Viewpoint: Vote Yes on the PSC-CUNY Contract: A Step Forward in the Fight

stack of picket signs including "don't raise tuition, fund CUNY contract," "good jobs now, make Wall Street pay," "CUNY invest in New York," "help the people, not the billionaires," and "CUNY needs competitive salaries"

The recently announced tentative agreement between the PSC and CUNY would substantially improve the pay of adjunct faculty and is likely to change the university’s hiring incentives. Photo: Professional Staff Congress-CUNY

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). Below we publish a piece arguing for a yes vote on the agreement. See the argument for a no vote here.

The PSC represents 30,000 workers at the City University of New York. CUNY was founded as the Free Academy in 1847, and today annually engages more than half a million students, the majority of them people of color. The PSC approaches a “wall-to-wall” union model, representing a wide swath of CUNY employees including part- and full-time faculty, professional staff, lab technicians, graduate employees, and many more.

Both following national trends and due to New York-specific circumstances, the university has relied increasingly on so-called adjunct labor to keep its doors open. Even as direct public funding relative to the number of full-time equivalent students declined, CUNY expanded. This was possible in part because of the poverty wages it was able to pay adjunct faculty: $3,222 is the current starting rate to teach one three-credit course.

The recently announced tentative agreement between the PSC and CUNY would substantially improve the pay of adjunct faculty and is likely to change the university’s hiring incentives. Below, I highlight key elements of the tentative agreement (TA) and its relationship to the broader political terrain in New York. This TA, like any contract, represents the middle of a fight, not the end of it. But there is no doubt in my mind that we, the voting members, should move to ratify.

  • The proposed TA moves the bottom of the adjunct pay scale for those teaching one three-credit class from $3,222 to $5,500 by August 2022, with an increase of more than $1,200 (or 39 percent) starting next semester.
  • Based on previously negotiated benefits, the percent increases vary by the number of courses a particular adjunct teaches, as well as the number of credits of each course. By 2022:
    • An adjunct teaching one four-credit course at the bottom of the current pay scale will see an increase of more than $2,500 in their pay (60 percent over current pay)
    • An adjunct teaching two three-credit courses at the bottom of the current pay scale will see an increase of nearly $3,500 (46 percent over current pay)
    • An adjunct teaching two four-credit courses at the bottom of the current pay scale will see an increase of more than $4,000 (42 percent over current pay)
    • The proposed TA creates a single flat rate in place of the current salary step system, but, for example, even an adjunct teaching two four-credit courses at the top step of the bottom adjunct title will see an increase of more than $1,000 (23 percent over current pay).
  • Importantly, the financial gains for adjunct faculty come with a commitment of additional funding from both the city and the state. CUNY is funded by both entities.
  • These increases are a moral victory, but they are also—likely—a structural one. The PSC-CUNY contract has a lecturer title with contractual tenure but without an obligation to conduct research, as tenure-track faculty have. Even before this contract, when there was a much wider spread between adjunct and lecturer pay, CUNY converted several hundred long-serving adjuncts to lecturers. With the new compression between the titles, they will have an even deeper incentive to convert.
  • The proposed TA contains raises above the so-called New York “pattern” for some of the lowest- paid full-time employees in the bargaining unit: lecturers, lab technicians, and the lowest-paid staff title.
  • In the last round of bargaining, the PSC negotiated the first genuine job security provision for adjunct faculty since the formation of the union in the 1970s: three-year appointments for those who teach two courses for 10 consecutive semesters. The TA changes eligibility from 10 consecutive semesters to 10 out of 12 semesters, for reasons including medical issues and loss of a course due to insufficient enrollment. More than 2,500 CUNY adjuncts have three-year appointments already; hundreds more will now qualify as a result.
  • Graduate employees also make significant gains in the proposed TA:
    • Those employed at CUNY in their sixth and seventh years of doctoral study will no longer pay tuition if they are New York residents, and will have their tuition reduced by some $2,700 annually if they are not.
    • In a genuine example of bargaining for the common good, the TA sets aside nearly three quarters of a million dollars for doctoral students who are not yet in the bargaining unit, so that they can access health insurance.
    • The committee created to administer the health insurance provision will then have permanent status to address subsequent graduate employee issues.
  • The proposed TA brings the issue of copyright—whether faculty own the fruits of their academic labor—under the auspices of the contract for the first time, under a provision on stipend pay.
  • In the proposed TA, CUNY also commits to administering a paid family leave system, modeled on those for other employees of state agencies, developed in response to the 2016 law governing the private sector.
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    I want to be clear. The proposed TA does not contain everything we want, or everything PSC members and CUNY students deserve. In my view, union contracts are a measure of power built and power exercised. Their limits reflect the limits on that power, and therefore, point a path forward. Offensive strikes are on the rise for the first time in decades, and they have been especially strong in the public sector.

    But we have not yet seen the strike wave come home to New York State. The Taylor Law—both its protections and penalties—looms over New York collective bargaining. The law imposes stiff fines for public sector strikes on both individual workers and the union organization, and at the same time, it requires employers to abide by expired contracts. If we are truly to transform CUNY, the state of public services, and class relations generally in New York, we will have to smash the bad parts of that law, on the ground and in Albany.

    The proposed TA represents the middle of a fight. Part-time faculty specifically and the PSC broadly have more power today than yesterday. But we need more power still to win yet bigger fights.

    Luke Elliott-Negri is a PSC-CUNY university-wide officer and serves on the union’s bargaining committee. He is a non-teaching adjunct at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.