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Q and A: What’s Going On in Contract Talks?

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I have opportunities to write to PSC members, but I also rely on your messages to me. I learned many years ago from academics in South Africa that it is a privilege to be accountable to others politically, and I take seriously being accountable to you. So with gratitude to the PSC members who have started conversations on the subway, who have sent emails, phoned the union office or stopped me on the street, here is a selection of the questions you most often ask, together with my replies.

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Other unions in the city are settling their contracts; why do we still have no contract?

The paralysis in negotiations created by Mayor Bloomberg’s insistence on wage freezes has been ended under Mayor de Blasio. Many of the 152 expired contracts with City unions are being settled. But the PSC’s contract is different; it requires approvals by the State government as well as the City. We don’t have a new contract because the CUNY administration has not put an economic offer on the table, as of the date I am writing. Without an economic offer, it is impossible to discuss raises or to resolve other issues that would require the expenditure of funds, such as relief in the teaching load. The union can’t settle until we can negotiate about money.

Why hasn’t CUNY made an offer?

My hope is that by the time you read this, the CUNY administration will have responded to PSC pressure and put a reasonable offer on the table. Otherwise, the question is best answered by CUNY Board Chairperson Benno Schmidt and Chancellor Milliken. But you can also speak directly to your college president, who reports to the chancellor, about the urgency of receiving an economic offer. PSC contracts have often been among the last in the city to be settled because of the complexity of reaching agreement on economics with both the City and the State. This round may be particularly difficult, but CUNY faculty and staff have been patient long enough – we need a viable economic offer now.

What kind of offer can we expect; will it be similar to the economic settlements reached with other public-employee unions?

The PSC bargaining team has made it clear to management representatives that we will not accept a poverty contract. Neither New York City nor New York State is in deficit, and there is no reason to impose further economic austerity on CUNY. While the union leadership is aware of the relatively small annual increases in many recent State and City union contracts, and of the practice of “pattern bargaining,” we are pressing for an offer that allows the University to make real progress on salaries and working conditions. Unlike most public employers in this expensive city, CUNY recruits nationally and has to be competitive nationally. An inadequate offer, coming after decades of systematic underfunding, will spell disaster for CUNY.

I need to plan for my financial future. Can you say anything about retroactive pay and whether retirees will receive full retroactivity?

After four years without a contract, I know that many of us are counting on retroactive pay to cover some of the big cost increases we have experienced – whether it’s a child’s college tuition or the need to find housing in New York City. Retroactivity has to be negotiated, and it’s impossible to negotiate retroactive pay increases when the University administration has yet to offer any increase at all. The union bargaining team has made it clear that full retroactive pay is a priority. The PSC has historically been successful in negotiating for full retroactive pay for employees who were on payroll for the period covered by the raise, regardless of whether they have subsequently retired. But in this round of bargaining we have seen some contracts with wage freezes and some with deferred retroactive pay, so the bargaining team is particularly vigilant on the issue of retroactive pay.

We urgently need a raise, but a raise will not end the inequities in the labor system at CUNY. Is the union attempting to address any other problems in this contract?

Yes. A single contract cannot solve inequities that took decades and a larger system of injustice to develop, but the PSC leadership has a history of tackling inequity and made a commitment to addressing three major priorities beyond salary: relief in the full-time faculty teaching load; a fair system for HEOs to advance in their jobs; and job security and equity for adjuncts. Some of these issues will require economic resources, but some, such as a job security system for adjuncts, are non-economic. Reforming the shameful system of adjunct labor has taken more than one contract, and may take legislative action. The same is true of reducing the teaching load to a level comparable to teaching loads elsewhere. But we must make meaningful progress in this contract.

Every improvement the union has won or demanded is ultimately about the quality of education: as anyone who has taught in a CUNY classroom or tried to use CUNYfirst knows, faculty and staff working conditions are literally students’ learning conditions. When the union demands workplace justice in our contract, we are taking a stand against the economic and racial injustice that has created substandard working conditions at CUNY.

Okay – I haven’t been active in the union, but the lack of a contract is hurting me personally. What can I do?

You can agree to be part of the collective power we will need to win a good contract in a period when austerity is being imposed on unions and working people. Sign up on the PSC website to organize for the demonstration we will hold this month unless CUNY makes a viable economic offer; make a commitment now to come to the mass meeting in October, where you will hear directly from the bargaining team. (See page 3 for details.)

Agree to be accountable for bringing two colleagues with you to each event. Being accountable means talking to colleagues personally, letting us know that they’ve said yes, and maybe traveling to the events together. Plan to attend the first union chapter meeting on your campus this fall and help to strategize on how to increase the pressure on your campus for a fair contract.

Resist the message that we are powerless; that is a management lie. As a union of 25,000 people at one of the city’s most important institutions, we have more power than many of us have imagined. But it’s only by acting together that we can make our power felt.

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RELATED COVERAGE:
Union Asks Management For Economic Offer in Contract Talks
PSC Plans Demonstration, Mass Meeting