As hundreds of PSC members protested inside and outside a meeting of the Board of Trustees, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein announced that the University will seek funding for adjunct health insurance in its upcoming State budget request.
The announcement marked a significant step in the union’s 11-year campaign to get CUNY to provide full permanent funding for adjunct health insurance. The long-running dispute over management’s refusal to fund the cost of this benefit came to a head this fall, when the Trustees of the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund concluded that the current funding structure could not sustain adjunct coverage beyond next summer. (See Clarion, Sept. 2011.)
“It’s the first time CUNY has ever moved on adjunct health care,” PSC President Barbara Bowen told the hundreds who rallied outside. But Bowen cautioned that convincing CUNY to include adjunct health insurance in its budget request was only a start: “The next step is to hold them to that priority, to insist that it’s funded by the State. And then the next step, if we succeed with the State, is to negotiate the movement of adjuncts onto permanent health care.” (See also page 2.)
More than 500 people participated in the protest outside the meeting at Baruch. One was Renee Mizrahi, an adjunct lecturer in English at Kingsborough Community College since 2003, who was glad to see the protest have an effect. Mizrahi received a kidney transplant in 2008 and relies on immunosuppressant drugs to remain alive.
“ Everyone should have access to health care,” she said. “Sometimes I wake up at night very scared and wonder what’s going to happen if they take away my health insurance.” With the first step taken toward a solution, Mizrahi said, “I feel fantastic.”
“It boils down to the issue of fairness,” said Yunzhong Shu, an associate professor of Chinese at Queens College. “Half of our courses are taught by adjuncts.”
The announcement came after about 75 PSC members crowded into the 14th floor conference room in Baruch’s Vertical Campus, where the Board was meeting. The union made its presence felt when a group of about 15 women (and a couple of men) stood at the front of the room to sing an adapted version of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Not Be Moved” with verses such as:
We’re standing with our union, we shall not be moved.
Full-time and part-time, we shall not be moved.
Health care is a human right, we shall not be moved.
Do the right thing, CUNY, we shall not be moved.
Bowen delivered copies of more than 2,000 petition signatures in support of adjunct health insurance to Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson. As the meeting began, union members held aloft bright red and white placards that read “Do the Right Thing, CUNY!” During the Chancellor’s report a gentle, fluttering sound filled the room as the protesters shook their signs in unison.
The action at the Board of Trustees drew both full- and part-time faculty who were appalled at the thought that they or their colleagues could lose something as basic as health care coverage.
“It’s an issue that full-time faculty need to care about as much as adjuncts,” said Jennifer Hayashida, a distinguished lecturer who serves as the director of the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter. Loss of adjunct health coverage “would completely dehumanize the institution.”
“‘Let them die’ is not an appropriate stance for CUNY’s upper-level administration to take in regard to half of its faculty,” declared Jane Weiss, an assistant professor of English at KCC who worked for 16 years as an adjunct at Hunter College. “People who don’t have health coverage sometimes miss diagnoses or treatments that they need to have, and some of them actually do die. It’s a life or death issue.”
“If I lost my health insurance, replacing it would cost a third of my wages,” said Bettina Berch, an adjunct lecturer in economics at BMCC and the author of five books, including one on the political economy of women and work. “I love teaching, but I can’t teach for nothing. I would have to teach somewhere else.”
Ari Richter, an adjunct who teaches art at LaGuardia, said that when he taught at community colleges in North Carolina he had no union and no health coverage. When he moved to New York in 2009, Richter gained health insurance after going to work at CUNY – and he wants to keep it.
While teaching at CUNY, Richter said, “[I] know that I’m safe and know that I’m able to stay healthy. So I think it’s a travesty now that they’re trying to get rid of this thing that I treasure so greatly.”
Mike Cesarano, an assistant professor of theater at QCC, said having health care during his seven years as a CUNY adjunct was invaluable. He said he came to the demonstration because a union’s strength comes from members’ willingness to fight for each other’s needs.
“I want the union to be there when I need them, so I wanted to do my part,” Cesarano said.