Working hard for the hardworking
The union contract is a living document – it is not a mere collection of words on pages of paper, but rather a set of articles organized around workplace principles that is negotiated, enforced, defended and subject to constant reexamination. At the PSC, the contract enforcement department – a team of PSC staff and rank-and-file members trained in the nitty-gritty details of the contract – work to defend members’ rights every day.
“I talk about collectively bargained agreements as organic. They are living organisms, and as such, are constantly changing and being understood in new and different ways,” said Renée Lasher, PSC’s director of contract administration since 2018. “No contract ever captures all the details, so there are always going to be things that have to be wrangled out as things are put into practice.”
Over the past year during the COVID crisis, the contract administration department has been working in overdrive to understand the contract in new and different ways to address remote work, life-altering health and safety issues at CUNY campuses and the mass layoffs of adjuncts.
“The shutdown impacts every aspect of work that our members do. It impacts how they communicate both internally and externally,” said Lasher, who worked for a decade in union representation in the entertainment trades before joining PSC’s contract enforcement team. Grievance representatives have been responding to the issues and figuring out how to navigate the work terrain whether it involve talking to members one-on-one, identifying issues for impact bargaining or filing both individual or class action grievances (when a certain issue is pervasive and affects members across campuses).
When 300 adjuncts who were eligible for three-year appointments were arbitrarily laid off in the Spring of 2020 and when around 2,000 adjuncts who were on semester and one-year appointments were non-reappointed, the union filed class action grievances. The union made arguments to a CUNY hearing officer in both of these grievances, but CUNY has failed to issue any decisions within the time frame given them under the contract, so both grievances have been filed to arbitration, where neutral arbitrators outside of CUNY will hear the cases separately. (For an explanation of the grievance process, see the illustrations, starting on this page.)
There is a team of people, made up of both PSC members and PSC staff, who work with members to file a grievance. Around two dozen rank-and-file members serve as grievance counselors for certain campuses and certain titles. These union members work alongside the full-time PSC staff, and they collectively have decades of labor experience. (For a list of grievance representatives, click here.)
Faye Moore joined the PSC in 2018 as a contract administration coordinator. She is a former president and vice president of grievances of Social Service Employees Union Local 371 – one of the largest locals in District Council 37, where she bargained contracts with the city and dealt with grievances, legal issues and organizing for nearly every New York City agency.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
Her advice to PSC members is to “know your contract and do not be afraid to ask questions of the union. There is a union structure in place,” she added, for members to reach out if something at work does not feel right. “Some people are hesitant to ask the question [about a workplace concern]. To me, it is better to know the answer to your question and then let the answer govern your actions.”
Since COVID, Moore said, work has become more crisis-driven. Members are under enormous pressure to work in new ways and oftentimes dealing with inflexible and punishment-driven bosses. It is extremely important for members to contact the union as soon as an issue arises, she urged. Members have 30 business days from when an issue occurred or when they became aware of the issue to file a grievance.
Not every member issue is technically a grievance, which entails a violation of the contract. But even those issues outside of an official grievance can still be a valid workplace concern, and PSC grievance representatives can advise members on how to handle a situation.
“Most of the calls I take every day are not official grievances. I always tell members, ‘If something feels wrong, or you’re just not sure, there is no harm in giving us a call,’” said Emma Powell, a contract administration coordinator who has been at PSC since 2014. “We can always work through strategies, like writing a rebuttal to a guidance memo or an evaluation.”
Powell worked as an organizer at the PSC for nearly four years before joining the contract administration department and prior to that she headed membership at the National Union of Students in the United Kingdom, a confederation of higher education student unions. She often brings an organizing lens to a grievance.
For instance, there was an issue about HEO time sheets that was difficult to grieve. Instead, they found other HEOs with the same issue, and together along with help from the PSC organizing department, the HEOs worked collectively to turn in time sheets that reflected the hours they worked and submitted for comp time.
ORGANIZING IS KEY
Greg Douros, who has worked on organizing and contract campaigns in the United States and internationally, sees contract enforcement and organizing as linked. Both are critical to placing pressure on the university to do the right thing.
Douros started working at the PSC as a contract administration coordinator in June 2020. Despite joining the staff in the era of remote work and having never worked in the PSC office, he has become an integral part of the contract administration team, getting to know his colleagues through virtual meetings and talking to members one-on-one. Everything that a member is experiencing “at work” during the pandemic is amplified, he said.
Common issues that members express are workload increases, out-of-title duties, increased work because of increased class sizes and shift work for CLTs.
His advice to members is to always keep good documentation: email a supervisor, summarize expectations, express workload concerns and write rebuttals to unfair evaluations even if you feel dispirited.
“When you enforce the contact, it becomes a real, living document. It’s not just a piece of paper,” said Douros. “Defending the violation of one member is the defense of all members.”
PSC Grievance Counselors
At the PSC there are more than two dozen grievance counselors, some who work for the PSC in-house and others who are rank-and-file members who are trained in contract enforcement. At campuses, chapter grievance counselors represent full-time faculty. For a full list of representatives, go to tinyurl.com/chapter-grievance-reps. The PSC also has in-house grievance counselors and advisors who are designated to represent titles at certain campuses: HEOs, CLTs, full-timers and adjuncts. For a full list, click here.
If you have a workplace concern, even if you are unsure that the concern rises to the level of a grievance, contact the union immediately.