their professors when professors have to live hours away in order to afford housing; academic continuity for students is lost when adjuncts have no guarantee of appointment even after twenty years in one department.

The Pathways curriculum has already imposed educational austerity on CUNY students; now educational austerity is being deepened by management’s failure on the contract. Our demand for economic justice for ourselves is inseparable from the demand for educational justice for CUNY students.

We Are Not Alone
That’s why the union’s plan to force a fair resolution of our contract involves expanding our struggle. We aim to involve all those who have an authentic stake in what CUNY means. As the semester develops, you will see—and, I hope, be part of—an increasingly public fight, with more media presence, a larger circle of allies, and escalating actions.

We have the power to succeed because we are not alone. Like professors at the University of Wisconsin battling Governor Walker’s austerity agenda, or teachers in Chicago who went on strike to defend their public schools against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s school closings, we are facing a tough fight. But as we have learned from Chicago and Wisconsin, our best chance for prevailing is to show that the demand for decent conditions and salaries for teachers is a fight for more than ourselves. It’s a fight for the meaning of public education, for the people of the whole city and state.

But it starts with us. Allies will join us if they see us wholly engaged in the fight. It is a fight for our own professional lives. Sign up here to signal your commitment. Everything starts at the emergency union meeting on your campus, where we will begin to organize ourselves, department by department and office by office, for the campaign ahead.

Organize we must if we want anything other than continued stalling by Milliken and the CUNY Board. Six years is appalling, inexcusable. CUNY’s excuses must stop now. And we can make that happen.

In solidarity,
Barbara Bowen
President, PSC

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Protest at the May 20 BoT Meeting