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Know Your Rights: Contract Training Session Planned for April 22 and 23

PSC's grievance counselors Farah Cajuste (left) and Howard Prince (right) are ready to help members understand their contract rights.
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The PSC will hold a contract enforcement training session on April 22 and 23, from 12:00 to 4:00 pm each day at the PSC Union Hall. Clarion’s Peter Hogness spoke with Debra Bergen, the PSC’s director of contract enforcement, about what’s planned:

Q: Who is this workshop for?

A: Any PSC member who’s interested in knowing more about the union contract is invited to attend. Knowledge is power, and any time you don’t know your rights, or your colleagues’ rights, you are putting yourself in a weaker position. By learning more, you can make yourself stronger and make the union stronger.

Q: It’s aimed at chapter leaders, as well as grievance counselors?

A: Definitely. Any chapter leader, anyone active on their campus, would find it worthwhile to attend.
The contract enforcement training is of course important for prospective grievance counselors – and for current grievance counselors if they want to sharpen their skills. If you’re thinking about becoming a grievance counselor in the future, and you want to know more about what that means – well, this is a great way to find out.
The bottom line, though, is something that Barbara Bowen often says – this is information that every union member should have. And everyone who wants to learn about the contract is welcome.

Q: What’s different about the training this year?

A: We generally hold an eight-week training program on contract enforcement every Fall. We’ll do that again this Fall, but this Spring we are offering an opportunity to learn the essential information about our contractual rights in a special two-day workshop in the afternoons of Tuesday and Wednesday, April 22 and 23.

We’re doing this for a number of reasons, but one of them is that we rely on members to be grievance counselors, and we need members willing to step forward into the role. The big changes in the administration on some campuses in recent years mean that it’s more important than ever for our members to be aware of their rights. Colleges have appointed new presidents, who have appointed new labor designees [a college administration’s officer for labor relations]. And all too often, they don’t know the contract. So we’ve seen a sharp rise in contract violations, often involving really basic issues.

This year, we’ve found ourselves revisiting issues that have already been the subject of PSC grievances, where we’ve already won in arbitration, and where our position has been sustained. So we are now in the process of having to educate college administrators about these basics of the contract, because CUNY doesn’t do it.

From left: Danny Lynch, a grievance counselor for full-time faculty; and Ruben Rangel, a grievance counselor for adjuncts.
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Q: So you’re seeing more contract violations, as well as more elementary kinds of contract violations, than in the past?

A: Yes, exactly. And that highlights the importance of PSC members knowing the contract, and knowing it well. Because if you don’t know the contract, your rights may be violated and you may not even be aware of it. Or someone else in your department may be treated unfairly, and they won’t know that there is something they could do about it.

It is important that every campus chapter have an appointed grievance counselor who is available to members so that as contract violations occur we can identify them and act. Every campus needs a grievance counselor – but the grievance counselor still can’t be everywhere at once. That is why we also need a broad network of members who know the contract well and can spread that knowledge to other members.

As the university has become more corporatized, management has become more rigid and less respectful of academic values such as consultation and collegiality. As a result, union members have to become more vigilant in knowing their rights and enforcing them.

Q: What kind of information will be presented at the training workshop, and how are the sessions organized?

A: The first day is an overview of basic contract rights and the union’s contract enforcement operation. We’ll review key provisions of the contract, for example those that affect untenured and uncertificated members of both the faculty and professional staff – observations, evaluations, junior faculty released time, overtime. We’ll cover those sections and more – provisions that affect full-time faculty, part-time faculty and professional staff.

We’ll also look at how the union is structured for contract enforcement, and how the PSC Central Office works with the chapters at the campus level to carry it out. We’ll also focus on the rights that the contract provides for union activity, so that chapter activists know what rights they have to communicate with members and to be provided with facilities and services, the right to bulletin boards or discussions on campus email, things of that nature.

And we’ll take a general look at university policies that our members have to comply with and that sometimes they are accused of violating, which will lead us to a discussion of investigatory meetings and our members’ right to union representation when those occur.

Q: And the second day?

A: The second day there will be some hands-on skill-building. We’ll also talk about labor- management meetings and what tools you can use to make those more effective.

So, we’ll look at the grievance process, how you investigate, prepare and present a Step One and a Step Two grievance. We’re hoping to bring in a panel of grievance counselors and have them speak to their experiences. We’ll look at what the contract provides for grievance and arbitration process, what is the authority of the arbitrator, and what to expect in terms of remedies when the contract has been violated.

For instance, if someone is denied a reappointment with tenure and we can show that the college president’s stated reasons for that decision are arbitrary, not based on the record of guidance, an arbitrator may overturn that denial. But that doesn’t mean the person who’s been wronged will automatically get tenure: the arbitrator doesn’t have that power. What an arbitrator can do is order that the decision be reviewed by an independent committee, which makes an independent academic judgment on the members’ professional record, potentially overturning the non-reappointment.

Q: Can you say more about the skill-building?

A: Sure. We’ll do some exercises on how to address workplace issues without going through the grievance process – how to develop strategies, how to organize union members around an issue.

We’ll also do some hands-on role-playing on how to conduct a labor-management meeting. On some campuses there is a lot of frustration around labor-management meetings. The chapter may have presented an issue numerous times, and each time management will shake their heads and say, “We’ll follow up,” but nothing gets done.

For labor-management meetings to be as effective as possible, I think we need to give chapter leaders some ammunition that they can use in countering management’s responses: What kinds of tools does the contract provide? What’s the most effective way to present the issues, and how do we make the college administration more accountable? We aim to help people improve their skills.

Q: What’s your goal for the contract enforcement training?

A: We want people to walk away with a sense that, yes, I know what my basic rights are and I understand how the contract is being enforced. And that maybe I’d like to be a part of that.

The contract enforcement training will be held April 22 and 23, from 12:00 to 4:00 pm each day, at the PSC Union Hall. To sign up to attend, RSVP to dbergen@pscmail.org no later than April 11.