The sky was gray and the weather was wet, but PSC members were on fire at the March 31 demonstration for a fair contract. Chants of “CUNY needs a raise!” echoed loudly from the walls of Hunter College, where a rally was held before the march began.
Jessica Gordon-Roth, an assistant professor of philosophy at Lehman College, was among the hundreds of union members who came out despite the rain. “We want a raise, we want to teach fewer courses,” she told Clarion. “We want adjuncts to have a better gig.” It was Gordon-Roth’s first union demonstration.
Marcello Di Bello, an assistant professor in the same department, said it was his first protest, too. “Our salary is not competitive,” Di Bello stressed. Everyone at CUNY needs a raise, he said, especially those lowest paid: “The No. 1 issue is the extremely low pay of adjuncts. With a family this is not sustainable, especially in New York City.”
“The last five years with no raises to our pay scale has hit us hard in terms of retention,” said George Sanchez, chair of the Department of Performing and Creative Arts at the College of Staten Island. “We’ve lost some really wonderful junior faculty in the last few years,” he told Clarion. “I just found out that a few people for whom I was on the search committee will be leaving for other universities – it’s had a real impact.”
“We work extremely hard,” said Shakia Brown, who works in the budget office at Medgar Evers College. “We work hard, and we’ve been without a contract for going on five years.” With a sign that said “HEOs for a good contract,” she was one of many employees in the Higher Education Officer series who came to stand up and speak out. “My main issue is a raise,” said Brown, adding that she is currently drawing on her savings to pay for living expenses and may have to move away.
“I have my master’s. I’m looking to further myself at CUNY,” Brown added. “But sometimes I feel like I’m at a standstill.”
“I’m here for a contract, retroactive pay and job security,” said Bernardo Saravia, an adjunct lecturer in mathematics at Hunter, who has taught at the college for 15 years. His top concern is job stability: though he is an experienced teacher dedicated to CUNY students, and his work is valuable enough that he has been rehired year after year, Saravia doesn’t know from one semester to the next whether his job will continue.
“It’d be wonderful if I had some long-term stability,” he told Clarion, “because I wouldn’t have to worry about asking if I have a job next semester.”
Many protesters said CUNY suffers from its outsized teaching load. “Lower teaching loads would allow faculty to secure more grant money, provide continual curriculum updates and create a better undergraduate experience,” said Michael Green, professor of chemistry at CCNY.
Gordon-Roth from Lehman told Clarion she decided to come to the demonstration because “it seems pressing now.” At first, she explained, “I just thought we’d have a new contract soon,” whether she got involved or not. But as the complex negotiations dragged on, Gordon-Roth concluded she had to make her voice heard.
President Barbara Bowen drew applause when she told the crowd, “We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. There is no excuse for CUNY management’s failure to move – even on non-economic demands.”
In a March 23 letter to members, Bowen commented: “It is within the power of the CUNY administration right now to move on PSC demands that would have little or no economic cost. These are demands such as job security for adjuncts, protection of faculty rights in the use of educational technology, a route to advancement for HEOs, equity in research time for library faculty, tuition waivers for our children.”
Taking it to Management
Standing on a bench in the Hunter plaza, Bowen announced that if there is no significant movement on the PSC’s demands in the coming weeks, the next union protest would be at Chancellor Milliken’s Upper East Side address. “CUNY administrators complain that demonstrating in front of Milliken’s luxury apartment building would be ‘making it personal,’” she said. “Well, it is personal for us! What could be more personal than an inability to pay our rent, handle special medical costs or send our own children to college?”
“We are not prepared to accept a contract that fails to resolve any of the major problems in our working conditions,” Bowen told Clarion.
In the latter part of the rally at Hunter, Chancellor Milliken showed up at the edge of the crowd, under a gray umbrella. Berkis Cruz-Eusebio, who works in Hostos Community College’s ASAP initiative as a career and employment specialist, was one of several union members who told him that CUNY needs to move at the bargaining table.
She told Milliken that she is affected by a problem common to all HEO positions: because HEO titles are not defined as promotional, there is no real path for career advancement. Moving up essentially requires being hired for a brand-new job. The problem is a union priority in contract negotiations, along with salary increases, reduction in the full-time faculty teaching load and improved job security for adjuncts.
“I’m a HEO and I work in a program that’s expanding because it’s successful. I was managing 100 students and now it’s more like 400,” Cruz-Eusebio said. “My job description has changed very much, but nobody’s looking at reclassification or anything. I love what I do, but my workload is increasing, my responsibilities are growing, and I’m not getting any more salary or more recognition. I’m stuck in my current title, and the only thing that expands is the number of people I serve. There’s no place to go but out.” It’s no way to treat a professional, she added.
PSC President Bowen told Clarion that HEO advancement has in fact been the focus of several bargaining meetings in March and April. “CUNY is rightly proud of programs like ASAP,” she said. “It’s not right that HEOs who make them run have no career path because of CUNY’s outdated job classification system. The system has to be changed to reflect the reality of the work HEOs do and the professionalism that is expected of them. The chancellor has the power to make the change through an agreement with the union – and he should.”
“The chancellor’s appearance at the rally could be seen as political theater,” said Bill Friedheim, chair of the union’s Retirees Chapter. “It positions him as more affable, accessible and maybe politically skilled than his predecessor, but is it charm over substance? Conversation is nice, but it’s no substitute for real movement at the bargaining table.”
Chancellor Milliken was not the only non-PSC member to attend the demonstration: members of other unions – CUNY employees who belong to DC 37, AFT members from Pace University, UAW members from the New School, and more – were there in solidarity. “I’m out here because we also don’t have a contract,” said Rory Stachell, a custodial assistant at College of Staten Island. “I’m out here because we’re not paid the prevailing wage.”
In mid-April, the PSC launched a new outreach effort to inform students and their families about CUNY’s lack of a new union contract and how it hurts the University. The union is distributing black-and-white T-shirts with a two-part message – “Five Years Without a Union Contract Hurts CUNY Students” on the front, and “Ask Me Why” on the back – and PSC members across CUNY made plans to wear them on the job.
Spreading the Word
“Bringing this fight for a fair contract into classrooms is in fact our obligation as faculty,” said PSC Treasurer Mike Fabricant. “Students must be in a conversation that enables them to understand how CUNY risks losing many of its best faculty and being less able to recruit effectively as wages stagnate. As the real dollar value of our wages falls so too will the quality of students education decline. It has never been clearer that faculty and staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”
“We have to stay active, particularly now. We’ve got to be really strong,” Claudio Mazzatenta, a professor of biology at Bronx Community College, said as the March 31 rally neared its end. “Sure, we’ve got to continue. It’s the only way we will win.”