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PSC Leadership Receives Criticism for Proposed Contract

Barbara Bowen speaking at a Delegate Assembly meeting
Photo by $7k or Strike

Earlier this month PSC union members began voting on a controversial new contract proposal. The union leadership lauds this contract as historic winning raises across the board with the largest raises going to adjuncts. “We wanted an equity contract which fought austerity in as many ways as it could and lifted the bottom,” said PSC First Vice President Andrea Vasquez at a Hunter Delegate Assembly meeting.

By 2022, entry level adjuncts will be paid $5,500 per course, a 71% increase from the current pay of $3,200 if the contract is ratified by the union members. Currently, the Modern Language Association’s standard for adjunct pay is $11,100.

This contract didn’t achieve the ambitious goal of $7,000 per course set out by $7k or Strike activists. For some adjuncts, $5,500 by 2022 just isn’t enough. “If this contract goes through I might have to quit because I can’t afford to be paid this much,” said Casandra Murray, an adjunct at Hunter College in the English department.

In the new contract, the lowest paid adjunct with a full course load will make a little more than half what the lowest paid full-timer makes. This contract still maintains the two-tier system of faculty labor because of this pay disparity. “We are not saying we dismantled the structure of adjunct exploitation,” said PSC Secretary Nivetida Majumdar. “Far from it, but we made a big dent.”

The union leadership received a lot of criticism for stopping at $5,500 and not achieving the goal of $7k. “In 3 years, we will be up to $5,500 which is not a living wage in New York City,” said Sandor John, an adjunct in Hunter’s History department. “Even though the $7k initiative was innovative, the contract campaign was routine.” 

Some members blame the leadership’s mobilization strategy for coming up short from the bargaining table. John says the routine bargaining strategy with routine demonstrations and disruption isn’t enough to close the gap in the two-tier system. 

“I think the strategy is one that is not militant or confrontational enough to win a living wage or the beginnings of structural shift for how employment at CUNY is done,” said Andy Battle, a doctoral graduate in US and New York City history and former adjunct at Hunter College. Part of the goal to eliminate the two-tier system is to incentive CUNY administration to hire more full-time and tenure track faculty. “I think that the contract that we got is the best that can be achieved with a strategy of advocacy. It was moral pressure, requests, and shows of symbolic power but not ones that had actual stakes,” said Battle. Battle explains advocacy and lobbying tactics aren’t nearly as effective as organised labor’s ultimate weapon, a strike. 

The Climate of Organized Labor

Chicago Teachers on Strike
Photo by Charles Edward Miller via Creative Commons

Since 2018, the teacher’s strikes in seven states led to budget increases for schools and pay raises for faculty and support staff. The bargaining team confirmed that these struggles in other states played an important role in winning the raises in this contract. “The credibility we had when we first talked to the Governor’s office the new CUNY Chancellor and the City Mayor’s office was in part by the other teachers who had been on strike in Chicago, L.A., West Virginia, Oklahoma and elsewhere,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen at a recent panel on austerity contracts at the Grad Center. 

Compared to the contract the CUNY bargaining team won, the victories in these states are relatively meager. “Look at what has been won in other strikes: 6.5% over three years, 6%, 9%. We got to a contract with an average of a 45% increase for adjuncts without a strike,” said Bowen. “If we had not gotten above CUNY’s initial offer we would have prepared to strike.” 

Despite the raise’s large margins, the contract still doesn’t address the exploitation of adjunct labor in the two-tier system and some professors wish a larger struggle was mobilized. When the Delegate Assembly was voting to recommend this contract to be ratified by the whole union, delegate Marc Kagan needed to illustrate the unions failure to give an alternative to a “yes” vote. “I did vote ‘no’ but simultaneously I expressed my frustration that I didn’t think there was a plan in place if we voted no,” said Kagan, a Ph.d candidate at the Grad Center and adjunct at Lehman College. “The union had not taken the steps that would be necessary to wage a successful strike.” Last bargaining session, 92% of union members authorized a strike but no such mobilization happened in this round of bargaining.

Strikes in New York

TWU on Strike
Photo by Sander Koyfman via Creative Commons

But, even a mobilized strike poses a serious threat to the PSC because of the repressive labor laws in New York. “I just don’t think we have the power,” said Delegate Jackie DiSalvo, retiree from Baruch College. “Fourteen years ago, the transit workers had the power to shut down the whole city and they lost because of the Taylor Law.” The 2005 transit workers strike is the most recent precedent of workers in the public sector striking. Under the Taylor Law, public employees are fined for every day they strike and the union leadership risks arrest. 

