The PSC began this semester with a “virtual mass action” – a day of phone calls, emails and messages on social media to demand a new union contract. And within a week, the tactic had shown some results.
On February 2, union members sent CUNY trustees a stream of strongly worded and sometimes personal messages about the burdens that the lack of a contract has imposed on them, their families and CUNY students. PSC members spoke directly with a number of trustees. With hundreds of members taking part, phone lines were tied up and inboxes quickly filled.
“This year, I have to relocate out of my modest one-bedroom apartment to make a 75-minute commute because I cannot keep up with the cost of living in New York City,” one member wrote. “Professors who give their heart to this University should not be forced to relocate – the long commute is taking away from my time with students. It also creates incentives for us to leave and take our talents and efforts to places where we will be better appreciated and with a lesser workload.”
“Why am I expected to live on less than $27,000 a year,” asked a long-serving adjunct, “with no security of reappointment next term? This is a losing proposition. Valuable teachers are being asked to sacrifice in ways that previous generations were not. At the end of the day, it is our students and our institutional reputation that suffer when we are left out on a financial limb.”
“Three full-time faculty in our department accepted positions at other universities” in a four-year period, another member noted, “primarily because of the salary stagnation at CUNY. In the national searches to replace our former colleagues, highly qualified candidates either withdrew applications or declined job offers once they learned about CUNY’s noncompetitive salary schedules. Time and again, people who were ideal fits for our research and teaching needs told us that they simply couldn’t get by in the New York metropolitan area on the amounts of money that were being offered.”
“Thank you for writing with such honesty, and for responding so strongly to our call,” PSC President Barbara Bowen told members the following week. Bowen said the continued lack of a contract provoked deep anger at “a University board that pays its chancellor $670,000 a year but cannot get an economic offer on the table for faculty and staff.”
Evidently management was feeling the heat: the following week, CUNY Chancellor J.B. Milliken went beyond his prepared remarks at a budget hearing in Albany to speak out in support of raises for CUNY faculty and staff.
“Our ability to attract and retain talented faculty is compromised by our inability today to reach a collective bargaining agreement,” Milliken told members of the New York Assembly Ways and Means Committee and the State Senate Finance Committee in Albany on February 10.
“It is essential we get State support for an agreement that will be in alignment with those of other State unions, including retroactive increases that will recognize the commitment our faculty and staff have made over the last six years.”
Milliken’s statement did not change anything at the bargaining table – CUNY still has not made an economic offer to the PSC – and he said this could only happen with State support. But the very public statement in favor of raises for CUNY faculty and staff was more than Milliken, or other recent chancellors, had done before.
“The messages from PSC members made a difference,” Barbara Bowen told union delegates on February 19. “They made CUNY management feel the urgency of members’ concerns.” Specifically calling for raises and retroactive pay “was something we have not heard before” from CUNY’s chancellor, Bowen noted. “And it happened the week after union members spoke out with such force.”
At a CUNY trustees’ hearing on February 17, PSC members had a message for CUNY management: Once is not enough!
“I appreciate that Chancellor Milliken has made a case [for CUNY raises] in Albany – but we need to hear this more in public,” said Jonathan Buchsbaum, professor of media studies at Queens College and chair of the PSC chapter there. The University’s trustees should be public advocates for decent pay for CUNY faculty and staff as essential to providing quality public higher education in New York State, Buchsbaum said – it is part of their job. “Where is your voice?” he asked in a letter to Board Chair Benno Schmidt.
One trustee, speaking on the phone with a union member during during the PSC’s “virtual mass action,” confided that the lack of raises for CUNY faculty and staff was “shameful.” He suggested that union members take their case to the media to seek public support. But that same trustee has not yet spoken out publicly on the issue himself. At the Brooklyn hearing, PSC members told the trustees that this kind of silence needs to end.
Along with applying pressure to CUNY management, PSC members campaigned in Albany to seek passage of a State budget that would be fair to CUNY, with funding for wages and benefits competitive with public universities in comparable states. A central theme was the necessity for the State to provide a true “maintenance of effort,” with funds to cover mandatory cost increases in the cost of current services. That includes rent, heat and electricity charges, office supplies, fringe benefits and contractual salary steps, the union emphasized.
Advocacy in Albany
Fighting for that promise to be kept has been the PSC’s priority in a wave of activity on the State budget in March. In hundreds of meetings and thousands of messages, union members urged legislators to do the right thing for CUNY and those who work there.
As the State Legislature debated its budget decisions, a PSC radio ad highlighted the need for a new CUNY contract. The ad, one of two aired by the PSC in March, was scheduled to be broadcast 260 times, mainly in Albany but also in NYC. The 60-second spot contrasts the lack of raises at CUNY with national praise for its ASAP initiative, which has more than doubled graduation rates for participating community college students.
“After President Obama announced plans to make higher education accessible for all, he described one program in the entire country to show how successful community college could be,” the PSC ad begins. “That program was at CUNY, the City University of New York.” Yet the faculty and staff “who make CUNY great are being denied a fair contract. They’ve worked five years without a raise and are paid significantly less than faculty members at comparable universities. Many may have to consider leaving CUNY, just to support their families.”
“We love what we do, and we feel privileged to teach CUNY students,” PSC President Barbara Bowen says as the ad concludes. “But it is difficult to continue our important work without a contract. Like President Obama, we believe in CUNY. It’s time for Albany to believe, too.” (You can listen to the ad online.)
At a joint legislative hearing on State funding for CUNY, several legislators “noted the importance of a new [CUNY] contract during their question times,” reported Capital New York. But what the next State budget holds for CUNY won’t be known until after the April 1 deadline for passage – or possibly some days after, with observers viewing a late budget as more possible than in the past several years. As always, the last days of budget season will be critical.
Meanwhile the PSC and CUNY management bargaining teams continued to meet, seeking to engage and make progress wherever possible, so that a settlement could be reached relatively quickly once an adequate financial offer is made. At a bargaining session on February 19, the PSC presented the case for its demand for job security provisions for long-serving adjunct faculty.
“Right now, no matter how good you are, how long you’ve served or how much your students appreciate how much they learn in our classes, we cannot count on working next term or next year,” said Blanca Vázquez, an adjunct assistant professor of media studies at Hunter and a member of the PSC bargaining team. “We live with the fear that the rug can be pulled out from underneath us and we will be left scrambling to find another class.”
This is not good for CUNY students or for CUNY as an institution, Vázquez said. If a faculty member is effective enough to be brought back year after year after year, she said, her commitment to CUNY and its students should be recognized, Vázquez emphasized. “Job security is…about the dignity of work, about not feeling disposable and exploited.” Several adjunct faculty attended the session as observers.
“When universities increasingly hire part-time faculty who are insecure, it makes it much easier for the employer to impose the same conditions on full-time faculty and the rest of the academy’s labor force,” PSC Treasurer Mike Fabricant told Clarion. “As a full-time faculty member, I will fight for adjunct job security because our fates are bundled together.”
The call for fair treatment for adjuncts featured prominently in members’ messages to CUNY trustees, as did the union’s demands on full-time faculty teaching load and professional advancement for those in the Higher Education Officer series. What united them all was the insistence that it is the administration’s responsibility to deliver decent pay and conditions for the faculty and staff who make CUNY work.
“We need a new contract that includes meaningful raises and back pay. We remain incredulous that such a contract has not yet been forthcoming,” wrote one department chair. “My colleagues really feel abandoned by the CUNY administration, yet we continue to do our best for our wonderful students every day, and we take pride in the wonderful education that CUNY affords them. Please do your part, and do not leave us to struggle financially in order to do the jobs we love.”