CUNY adjuncts deserve better

November 19, 2010

The struggle of CUNY's adjunct professors for better pay and benefits is part of defending public higher education in New York City, says Doug Singsen.

AT THE City University of New York (CUNY), a struggle has begun over the upcoming contract negotiations between the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), CUNY's faculty union, and the university administration. At stake are not only urgently needed improvements in the pay, benefits and job security of adjunct instructors, who teach a majority of classes at CUNY, but the future shape of public higher education in New York City.

With more than 250,000 students, CUNY is the largest urban university system in the country and the third-largest university system overall, behind the State University of New York and California State University. At CUNY, as at most public universities in the U.S., adjuncts now teach a majority of the university's classes and make up a majority of its teaching force. Yet adjuncts are subject to a barrage of unfavorable conditions, including poverty-level wages, paltry benefits and nonexistent job security.

A first-year adjunct teaching the maximum course load allowed without a waiver, a total of five courses per academic year, would make $15,000 a year. With a waiver, an adjunct teaching a course load of four classes in the fall and four in the spring would make approximately $24,000 per year, which in New York City is not enough for even a single person to survive on, much less support a family.

Adjunct faculty mobilizes for a Delegates Assembly vote on contract demands
Adjunct faculty mobilizes for a Delegates Assembly vote on contract demands (Doug Singsen | SW)

By contrast, an assistant professor earns from $38,801 to $81,645, and a full professor can earn up to $116,364. Adjuncts also have poor health insurance, which covers little other than office visits, so any illness can destroy an adjunct's already precarious financial situation.

Adjuncts don't receive release time for research, as tenured and tenure-track (T/TT) faculty do, which makes it harder for adjuncts to do research, give papers at academic conferences and publish articles. Since these are the main criteria for being hired for a T/TT position, it's easy for adjuncts to become trapped in second-class status.

Finally, adjuncts are hired one semester at a time, which means that they can be laid off (or, as CUNY management puts it, "non-reappointed") at any time. It's not uncommon for adjuncts to find out weeks or even days before a semester begins that a class they had been promised has been canceled.

Not only do adjuncts' working conditions ensure that they will have to struggle constantly to make ends meet, but these conditions also negatively impact the learning conditions of their students. Adjuncts frequently teach courses on multiple campuses, running back and forth from one to the other, or work second jobs for extra income. This leaves them with less time to spend on their students.

Because adjuncts are treated as second-class employees by most departments, they rarely have access to the facilities needed to do their job, such as office space, computers and printers. And adjuncts are often not employed long enough at one school to become familiar with its students, facilities, rules or procedures.

All of these factors decrease the quality of the education that students receive. Despite this, adjuncts struggle mightily to serve their students and are sometimes more invested in their students' learning more than T/TT faculty, some of whom see themselves as researchers first and teachers second.

NOW A struggle is emerging among CUNY adjuncts to do something about this situation.

Following the expiration of the PSC's previous contract with CUNY, a new round of contract negotiations is set to begin this year. In the previous contract, nothing was done to improve the situation of adjuncts. In fact, because all PSC employees received the same percentage raise, T/TT professors' raises were two to five times larger than those of adjuncts--widening, rather than reducing, the divide between the two groups.

To prevent a repeat of this outcome, adjuncts have taken the issues that affect them into their own hands. CUNY Contingents Unite and the Adjunct Project, two groups dedicated to fighting for the interests of adjuncts, co-endorsed an ambitious set of four demands that would begin to address the unequal status of adjuncts. Those demands are:

(1) Minimum three-year contracts for adjuncts, with documented reasons for non-reappointment and a system of seniority.

(2) Wage increase of $30 per credit hour for adjuncts; equivalent for grad fellows and other contingent titles. Step raises every year.

(3) Comprehensive employer-paid health insurance on par with municipal workers for all contingent employees.

(4) Promotional series, real job security and due process for Higher Education Officers [HEOs, administrative employees who receive similar pay, benefits and job security to adjuncts].

