Viewpoint: Vote No on the PSC-CUNY Contract: 7K or Strike
The Professional Staff Congress, American Federation of Teachers Local 2334, reached a tentative agreement in October on a new contract with the City University of New York (CUNY). The agreement covers 30,000 workers at the university, including part- and full-time faculty, professional staff, lab technicians, graduate employees, and more. Below we publish a piece arguing for a no vote on the agreement. See the argument for a yes vote here.
What’s wrong with the PSC tentative agreement?
The proposed contract capitulates to New York state’s austerity budget for public higher education, hurting CUNY students and workers. While the PSC leadership is enthusiastically promoting this proposed agreement as a victory, its salary gains remain far below the original bargaining demands. Concessions like an increase in adjuncts’ workloads and elimination of our seniority salary steps would be difficult to reverse in future contracts.
Rather than moving us forward to fight another day, this contract would set us back by leading politicians and the public to believe that the adjunct problem has been solved. The union’s bargaining team insists that this is the best they could do in the current climate, but rank-and-file activists see how the union demobilized the membership instead of injecting resources into building power in the workplace and solidarity on the streets. We know the union can do better.
We are urging all PSC members to vote no and to get involved in fighting for the democratic and militant union we deserve and the fair and fully funded contract we can win.
Why do so many PSC members oppose this contract?
Not enough money. A demand for $7,000 per three-credit course, embraced by the union under pressure from the 7K-or-Strike movement, would have brought adjuncts out of deep poverty and closer to parity with non-tenure-track lecturers. Instead of 7K, this contract would get us to $5.5K in 2022, guaranteeing that adjuncts remain economically desperate for the foreseeable future.
This much-touted 71 percent salary increase for adjuncts over the five years of the contract only applies to adjuncts who teach no more than one course at the lowest rate of pay. Percentage raises are more modest for adjuncts teaching two or more courses, and for those who have achieved higher rates through seniority or promotions. Adjunct lab techs and non-teaching adjuncts, the lowest-paid members of the union, would get only the 2 percent across-the-board cost-of-living increase that conforms to the New York city and state public employee pattern.
More work. Raises for teaching adjuncts would be implemented through what is framed as a productivity increase, a device for getting around pattern bargaining limitations to pay adjuncts for work outside the classroom that is currently unpaid. Under the proposed agreement, adjuncts would be paid for one office hour per course taught; currently those adjuncts teaching two or more courses get only one extra paid hour total.
Unfortunately, the union failed to win stringent protections for how the paid hours may be used. The agreement stipulates that 20 percent of paid office hours can be siphoned off for mandatory trainings and for union orientations required under state law; adjuncts must spend the rest of these hours on campus and “available” for student contact.
Many adjuncts must travel throughout the city among different jobs to make ends meet and cannot be available on campus for extra hours in cramped shared offices. In announcing the deal, CUNY bragged that it will be able to extract more labor from adjuncts, even specifically mentioning “advising,” a task that adjuncts are not currently expected or trained to perform.
Budget cuts have led to deep reductions or elimination of student services like tutoring, and already we are hearing of adjuncts being asked to take on such extra tasks during their office hours. This could be fought under the terms of the previous contract, but the language in the proposed agreement appears to allow such uses of adjunct paid office hours.
No seniority raises. Currently, adjuncts are eligible for a salary step increase every three years. Under the proposed agreement, these steps end in 2022, leaving adjuncts stuck at $5,500 per course for the foreseeable future. (Those earning more than $5,500 by 2022 would be “red-circled” in at their higher rates, and differential pay remains for in-place adjunct job titles based on credentials.)
Union leaders are calling this flattening a “progressive” win and saying that we can continue the fight for 7K, but the fact that future step increases were forfeited to pay for the contract’s salary gains suggests that it would not be possible to win anything more for adjuncts next time around. In any case, 7K would no longer be a meaningful wage demand by then.
Inadequate funding. Much of the money to pay for this “historic” adjunct raise comes from cannibalizing other elements of the contract: 10 months of forfeited retroactive raises at the start of the contract and the elimination of future salary steps. The PSC insists that the state and city will pay their share for the raises, but public budgets approved last June included no new money.
Already, CUNY is implementing cuts of up to 15 percent in adjunct budgets across its campuses. Hundreds of courses are being canceled for the spring, class sizes are up, and many adjuncts do not yet know whether they will lose one or more of the classes they teach. If their teaching load drops below two courses, adjuncts also lose health insurance. Union activists have been pushing the PSC to release the adjunct employment numbers used in costing the proposed agreement.
Students lose. The proposed contract is being touted as a win for students, who will get more time with adjunct faculty thanks to the added office hours. But the course cancellations and increased class sizes that accompany this agreement—and help pay for it—will hurt students, setting back their timelines for graduation. A “rational tuition” policy currently limits annual tuition increases to $200; when that plan expires in 2021, CUNY will likely try to bump up tuition to cover the final adjunct pay hike to $5,500 set for 2022.
Any tuition hikes are a significant burden for the roughly 50 percent of CUNY students who don’t get financial aid. Half of CUNY students suffer food and/or housing insecurity, and 60 percent have household incomes under $30,000. The union did not bargain over any common good demands like class size, tuition, or funding.
We can still fight. Many PSC members feel like the union didn’t fight hard enough and believe that we can win much more with a real campaign. Those who embrace rank-and-file militancy have been frustrated by the PSC’s failure to mobilize its membership for a better contract, and by its closed-door bargaining and lack of transparency. The PSC represents 30,000 full-time and adjunct faculty members, lab techs, professional academic staff, and graduate employees at CUNY’s 26 campuses. Yet over two years, the PSC held a handful of demonstrations that never drew more than a few hundred people and grew weaker as the contract fight progressed. The PSC has no research department and is deeply understaffed.
Each PSC organizer covers at least three campuses spread across the city. Organizers are required to attend union meetings and collect union cards; there is no time left to mobilize members. Building solidarity among CUNY’s 275,000 students and the broader community is left to a single staff person at an affiliate group, CUNY Rising Alliance. While bargaining was under way, there were no attempts to disrupt the university’s functioning or to build the power needed to do so. Union leadership blamed a state law that outlaws public sector strikes, but the PSC held a strike authorization vote for the previous contract and suffered no penalties.
Yet the seeds of a powerful campaign already exist within the union. Over PSC leadership’s objections, eleven chapters passed resolutions supporting a strike if the contract did not achieve 7K for adjuncts. This semester five chapters have voted for a strike authorization campaign, calling on the PSC to step up its organizing and get serious about becoming a threat to the state and city officials who control CUNY funding. As PSC leadership touts its “historic” contract, the 7K or Strike movement is reaching out to members with a strong message: VOTE NO. We can win a better contract—and a better CUNY—by building rank-and-file power.
Jane Guskin is an adjunct lecturer in Urban and Labor Studies at Queens College and a PSC-CUNY alternate delegate.