How We Won a Contract Against Austerity at CUNY

Barbara Bowen August 22, 2016

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 régime 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.

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.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH