Adjuncts deserve health care

September 14, 2011

Héctor A. Rivera reports on the City University of New York's failure to adequately fund health care for its growing number of adjunct faculty.

NEW YORK--Another round of struggle is brewing at the City University of New York (CUNY) over health insurance for adjunct teachers.

Last month, CUNY's faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), announced that unless the university agrees to begin paying the actual cost of their health care, 1,700 adjuncts whose health insurance is paid out of the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund will lose coverage by August of next year.

The Welfare Fund is a trust that was established in 1986 to provide basic health insurance and supplemental health benefits, such as prescription drugs, dental care and hearing aids, to eligible adjuncts. In subsequent years, CUNY and the PSC negotiated additional lump sums and recurring increases to provide the Welfare Fund with revenue.

However, the fund is no longer able to financially support the number of adjuncts enrolled. Since 2002, CUNY's contribution to the Welfare Fund has remained unchanged while the number of adjuncts enrolled in the insurance plan has gone from 1,067 to 1,721, and the annual cost per person went from $3,264 to $8,118. Today, CUNY's contribution only covers 20 percent of health care needs.

Members of PSC-CUNY marching at last year's March 4th national day of action to defend public education
Members of PSC-CUNY marching at last year's March 4th national day of action to defend public education

Although CUNY is failing to provide for the basic needs of adjunct instructors, the university would not be able to function without them. Over the past three decades, CUNY has become ever more dependent on adjuncts, rather than hiring additional full-time professors. In the last eleven years, the number of adjuncts teaching at CUNY has gone from 6,258 to 11,450, an increase of 83 percent.

Health care for adjuncts is extremely uneven. Some adjuncts teach part-time while working full-time jobs elsewhere that provide them with health insurance. Some get coverage through the Welfare Fund, which requires that eligible adjuncts teach at least two courses every semester for at least a year. Still others who don't qualify for the Welfare Fund must either buy insurance on the open market at outrageous prices or else go without.

Graduate employees, meanwhile, receive health care through the same program that provides their counterparts at the State University of New York (SUNY) with health insurance.

In the face of this crisis, the university is pointing the finger at the union and relinquishing any responsibility for funding health care for its adjuncts--unless it comes from other workers at CUNY. In a statement dated August 17, the university's labor relations office clearly attempts to pit Welfare Fund workers against other CUNY workers:

Unfortunately, as the union is well aware, any additional funding that would support these health insurance benefits for about 13 percent of our adjunct faculty would have to come from other places within CUNY. Thus, during collective bargaining, any available funding--for all employees--would have to be reduced to pay for this enhancement for this cohort of employees.

CUNY's claim that there is no money to pay for health insurance indicates the necessity of linking this struggle with the fight to tax banks, millionaires and corporations.

While city and state budgets, which fund CUNY, have repeatedly been cut in recent years, Wall Street has been restored to record profitability, and many profitable corporations continue to pay nothing in taxes. There is plenty of money available in the economy to provide health care for workers, but a fight is necessary to force the city and state to tap into these revenue sources.

TO FORCE CUNY to take responsibility for providing its workers with health care, the PSC has begun gearing up for a fight for the 1,700 adjuncts whose health insurance is at stake. Over the last month, the PSC has been preparing an anti-austerity campaign and reaching out to the union's rank and file by calling meetings, organizing a letter-writing campaign, circulating petitions and planning a protest at the next Board of Trustees meeting on September 26.

PSC Treasurer Mike Fabricant told a meeting of adjuncts and graduate employees on August 30:

This is the union's anti-austerity campaign. Unions across the state are being asked for givebacks on health care. If we win this--and I believe we can win it--this will be a signal to other unions in the state and across the country that they can win this fight. This will be the fight of this union's life. This will be a major, major campaign.

However, the union and adjunct activists disagree over what the campaign's demands should be. Activists have argued that the campaign should demand health insurance for all CUNY employees, including graduate student employees and adjuncts who don't meet the Welfare Fund eligibility requirements.

Several years ago, the union succeeded in negotiating for graduate employees to receive the same health insurance that graduate employees at SUNY do. Now, adjunct activists are suggesting that a similar strategy be applied to all adjuncts, graduate employees and other contingent workers, and that all CUNY employees receive health insurance through the same plan that serves other city employees.

The demand for health insurance for all CUNY employees would reframe the issue from a narrow question of eligibility and funding into a broader one of whether workers have a right to health care--and of the need for unions to mount a vigorous fightback against austerity.

This would increase the sympathy this issue is capable of generating from the public and other workers, give thousands more CUNY workers a stake in the fight, and make this part of a longer campaign--so even if CUNY rescues the Welfare Fund before August 2012, this could become the first step in a larger fight to win health insurance for every CUNY employee.

The union's decision to make this issue its central campaign of the coming year and to work with adjunct activists is likely due, at least in part, to last year's mobilization of CUNY adjuncts to demand improvements in the union's advocacy for adjunct needs. To their credit, union leaders have responded to this pressure, although there is still a long way to go before it is ready to mount the kind of campaign it will take to win.

The question is: Will the union limit its protests to symbolic events, focus instead on lobbying and negotiations, and mobilize only halfheartedly--or will it truly make this an all-out fight?

As the economy's jobless recovery continues, more and more workers are recognizing the necessity of fighting back to defend their jobs, pay and compensation, as workers have done at Verizon, the Port of Longview, and Long Island University. The struggle at CUNY is another part of the slowly rising arc of resistance.

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