The CUNY Research Foundation (RF) Central Office chapter overwhelmingly approved a new five-year contract on November 19 that provides a cumulative salary increase of 15.4%, slows the increase in employee health care costs and holds the line on a number of management demands to create a two-tier wage and benefit structure for new hires. The vote was 76-8 in favor of ratification.
“All in all, it was a good contract,” said Dawn Sievers, a member of the union bargaining team. “It was a long hard fight, but we did everything members wanted.”
The CUNY Research Foundation (RF-CUNY) processes more than $380 million in grants annually. A significant percentage is retained for overhead, and some of those funds are used for purposes far removed from scholarship, such as paying the RF’s anti-union consultants.
The RF’s current administrative fees are more than enough to cover the salary increases under the new agreement. “RF staff are on the forefront of making our grants work,” says Josh Brown, a principal investigator at the Graduate Center’s American Social History Project. “I’m glad they have a contract that enables them to keep up with the cost of living.”
Contract negotiations began in September 2012, and management did not agree to any salary increases of 2% or more until late in 2013. They did not drop their demand for a two-tier wage structure for new hires until the last ten days of negotiations.
PSC members at the RF office responded with an array of tactics – organizing rallies; delivering petitions to RF President Richard Rothbard; posting pro-union signs in their cubicles; wearing pro-union T-shirts throughout the office on the same day; and going on office “walk-arounds” together during their morning and afternoon breaks, thus staging what amounted to an indoor informational picket line.
The common thread was their unity and their determination not to take a bad contract. “We were willing to fight for it as long as it would take rather than make an agreement we weren’t happy with,” commented Steve Lawrence, an RF chapter member and union department representative.
The most dramatic moment in the year-long campaign came on July 1. Faced with a pay offer below the rate of inflation, RF-CUNY workers organized a one-day strike, picketing in the rain outside the foundation’s Midtown headquarters. The work stoppage was legal because the Research Foundation, despite its close ties to CUNY, is technically a private-sector entity; its employees are therefore not covered by New York State’s Taylor Law, which bans public-sector strikes.
Striking RF workers were joined on the picket line by PSC members from across CUNY, including all four of the PSC’s principal officers, and union activists from NY State United Teachers and SEIU 1199 also turned out. Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, walked the line to show his support, as did then-mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio.
“Going on strike was a way to say, ‘We feel there is an injustice going on here,” Lawrence recalled. “All the support we received was encouraging.”
As a department rep in Finance, Lawrence kept the 15 other members of his department informed about the state of negotiations and plans for keeping up the pressure with protests inside the workplace.
“Folks went out of their way to do walk-arounds and hang up their signs,” Sievers said. “We let management know how we felt.”
In October management began to move on some key issues, and Rothbard met with PSC President Barbara Bowen to help move toward a settlement. An agreement was reached at the start of November.
In addition to a 15.4% pay increase over five years, the contract delays the increase in the employee share of the health insurance premium to the third year of the contract, when it will include an additional 2% of the total cost. The new contract also establishes a form of paid parental leave by permitting both women and men to use up to two weeks of sick leave for the birth or adoption of a child. It also allows up to five sick days per year to be used for care for an ill or injured family member.
Something to build on
“That five days is something we can build on,” Sievers said.
Lawrence said the RF chapter had done well in this contract, given the corporate onslaught against unions that has gained momentum in recent years. Sievers said this had been the most difficult round of contract talks in her 26 years at the Research Foundation. It was solidarity within their group, as well as solidarity from fellow union members, that enabled the contract campaign to succeed, she told Clarion.
“If we don’t stand up for what we want, we’ll get run over,” Sievers said. “We can’t be apathetic.”