Fighting for CUNY's future

Tahir Butt reports on a growing and united struggle at the City University of New York to win raises for faculty and prevent more tuition hikes for students.

Some 1,500 PSC members and their supporters came out to "Stop starving CUNY" rallies (Tahir Butt | SW)Some 1,500 PSC members and their supporters came out to "Stop starving CUNY" rallies (Tahir Butt | SW)

THE CITY University of New York (CUNY) has become the center of political conflict in New York over the past two months.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo shocked and angered many people in January with a proposal to shift the burden for nearly half a billion dollars in funding for CUNY from the state to the New York City government. Cuomo refused to call this a "cut," reasoning that the total budget of CUNY would remain the same from the previous year--as long as the city coughed up money it had never budgeted for.

Cuomo tacked onto this "cost shift" a promise that the state would allocate $240 million to settle a contract dispute with the CUNY's faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC).

Just in the past week, in the face of broad opposition, Cuomo was forced to back down from the worse aspects of his proposals. However, it remains unclear what will come of the money for settling the contract with the PSC--or the school's future prospects amid a deepening crisis that has befallen CUNY since the economic recession.

As highlighted recently by the New York Times, CUNY's students, whose numbers have risen by 55,000, now receive 17 percent less in funds from New York state than they did per student in 2008--at the same time that tuition has increased by $300 each year since 2010.

This past summer, the university faced an unexpected budget shortfall of $63 million after Cuomo vetoed a funding bill that passed both houses of the legislature. The current budget crisis pushed the CUNY Board of Trustees to propose another series of tuition increases. It's in this context of austerity that the labor contract with PSC was negotiated.

In the past year, the union stepped up its contract campaign with a more confrontational approach. This is a welcome shift for the PSC after five years of failed negotiations. The escalation strategy has opened up a much-needed front for the defense of CUNY, in which the organizational capacity of the union is being tested--and could potentially be strengthened.

The solidarity of students and labor will be challenged by deepening austerity, but it also offers the only potential leverage for a fightback capable of defending CUNY.

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CUNY CONSISTS of 22 institutions that span the five boroughs of New York City. The university enrolls over a quarter million students, who, since 2008, have assumed a greater financial burden as the state government pursued austerity.

Austerity since the recession has also meant that this is the sixth year that 25,000 members of the PSC have returned to work without a new contract. AFSCME District Council 37, another public-sector union that represents 10,000 CUNY workers, has also been without a contract since 2009 and is presently waging its own contract fight.

The last contract for PSC members was negotiated in 2008 and expired in 2010. Negotiations for a new contract didn't begin in earnest until after the election of the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, with his "tale of two cities" campaign for a more economically equitable New York City.

However, it is the state government that mostly controls the purse strings for the university.

Under Andrew Cuomo, who was elected governor in 2010, the state has held back the growth in spending in the wake of the 2008 economic recession, keeping the annual expansion under 2 percent.

CUNY management's first economic offer was only made after the union pursued a more aggressive strategy of confrontation, after spending two fruitless years in negotiation sessions with an ostensibly more favorable city government.

In September 2015, at the start of a new academic year, the union leadership initiated an escalation of its campaign to put pressure on management--beginning with an early-morning demonstration outside the residence of newly appointed CUNY Chancellor James Milliken on October 1. Close to 1,000 PSC members and supporters took part in this demonstration outside Milliken's apartment, which is fully paid for by the university.

Milliken proved to be a good target for the frustration of union members. At a rate of $19,500, the monthly rent of the apartment costs three-quarters of what an adjunct professor teaching a full course load might make in an entire year. And that's on top of Milliken's annual salary of $670,000.

At the energetic demonstration protesters from across the CUNY system rang alarm clocks and chanted against cutting funding for public education. Participants walked a picket line in front of Milliken's apartment and chanted, "When education is under attack, what do we do? Stand up fight back!"

In late October, the PSC's Executive Council announced that it would be holding a strike authorization vote, to give itself legitimacy to call a walkout if, after gauging support for more militant action, it deemed such action necessary.

Since this announcement, strike authorization vote committees have formed on the campuses, alongside union trainings. That started conversations with members about the necessity of a new contract, but also how to build the collective power of labor. Though there had been an expectation that the vote would be taken in the spring semester, it remains unclear when the ballot will take place.

The strike authorization committees have taken up important discussions about the risk of reprisals and potential fines, and the extent to which the union can and cannot protect its members.

In New York state, these risks stem from the 1967 Taylor Law that prohibits strikes on the part of public-sector unions. Individual union members can be fined two days' wages for every day out on strike, while the union itself can face the suspension of dues checkoff. A vote to authorize the Executive Council to call a strike wouldn't necessarily lead to a walkout, but it would be an important signal of the willingness of members to fight, despite the risks of the Taylor Law.

