How We Won a Contract Against Austerity at CUNY

Barbara Bowen

The 27,000 members of CUNY’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), are voting on whether to ratify their first contract in years. (Timothy Krause/ Flickr)

Earlier this month, the largest number of members in our union’s history participated in a contract ratification vote at the City University of New York (CUNY). Nearly three-quarters of eligible voters participated, and the result was a resounding 94 percent yes.” Contract ratification votes don’t make the news as often as they should, but this one was preceded by six years of struggle for an agreement and a public debate about its merits — including opinion pieces in these pages and others.

The debate about the CUNY contract, fueled by a vocal vote no” campaign, might have led readers to conclude that the outcome of the vote would be close, certainly much closer than 94 percent. Why was the contract so hard fought?

Why did it generate such heat? And why did it ultimately receive overwhelming support?

The answers to those questions reveal something important about both the possibilities and the limits of what can be achieved by a single union through a contract struggle, even by a militant, progressive union like ours, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC).

The PSC, which represents 25,000 faculty and professional staff at CUNY, had been without a contract or a raise for its members for six years. As a union of public employees, we are directly affected by the political decisions of New York City and New York state governments, and both had imposed ideologically-motivated policies of economic austerity. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then Gov. Andrew Cuomo had balanced budgets and helped to consolidate wealth among the rich by freezing wages and demanding concessions from public employees. Meanwhile, the CUNY administration, which relies on public funding for more than half of the operating costs of the university, failed to act strategically in the face of economic austerity policies and did not secure state funding to cover salary increases. The result was five years without even an economic offer. The deadlock was broken only when more than 50 faculty and staff were arrested in a civil disobedience at CUNY headquarters.

It took another civil disobedience at the governor’s office, scores of protests and demonstrations, a poetry reading against austerity, the formation of a citywide coalition in support of funding for CUNY, an alliance with CUNY students, strenuous political advocacy, an aggressive media campaign and finally a successful strike authorization vote to get the state to change its position. With full knowledge that strikes by public employees in New York are prohibited by law and carry heavy penalties, 92 percent of PSC members voted to allow the union leadership to call a strike. PSC members were angry, they were eloquent, and they were brave.

They — we — were willing to take risks because we knew we were fighting for something big. We were fighting for the principle that the transformative power of a college education should be available to all who seek it — especially in our racist and cruelly unequal economy. More than half of CUNY undergraduates have family incomes under $30,000; three-quarters are people of color. For many of our students, CUNY represents the only realistic chance for a good life. Five years without a contract hurts CUNY students,” our union’s popular T-shirt declared. We knew that our fight challenged austerity’s false premises: that the state can no longer afford to fund public universities adequately and that a diminished college education is all that can be offered to the urban poor. 

The CUNY administration’s failure to make an economic offer was damaging both the university and our own lives. Academic departments found it nearly impossible to recruit new faculty; younger full-time faculty reported having to move far out of the city to cheaper housing; more than one member had to fight off eviction; adjuncts reported being forced to rely on food stamps.

By late spring of this year, the PSC’s year-long campaign had begun to succeed. The governor reversed a planned half-billion-dollar reduction in state funding for CUNY. The state legislature rejected a proposed tuition hike, and, in early June, CUNY finally made an economic offer that kept pace with inflation and included retroactive increases. The power the PSC amassed as a single union supported by students and community allies was not enough to dismantle economic austerity for CUNY, but it was enough to achieve a modest 10.4 percent increase that was level with inflation.

It was also enough to win changes in our conditions of work that the union has been trying to win since our leadership took office in 2000. The unity of the PSC membership and the credible threat of a strike gave the union the power to demand major workplace changes as a condition of agreeing to the minimally-acceptable salary package.

The breakthroughs in the contract include CUNY’s first-ever job security system for adjuncts, better career opportunities for professional staff, an increase in annual leave and research time for faculty librarians and a contractual commitment to reduce the full-time faculty teaching load. In addition, the contract solidifies agreements negotiated during the long fallow period: paid parental leave, increased faculty research grants and a new program of health insurance, dental and prescription drug coverage for qualifying adjuncts.

The hardest decision in any contract negotiation is when to stop. At a time when most labor contracts are purely defensive, the PSC campaign empowered us to negotiate a contract that advances the union’s progressive vision. The union leadership wrestled with the decision of whether to recommend it to a membership that had already signaled its willingness to strike. Our assessment was that despite the clear limitations of this contract, the moment was strategic to lock in the gains we had made and build our power for future fights. We recommended the contract to the membership, and members responded by voting in unprecedented numbers to accept. Despite the criticism the agreement received from a group of adjuncts, 86 percent of adjunct faculty voted yes.”

No single contract, especially one in a regime of economic austerity, can end the scandal at the center of American higher education: the reliance on a radically underpaid, precarious workforce for the majority of undergraduate instruction. The CUNY budget, like the budgets of most public colleges and universities, is based on the underpayment of more than half of its teaching workforce. While the provision in our new contract for adjunct job security represents the first crack in the wall of precarious labor, it does not end the system of exploitation, nor does it narrow the gap between full-time and part-time salaries. 

There is much work to be done. But the real news of the PSC’s contract fight is that it prepared members to take that work on. Thousands of CUNY faculty and staff have now had the experience of seeing that collective action works. That’s a hard thing to forget. The 94-percent yes” vote was an affirmation not only of the strategic change we won in this contract but of the power to win more.

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Barbara Bowen is a professor of English at CUNY and president of the Professional Staff Congress, the union that represents 25,000 faculty and academic staff at CUNY.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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