The first mobilization in support of these demands took place at a special meeting of the PSC's Delegate Assembly (DA) on November 4, where the bargaining agenda for the contract was voted on.

In the months leading up to the DA, and especially in the final two weeks before it took place, adjuncts collected more than 1,400 signatures for a petition in support of the four demands. Even before the DA met, however, the adjuncts' campaign for the four demands was already bearing results.

The PSC's bargaining committee adopted the health care and HEO demands nearly verbatim, but significantly weakened the job security and wage demands.

The bargaining committee replaced the $30 per credit hour raise, which represents an approximately 50 percent raise for adjuncts, with the vague demand for "measurable progress toward pay parity." The committee also replaced the demand for three-year contracts, which would protect adjuncts from being laid off without cause, with job protections that only kick in after an adjunct has taught two courses per semester for five years, a condition that department chairs could easily evade by simply laying off adjuncts before they reach the necessary five years.

At the DA itself, adjuncts organized a visible and vocal presence to advocate full adoption of their demands. Approximately 100 adjuncts and graduate employees turned out, wearing bright orange T-shirts with the slogans "We are the teaching majority" on the front and "Pay parity now!" on the back. The adjuncts made their presence felt throughout the meeting by holding up signs, applauding those who supported their demands and booing those who opposed them.

Because adjuncts have almost no representation within the DA, it was unlikely that the adjuncts' demands would be adopted, and indeed they went down to defeat by a vote of twenty-five to seventy-five. However, while this margin of defeat is quite large, it actually represents an increase in support for adjuncts' demands within the DA.

Unlike unions at most universities in the U.S., the PSC represents many different categories of academic workers, including T/TT faculty, adjuncts, graduate employees, HEOs and others. However, the non-T/TT workers, collectively known as contingent workers, do not have equal representation within the PSC. Out of approximately 100 members of the PSC's Delegate Assembly, less than 10 are adjuncts, and there is only one graduate employee.

Because of their working conditions, adjuncts are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to winning representation in the DA. Since adjuncts often work at different campuses at the same time and/or from semester to semester, it's difficult for them to become sufficiently implanted to run for and win election as delegates. As a result, the two-tier employment system practiced by CUNY is reproduced within the union, creating a further impediment to the realization of adjuncts' demands.

Although the union claims that it will fight hard for adjunct issues this time around, the real test of its commitment will come once negotiations begin. How hard will the union fight for its most underpaid and unprotected members? Will it dig in its heels, or will it abandon the most difficult demands in exchange for smaller, incremental gains for T/TT faculty?

IN ORDER to win their demands, adjuncts will not only have to push the union's bargaining committee to make good on their commitment to adjunct issues, they will also have to lead the way in developing stronger, more militant forms of struggle.

For the last three years, the union's strategy for the most important political struggle it has been engaged in--the fight against budget cuts--has relied primarily on organizing frequent "lobby days," in which PSC members and CUNY students travel to Albany or City Hall to speak with supposedly friendly Democratic politicians and their aides.

The union has done little to organize and mobilize its members on their own campuses, where they work every day and where they have the greatest power to make a political statement and ultimately--although New York's draconian, anti-union Taylor Law stands in the way--to shut the university down.

So far, the biggest attempt that the PSC has made to organize faculty and students on their own campuses was a petition campaign last year. The union collected signed postcards against budget cuts that were delivered to Democratic politicians, a tactic that did little to put public pressure on politicians because it was totally invisible to their constituents.

While the PSC has called a few protests against budget cuts in the last three years, it has not made a serious effort to mobilize its members, and the protests have been isolated and episodic rather than part of a strategically planned, ongoing campaign. The PSC has done little to work with or support student activists who have been protesting budget cuts and tuition hikes for the last three years.