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THE PSC's primary economic demand has been to win back pay for all the years that members have been without a contract. The union has also been pushing to reduce the workload of faculty and increase opportunities for career advancement for the 3,300 instructional staff.

In addition, for the 16,250 adjunct faculty, who together account for three-quarters of the teaching across the system, the union is demanding greater job security. While this demand has been framed as a non-economic demand, since it wouldn't require any new money in the contract, it has the potential of easing the insecurity faced by adjuncts.

But given that CUNY adjuncts earn just $3,000 per course--a fraction of what their counterparts get at local private universities like New York and Columbia Universities, or nearby public Rutgers University in New Jersey--economic demands for adjuncts will certainly have to be moved to the center of future contract campaigns.

CUNY management's first economic offer finally came on November 4, after the union escalated its campaign. Outside CUNY central offices where negotiations were taking place, several hundred union members and supporters rallied. When the negotiation team came out of the office building, 53 PSC members sat down at the entrance in an act of civil disobedience, and were promptly arrested.

The union contract negotiation team refused to take management's economic offer to its members since it called for a contract through October 2016 that included a salary increase of only 6 percent.

According to the terms of the offer, there would be no retroactive pay increases for the first three years, followed by raises of 1 percent, 1 percent and 3 percent for the remaining three years. By comparison, over the same period of time, the cost of living in New York City has increased by 23 percent.

At a mass meeting on November 19, the PSC leadership explained its refusal to accept the 6 percent offer and initiated the campaign for the strike authorization vote.

Close to 1,000 union members from all campuses attended the meeting to figure out next steps forward, such as the strike authorization vote. However, the terrain on which union members are fighting has become more difficult with Cuomo's austerity agenda.

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LAST SUMMER, Cuomo vetoed a bill to increase funding to CUNY as well as the state's public system, the State University of New York (SUNY). The bill had passed both legislative bodies and included proposals to ensure that funding would not be less than the previous year's allocation.

Cuomo's veto led to a 3 percent cut for the current academic year across the four-year senior colleges of CUNY that depend primarily on state funding. Without the funds provided through the vetoed bill, revenue from tuition ended up paying for the increased costs that are mandatory and inflationary, rather than improving the quality of education.

At the start of 2016, Cuomo accelerated his bloodletting with his proposed shift of $485 million of the operating budget of CUNY in the coming school year from the state government to the city. But here the governor might have overreached.

State Senate Republicans approved Cuomo's austerity budget, ludicrously combining it with an effort to repress pro-Palestinian students and faculty over their supposed anti-Semitism. But the Democratic-majority State Assembly rejected it and called for a two-year tuition freeze.

A New York Times editorial argued that the governor "must not get away" with implementing his "punishing" budget.

Just last week, an open letter to Cuomo and the state legislature ran in the Times as an advertisement--it came from presidents of the board of foundations representing private donors to CUNY, who in the past year contributed over $250 million. The letter decried the "precarious future" of CUNY and called the "fiscal instability and the lack of certainty...deeply troubling."

Three days later, on March 24, PSC campus chapters organized "Stop Starving CUNY" rallies that led up to the largest protest in the past year outside Cuomo's office.

Nearly 1,500 union members and supporters marched and chanted "C-U-N-Y! Don't Let CUNY Die!" and over 40 faculty and staff were arrested for performing a die-in outside the governor's office.

The next morning, with opposition mounting, Cuomo backed down on the proposal of shifting costs, marking an important victory for the union, students and the broader defense of CUNY that came together since the announcement of the budget in mid-January.

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WHILE THE retreat by Cuomo was a promising step, the situation for PSC at the same time was made more difficult by CUNY management's unilateral decision to declare an impasse in contract negotiations and ask the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to assign a mediator to help both sides reach an agreement.

Management pointed specifically to the PSC's strike authorization campaign for its conclusion that negotiations between the two parties could not progress further without assistance. PERB's mediation will not be binding, but it could lead to the union being forced into lengthy fact-finding procedures dictated by law.

How all this will affect the strike authorization vote remains to be seen. Certainly the union's position is made more difficult by the legal threat of a mediation process that could be drawn out for another year.

Even though the proposal to shift costs to the city is off the table, the question of sufficient state funds for settling the contract is an open question. After the budget is finalized in the legislature, the focus for union members will return to contract negotiations. Even if the current talks over back pay are settled in the coming weeks and months, negotiations for a new contract would have to begin immediately.

A central challenge for the union will be to counter the attempts by Cuomo and management to pit CUNY students, fearful of new tuition hikes, against faculty and staff who need pay increases.

In reality, it is government disinvestment that is driving up the cost of tuition and not overpaid state employees, as Cuomo claims.

The success of the union's strategy will depend on winning solidarity from CUNY students and their families. Only with these forces can effective pressure be placed on the state and city governments to stop starving the university system.

Although the forces of the union and students are weaker than those arrayed against them, the coming months will present opportunities, big and small, to build their capacity to defend public higher education and protect public-sector jobs.