Letter from Barbara Bowen to PSC membership

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Dear Colleague,

I am writing about difficult news for CUNY’s adjuncts and about a campaign that will take all of us to win.

What’s at stake
Adjunct health insurance has been put at risk by CUNY’s failure to provide adequate funding for the benefit and its past refusal to engage seriously with the union to achieve an alternative source of adjunct health insurance. Last Friday, 1,700 adjuncts were sent a letter by the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund informing them that unless an alternative source of adjunct health insurance or adequate funding is made available, their health insurance will be discontinued one year from now.

Obviously, the news of potential loss of health insurance is devastating. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the hundreds of adjuncts directly affected. But they are high for all of us.

CUNY depends on adjunct labor: more than half of CUNY’s courses are taught by adjuncts. Yet the University fails in the employer’s basic responsibility of providing adequate funding for health insurance for eligible adjuncts. The question raised by the crisis in adjunct health insurance is whether we—as colleagues, as union members, as participants in an academic community—can allow the university for which we work not to provide this basic support for a core part of its workforce. (The adjuncts who receive health insurance through the Welfare Fund are generally those who have taught longest and teach most.) At stake in the issue of adjunct health insurance is what kind of employer CUNY is, and what kind of university.

As a union, we cannot allow adjunct health insurance to end. The PSC is prepared to use every resource at our disposal to find a resolution that protects the health insurance benefit. I believe it’s a campaign we must win, and can win. The union leadership has made it clear that we are willing, and eager, to work with the University to achieve a solution—as we have been for eleven years.

Slow-motion austerity
All around us we see corporations and state governments attempting to weaken job protections and benefits for workers, starting with the most vulnerable. That process has been going on in slow motion at CUNY for years. This is a campaign to stop it. When we stand up for adjunct health insurance, we are standing up for ourselves. “This is our Wisconsin,” one tenured professor commented. He’s right: the fight for adjunct health insurance is a fight against further economic austerity at CUNY. Winning it will make us stronger for the other anti-austerity battles we are likely to face, especially around the contract.

Take the first step and show that you oppose the further erosion of working conditions at CUNY; send the union’s letter to Chancellor Goldstein and Chairperson Schmidt, and sign the petition demanding that CUNY fulfill its basic responsibility to those it employs.

CUNY’s responsibility
How did the crisis develop? Under the contract, adjuncts’ basic health insurance is provided through the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund and is funded by CUNY. Health insurance for full-timers and retirees is provided through the New York City Health Benefits Program. CUNY’s funding for adjunct health insurance falls dramatically short of the actual cost, and has for many years.

Since 2002, the University’s contribution for adjunct health insurance has remained unchanged. Yet CUNY continues to expand its reliance on adjunct labor, with the predictable result that the number of adjuncts eligible for health insurance has increased. The cost of health insurance itself has also skyrocketed, especially in recent years. As a result, the total cost of adjunct health insurance today is four times its cost nine years ago. In 2002, CUNY’s contribution covered 80% of the total cost. Now the portion CUNY covers is only 20%.

Despite the underfunding, the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund and the union have been committed to sustaining adjunct health insurance, because it was the right thing to do. When the funding gap was smaller, the Welfare Fund was able to manage it through a combination of administrative efficiencies, restructuring adjunct health insurance and other benefits, and drawing on the Fund’s reserves. Now, however, the deficit caused by the underfunding of adjunct health insurance threatens to overwhelm the Fund’s entire financial reserve. Restructuring benefits and other stop-gap measures are no longer enough. (The union’s website provides additional information and responses to questions.)

The problem is structural, and the solution must be structural. Adjuncts who qualify for health insurance should be placed on the same health plan as full-time employees. At SUNY, adjuncts who meet eligibility criteria very similar to ours at CUNY receive health insurance on the same basis as full-time SUNY faculty and staff. A similar provision exists for other New York City employees who work half-time or more. The same could be true at CUNY.

A campaign we can win
The union is committed to solving the problem this year. As the crisis in adjunct health insurance funding became apparent, we met with the CUNY administration and urged them to work with the union for a permanent solution. The PSC leadership would welcome an opportunity to work with CUNY on a plan for stable and lasting coverage. But with 1,700 colleagues in danger of losing their health insurance, the union must also use its collective force. We must make CUNY hear our demand—loud and clear and often—for a permanent, equitable plan for adjunct health insurance. It will take everyone’s commitment to win this campaign.

What can you do to show your support? First, if you are a full-time faculty or staff member, talk to the adjuncts you work with and assure them that you will stand up for them. And right now, send the union’s letter to CUNY demanding that adjunct health insurance be permanently funded. Then join us on Monday, September 26, at the first Board of Trustees’ Meeting of the year, as we voice our demand. It is especially important that those of us whose health insurance is not at risk be there in common cause.

I think we all know how devastating it would be to our adjunct colleagues, many of whom have taught side-by-side with us for years, to lose their health insurance. And it would be terrible for the University community to experience this injustice.

I believe the union can rise to this occasion. I am writing to ask you to be part of what may be a historic campaign. As a union, we have shown that we can make profound changes in the university where we work, and few changes would be more far-reaching than this one.

In solidarity,
Barbara Bowen
President, PSC