When are we getting a new contract? That’s the first question I am asked whenever I am with CUNY faculty and staff. Of course it’s everyone’s question: we have waited for a raise since 2010, when our last contract expired. State labor law mandates that the provisions of that contract – including, crucially, step increases in salary – remain in effect until a new one is negotiated, but those of us no longer eligible for step increases haven’t had a raise in four years. And as we all know, the cost of housing, food, childcare and transportation in this expensive city did not slow down while contract negotiations were on hold.
What We Face
The answer to the question about our next contract isn’t simple because our contract isn’t simple. We are not at a private university where we would face only university management across the bargaining table. Nor are we even at a state university, whose contract would need approval by its trustees and the state. We are at a hybrid city/state university, an institution funded jointly by New York City and New York State – and we are one of a handful of unions in this position. We are also in a city whose last mayor stripped the budget for employee raises while handing out billions of dollars in tax giveaways to private corporations, and in a state whose governor mailed pink-slips to State employees to threaten layoffs if concessionary contracts were not ratified.
As public employees in a period when global capital has relentlessly targeted the public sector, we have come face-to-face with the politics of austerity. That’s why this round of bargaining has been so hard.
But the good news for the PSC is that we have a record of making a difference when we act together – and that the election of a new mayor with roots in the labor movement has shifted the conversation. Although the results are yet to be seen, Mayor de Blasio has done more in three months to settle the 152 unresolved labor contracts than Mayor Bloomberg did in three years. De Blasio announced that he plans to settle a good number of the unresolved City contracts by the end of 2014. As of this writing, no major contracts have been settled, and we have yet to see whether the contracts that are negotiated will break with the austerity policies of the past. That depends in part on whether the de Blasio administration extends the agenda of reducing inequality to its own employees. It depends above all on the political will of the unions to mobilize their members. But one thing is clear: contract negotiations for the City’s public employees are under way after years of stalemate.
Where does that put the PSC? Our bargaining team has begun discussions with management about both economic and non-economic contract issues. We are at the table with CUNY and in meetings with the City. Given the mix of State and City funding required for our contract, though, ours is not likely to be among the first contracts resolved. The PSC collective bargaining agreement – complex in itself because of the many different positions we represent and the ambitiousness of our demands – will involve approvals by the CUNY Board of Trustees, probably by a new CUNY chancellor, and by New York City and State. The work at the bargaining table is formidable.
But the most important work occurs away from the bargaining table. The PSC has achieved remarkable things in our past contracts, even when the CUNY administration asserted they would never be possible: paid office hours for adjuncts, paid parental leave, 24 hours of paid research time for junior faculty, sabbaticals at 80% pay, higher salary increases on the top salary steps, equity increases for the lowest-paid positions. All of these were the result of taking action together. And even while we were not officially in negotiations, the union has won a reduction to 21 hours of the teaching load at City Tech; a phased retirement program; new funding for research awards; and a permanent addition in State funding for adjunct health insurance.
In the past four years thousands of CUNY faculty and staff – probably including you – have acted together to achieve what we could never do individually. No other academic union in the country has sustained a campaign against an austerity curriculum as long and deep as the PSC’s. We’ve seen 4,322 people participate in the Pathways referendum; 5,676 sign the Pathways moratorium petition, and hundreds more have voted for resolutions and delivered testimony. This winter 2,515 professional staff have signed a petition demanding negotiations on the CUNY administration’s new timesheet system. Behind each signature, as behind each Pathways vote, was a conversation between members about power. We have spent these years building the networks and power we will need for a new contract.
Getting to a contract settlement will not be easy. We do not want just any settlement, especially after so many years of delay and denial. We want a fair contract and a progressive contract – one that allows us to do our best work. The news is that discussions citywide have begun; the challenge is that, with our complex contract, we will have to draw on every bit of power we have developed in order to succeed.