Instead, the PSC has preferred to work exclusively with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), which has a strategy focused on lobbying and appealing to Democratic Party politicians that is similar to the union's. Further, in NYPIRG, students are given political and logistical guidance by a professional staffa, which limits the ability of students to organize themselves, make their own decisions and become leaders.

As a result, when students organized protests last year as part of the March 4th national day of action to defend public education that drew out some 2,000 participants, Transport Workers Union Local 100, the union of Metropolitan Transit Authority workers, did more to support the students organizing the protests than the PSC did.

The PSC's strategy has met with some success. A number of the proposed cuts to CUNY's budget in the last three years have been reduced, and the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act (PHEEIA), which sought to give the CUNY and SUNY boards of trustees the power to raise tuition at will, was defeated earlier this year.

The PSC has credited these victories to its lobbying efforts, with some justification. Student protests also deserve some of the credit, but the fact is that our protests so far have not been large enough to make a major political impact. The lion's share of the credit probably belongs to the widespread public opposition to cuts to public services.

The PSC's strategy has significant weaknesses, however. First, it is not building a network of rank-and-file activists on CUNY's 23 campuses, which will be needed to mobilize union members on a broad basis. Second, its tactics are invisible to the public and so do nothing to raise public awareness of the cuts or put wider public pressure on political decision-makers.

Given the scale of the adjuncts' demands, only a strategy that utilizes every possible source of political strength has any chance of winning the victories that adjuncts need.

IF THE "adjunctification" of CUNY continues, it threatens not only the livelihoods of adjuncts, but the future of public higher education in New York City.

That's because the logic behind the increasing use of low-wage adjuncts is part of the CUNY administration's ongoing effort to turn CUNY into an "edu-factory." Under this model, traditional academic values, such as critical thinking and academic freedom, are being replaced by a narrow, market-driven approach to knowledge.

In this gradually emerging restructuring of CUNY, a small group of elite students and professors receive top-quality educations, facilities, equipment, support and compensation, while the majority are consigned to second-class status. Meanwhile, skyrocketing tuition rates, which have increased by 44 percent since 2003, are limiting access to CUNY for low-income students, who are disproportionately minorities.

CUNY's administration is slowly but surely eliminating the teaching of the humanities, social sciences and critical-thinking skills, which equip students with a knowledge of history and the ability to question the decisions of those in authority. In their place, students are being given only the minimum knowledge necessary to enter the job market as low-level technical or administrative employees.

The university administration's use of adjuncts plays into this scheme by creating a workforce whose lack of job security renders it unable to defend the academic standards of the university, as faculty bodies have traditionally done, or to unite with students to defend their common interests.

As the largest group of workers within CUNY, adjuncts have the power to strike a blow against this direction for CUNY, both in their own interests and in those of their students. To win, adjuncts will have to draw on all the power at their disposal, which means mobilizing on their own campuses, where they have the support of allies including students, sympathetic T/TT faculty and other workers, and the ability to directly confront university administrations and launch a larger political fight.

Paying adjuncts a living wage will require a significant increase in CUNY's budget, a difficult demand in a time when elected officials of both political parties are calling for austerity. This is especially true now that Andrew Cuomo, the newly elected Democratic governor, is preparing to make good on his campaign promise to close the state's budget deficit by cracking down on the "greedy" public sector unions, which he blames for New York's budget deficit.

Instead, adjuncts, the PSC and students must demand that the financial sector that caused the economic crisis with their speculation on sub-prime mortgages be made to pay for the costs of the recession.

Instead of cuts that fall on adjuncts, CUNY's many low-income students and those who depend on vital public services, the city and state should raise corporate tax rates and upper-bracket income taxes, impose a tax on financial transactions and close corporate loopholes. This could provide more than enough money to give adjuncts a raise and restore funding to CUNY and other public services.

In this political environment, it's going to take more than lobby days and postcards to win real victories for adjuncts. Sadly, adjuncts can't count on their union leaders to show the way. They will have to do that themselves, showing their union's leaders and their fellow members what a real political struggle looks like. There is no other way forward.

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