TWU was fined $1 million for every day they were on strike, the union president was put in jail, and union could no longer collect dues out of paychecks. “You can’t substitute what’s desirable for what’s possible,” said DiSalvo. “We have to figure out how we can get away with breaking the Taylor Law.” Although TWU was charged considerable fines, the union did win its contract. 

The TWU fended off the efforts of the MTA which hurt retirees and employees who would have to spend 2% of their salary on healthcare. “They defeated those efforts and emerged with a better contract than they would have without striking,” said Delegate Josh Freeman, distinguished professor at the Graduate Center and Queens College and expert in US labor history. “On the other hand, they paid a penalty both individual workers who went on strike and the union. I don’t think there’s some simple answer victory or defeat but in my view it did represent a gain.” Freeman explained that it’s difficult to compare the two unions because transit workers would have a bigger impact than college professors. 

The victories of teachers around the country still can’t be ignored. Last month, Chicago teachers were on strike for eleven days and won over $500 million from the city which said that, “there is simply no more money.”  

“I think we’re in a unique political moment with teachers strikes happening across the country with presidential candidates falling all over themselves to be most progressive,” said Tom Watters, an adjunct professor in English at Brooklyn College and $7k or Strike activist. “I don’t think you piss this moment away.” 

$7k or Strike activists campaigned on a “Vote No” platform because the $7k demand wasn’t met. Their strategy is to begin mobilizing for a strike once leadership has to restart negotiations, but a contract has never been voted down by the whole union. It’s unlikely that this contract will be any different according to Professor Freeman, but there are some who don’t see a decision for a strike hinge upon a “no” vote. 

Albany’s Influence

Governor Andrew Cuomo
Photo by azipaybarah via Creative Commons

“The biggest issue for me is whether this union understands this contract as a stepping stone to broaden the fight both for adjuncts to get more money but also to place CUNY at the center of an anti-austerity political moment,” said Rosa Squillicote, adjunct assistant in Political Science at Hunter College. Some see this contract as a good place to start building a movement for demands greater than just pay raises for adjuncts. “Ultimately, targeting Cuomo and understanding him as the true enemy of CUNY is of essential importance,” said Squillicote.

The PSC is a member of the CUNY Rising Alliance, a coalition of faculty, staff, and student groups who advocate for a free and fully funded CUNY. The Alliance has been a feature of student rights organizing in New York since 2015 with much of their strategy built around lobbying public officials and supporting campaigns for progressive candidates. To some extent this strategy has fallen flat because the state congress the Alliance is trying to influence doesn’t have the power to override a veto from Governor Cuomo. At a recent Senate hearing CUNY Rising Alliance put together a panel to illuminate the flaws in the CUNY system and advocate for the necessary funding. “There’s an Assembly, there’s a Senate and then there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said State Senator Robert Jackson referring to Governor Cuomo at recent Senate hearing on higher education. 

For the past four years, Governor Cuomo has vetoed the Maintenance of Effort Bill, a key piece of legislation which would compel the state to support the CUNY and SUNY budget with the rise of inflation. Governor Cuomo rolled out the Excelsior Scholarship two years ago which was generally touted as “Tuition-free College.” Of the 940,000 eligible students that were estimated to be enrolled as Excelsior scholars, only 24,000 students were granted the scholarship. The Governor’s “Rational” tuition plan scheduled $200 tuition hikes which started in 2011 and ending in 2020. The Tuition Assistance Program, the New York State financial aid program, hasn’t been reformed to support the tuition increases which means students that were once covered by financial aid have had to start paying tuition. In a recent CUNY survey, 48% of participants were food insecure in the past 30 days and 55% were housing insecure in the previous year. During the Governor’s tenure, getting a public college education has been more burdensome for at-risk populations.

A Unique Contract

When the PSC leadership goes to the bargaining table, they’re bargaining with agents of Cuomo and De Blasio. “They want to give us nothing and we are asking for a 100% increase and $5,500 is where we landed,” said PSC Secretary Majumdar. This contract was in some ways a breakthrough because the bargaining team secured extra funding to support the pay-raises. Many union members were concerned that the bargaining team secured pay-raises without a budget increase. Such a contract would have meant reallocations from other positions and even firings, but Majumdar assured the members, “there were no carve-outs.” 

The fact that the bargaining team secured extra funding is outside the norm of routine bargaining, but this pay raise by 2022 still doesn’t change the situation for many adjuncts. “The contract the way it is means adjuncts like myself will be struggling to get by, struggling to make rent struggling to stay in this profession,” said David Klassen, adjunct professor at BMCC. “I’m excited to be in the classroom but it sucks to not have ever bought a car, never think about buying a home, all this stuff we want to plan for our futures. We want a living wage.”

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