There's more to fight for at CUNY

Tahir Butt and James Daugherty look at the tentative agreement for the staff union at City University of New York--and at what lies ahead for the struggle.

Members of the PSC at CUNY up the pressure for their demands (Professional Staff Congress/CUNY)Members of the PSC at CUNY up the pressure for their demands (Professional Staff Congress/CUNY)

AFTER SOME six years without a new contract, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) has reached a tentative agreement with the administration of the City University of New York (CUNY).

The PSC represents over 25,000 adjuncts, graduate assistants, faculty and staff across the entire CUNY system, on over 20 campuses spread across the five boroughs of New York City. The union's leadership has released highlights of the advances and givebacks, and members are scheduled to vote on the agreement in the coming weeks.

The agreement, which will be discussed by the PSC's Delegate Assembly on June 23, is a mixed bag--wage increases hovering at or below the rate of inflation, mixed with real gains in job security and promotion for certain groups of workers covered under the agreement.

And there are significant concessions--most notably, CUNY administrators won their demand for 250 new full-time faculty positions on annual contracts without any possibility of tenure or long-term contracts. These new positions could be used to undercut new or replacement tenure-track, full-time faculty.

The wage gains, retroactive to the expiration of the last contract, include salary increases of around 10.4 percent compounded over six years, broken down as follows: 1 percent in 2012, 1 percent in 2013, 2.5 percent in 2014, 2 percent in 2015, 2 percent in 2016, and 1.5 percent in 2017.

This is a bitter pill to swallow considering that the cost of living in New York City has increased by 23 percent during the same period, according to an analysis by the Economist. Full-time employees will also receive a one-time $1,000 signing bonus to sweeten the deal.

Included for full-time faculty is a commitment to form a labor-management committee to discuss a plan for reducing teaching load, which has the potential to improve working and learning conditions at CUNY. But there aren't specific dates for the committee to complete its work, and since workload reduction will impose high financial costs for the administration, even developing such a plan will be a fight.

Notably, adjuncts who have taught three courses per semester last year will also receive the full $1,000 bonus, though graduate student workers will receive $750 or $500, depending on their current workload.

However, the salary bargaining for percentage raises across the board will actually increase pay disparities between the different ranks of union members. Alternative arrangements, like a flat dollar amount added to base salary, would have progressively delivered larger raises to the lowest paid. Pay equity thus remains an unresolved issue.

On the plus side, however, longtime adjuncts will for the first time have the ability to work toward three-year appointments after a number of years of continuous teaching. This represents a real victory and one of the most successful counterattacks on contingency at any public university across the U.S., as modest as those terms may seem.

Additionally, Higher Education Officers (HEOs) will have the ability to win additional money to their base salary after reaching the top salary tier, lifting the ceiling on opportunities for another insecure segment of CUNY's labor force.

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THE TENTATIVE agreement comes after stalled negotiations and an uneven contract campaign, which the PSC organized.

PSC leaders moved into action in the summer of 2015 and began the fall semester with union T-shirt days, plus a large rally and "wake-up call" outside of the home of CUNY Chancellor James Milliken on October 1. In March, union members and supporters engaged in civil disobedience and got arrested in the interest of winning a fair contract.

After months of discussing a strike authorization vote, the union leadership organized a system-wide ballot in May, but made clear there would be no plans for a strike in the current academic year. The semester closed with a significant 92 percent "yes" vote to strike, with more than 10,000 union members participating.

The vote showed real promise and demonstrated that a large layer of union members across the CUNY system are fed up with the administration and willing to fight, even at the risk of engaging in strike action, which illegal under the New York state Taylor Laws. However, a majority of workers represented by the PSC didn't participate in the vote. Voting was uneven across the campuses, but did mark a significant test of strength for the union.

However, following a campaign which energized a new layer of leadership on campuses, union leaders shifted attention to closed-door negotiations with CUNY management and pressuring legislators in Albany, effectively deprioritizing the mobilizations that had marked the year's escalation.

Many rank-and-file members became confused and frustrated, as communications became infrequent and few details were revealed about the ongoing negotiations, beyond the deadline of June 16 for a contract before the end of the current legislative session, which would have to approve the money necessary to settle a contract.

Then on June 11, AFSCME District Council 37, which represents over 10,000 workers in the CUNY system and also hasn't won a new contract in over six years, broke ranks with the PSC and concluded a deal with CUNY. AFSCME's settlement effectively undermined the PSC's bargaining position by creating a wage pattern and leaving the PSC alone as the last union at CUNY without a contract. The PSC then signed a deal more or less based on the wage pattern accepted by AFSCME.

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WHILE THE final settlement certainly has problems, perhaps the biggest issue has been the PSC's strategy throughout the contract campaign.

After all, it's one thing for unions to fight hard and lose, and quite another to wage an uneven fight in fits and starts, then come to a settlement and claim it's the best possible outcome. The latter can demobilize and demoralize the most dedicated union activists, who should be the backbone of any union's operations.

Membership involvement isn't a switch to be turned on and off again, but is instead a process of slowly but steadily nurturing membership activity and winning more and more people over to see the union as a powerful vehicle for social change and economic security.

The PSC employed closed-door bargaining throughout the contract campaign, missing an opportunity to capitalize on the latest indignations at the bargaining table and activate larger numbers of members. Open-door negotiations, on the other hand, could have dramatized management's intransigence and energized new union activists to get involved.

Similarly, it seems there was no clear plan for a series of system-wide escalating actions, broadly based among the union's membership, to build up to majority participation in a strike vote and then an actual strike. The strike vote was apparently organized as an end in itself, simply to give leverage to the union's negotiating team.

Many union members will be understandably disappointed with the unsatisfactory wage package, especially those who worked hard recruiting new members, attending actions, and helping to organize strike information meetings throughout the year.

In order to win more moving forward, the union will have to adopt a more aggressive and active stance in negotiations, and involve far wider layers of members and union activists in a contract campaign that is planned to give expression to the deep-seated anger held by thousands of workers across CUNY.

Given that this contract, if ratified, will expire in the fall 2017 semester, the union could immediately embark on a different course. For one thing, it could begin now to sign up those who didn't vote in the strike authorization ballot as full members of the union--that would make future authorizations a more credible threat of action.

Building on the considerable success of what was achieved in that first strike vote, the PSC could change up the playbook and embark on a broadly based contract campaign for the next round, by opening up bargaining and mobilizing step by step for a new deal in 2017, with escalating actions that would bring more and more layers of union members into activity for a strong new contract.