CUNY’s Last Lifeline

This spring's contract struggle brought students and faculty together to stem attacks on public higher education in New York.

At five in the morning on Thursday, June 16, after bargaining for eighteen straight hours, our union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), reached a tentative contract agreement with the City University of New York (CUNY). The deal came six years after our previous contract had expired and after a pitched battle against the university and New York State government.

Financially, the proposed contract is largely consistent with other New York State and City contracts — it does not break the regime of imposed austerity. But unlike many recent labor settlements, the agreement we reached is not primarily a defensive effort to resist concessions. While the power the PSC — a single militant union — was able to build was not enough to defeat austerity, it was enough to force real structural changes in the workplace, some of which we had been trying to achieve for fifteen years.

The victories were won in the face of a fiercely resistant management with a radically different vision for the university. Perhaps most significant, the structural changes will enhance learning conditions for CUNY students — students who have faced decades of cutbacks and planned poverty for their university.

The stakes are high when deciding whether to recommend a contract after a campaign that engaged thousands of union members and involved everything from civil disobedience to a strike authorization vote. “We fought as we had never fought before,” said one union delegate, a lifelong union activist.

The campaign measurably increased the union’s power, but without a class-wide movement, it could not deliver increases above inflation or even begin to provide the kind of money needed to break the exploitative system of adjunct labor.

Would a strike have enabled us to do so? And what kind of strike would such a transformation require? The campaign positioned the PSC, which represents twenty-seven thousand faculty and staff, to consider such questions seriously for the first time.

But it also gave us the leverage to negotiate a contract that defies austerity in critical arenas other than salary. The proposed agreement introduces changes in working conditions that will help us serve CUNY students — such as three-year appointments for adjuncts and a commitment to reduce teaching load to allow more time for research and to meet with students individually.

The union’s executive committee and delegate assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of the proposed agreement. It is up for ratification by the membership this month.

The Campaign

Our power at the negotiating table was a product of organizing on campuses and actions by our members on the streets. The escalating contract battle was informed by two clear principles.

First, we knew that our predicament of low wages and subpar working conditions is directly connected to the demographics of CUNY’s student body. CUNY enrolls more than half a million students, in programs from community college to the graduate level, in both credit-bearing and continuing education courses. More than half of CUNY undergraduates have annual household incomes of less than $30,000; three-quarters of undergraduates are Latino, black or Asian; close to 40 percent are immigrants.

Our working conditions are a casualty of a political establishment that has decided that this population is not worthy of the resources that could create a robust university. From the beginning, it was clear that the failure to provide a serious offer to the union was a failure to invest in our students.

Second, we knew that we were not alone in our battle. The same fight — for the right to quality public education — is being waged across the country, in Washington, in Illinois, in California, in Florida. When Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis defined their 2012 strike as a fight “for the soul of public education,” PSC members recognized our own struggle, waged on the increasingly contentious terrain of higher education.

The knowledge that we were undertaking a larger struggle against austerity for working people strengthened us. For some members, it was the reason for taking risks in the campaign. Susan Kang, a professor who was arrested in a union civil disobedience action while seven months pregnant, wrote:

While it is personally difficult to deal with six years of no contract, it is even more important . . . that we reject the idea that there isn’t enough money to properly fund accessible and high-quality higher education for our students.

Even as union members demanded long-overdue raises, we were clear that the contract shouldn’t rely on increased tuition. The demand for tuition freeze has been a consistent part of our campaign. There is more than enough money in the rich state of New York to provide adequate public funding for a public university that serves more than a half-million New Yorkers.

The PSC held several street demonstrations where thousands of our members participated, two civil disobedience actions in which nearly a hundred were arrested, numerous campus actions, mass meetings, poetry readings in support of a militancy fund, and trips with members and students to press our demands directly with lawmakers in Albany.

We arrived early one morning outside the luxury apartment building of CUNY’s chancellor and delivered a “wake-up call”—with 150 alarm clocks, a brass band, and nearly a thousand members from the PSC and other city unions. We marched with student activists across the Brooklyn Bridge, joining in as they chanted just as hard for our contract as for their tuition freeze.

And after actively demanding an economic offer from CUNY management for eighteen months — following years of artificial wage freezes for unions under New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — fifty-two PSC members were arrested in a civil disobedience at CUNY’s corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan. That day, an economic offer was made. CUNY managers claimed the two events were unrelated.

Because our cause is fundamentally connected to the quality of life in New York City communities, especially poor communities of color, the PSC built a coalition, CUNY Rising, that includes student government, representatives of other CUNY unions, churches, and nonprofit and civic organizations. Many had long been organizational allies, but the sense of a crisis at CUNY changed the political landscape and made a true coalition more possible.

“CUNY is for the People!” their signs beautifully asserted. Their support, together with the union’s militancy, helped to define the struggle for the CUNY contract as one against economic inequality and for racial justice.

In an action last spring, CUNY Rising joined the PSC in a march and town hall meeting with more than 1,500 supporters. The coalition continues to work together, even after the end of the contract campaign — allied organizations are developing a multi-year strategy, with an aspiration to generate deep grassroots involvement.

In January, as part of his state budget, Governor Cuomo announced a $485 million cut to the state allocation to CUNY. He called it a “cost shift,” urging the City of New York to pick up the tab. The measure had a “sweetener” — by reducing annual support for CUNY by nearly a half-billion dollars, the state would be able to make $240 million available to pay for retroactive raises for CUNY unions.

In the face of a cut that many lawmakers recognized as an existential threat to the university, CUNY management could muster only a tepid response, accepting the premise that it was a cost shift (even though the city refused to accept the cost) and calling the governor’s initiative “revenue-neutral.”

The PSC’s strategy in response to the governor’s proposed cut was developed in a context where we were deep in our contract battle and had been offered precious little in the form of retroactive pay. Union members had gone nearly six years without a raise. The promised $240 million would certainly have helped.

We could have offered qualified approval of the proposal in the hope of securing retroactive pay, or we could have refused to take a position and let the political imbroglio between the state and the city play itself out.

We did neither. The PSC is a union intensely committed to the needs of our members, but not narrowly focused on the prospect of our immediate contract. We know that we are strongest for our own needs when we enlarge, not reduce, our vision and our fight.

Union leaders, members, and allies understood that the threat of a cut was created to divert public attention from the deeper problem of ongoing fiscal starvation of CUNY. If all political efforts were focused on avoiding a massive cut, preserving the unacceptable status quo could appear a victory.

Nevertheless, the threatened cut could not be ignored, and we knew what it implied — the evisceration of a university serving working people. We decided to call it what it was.

The PSC led a media campaign demanding that the governor withdraw his proposal and pointing to the injustice of further impoverishing a university that had already been put under decades of immense strain.

Public funding for CUNY has been under assault since shortly after the unprecedented change in student demographics at the university as a result of open admissions, starting in 1969. The decades since 1990 have seen a continuing loss of support and shift to higher student tuition to fill the gap. Even in recent years, as the state economy rebounded from the 2008 recession, the pattern has continued — state support per student still lags behind 2008 levels.

A critical part of the union’s campaign was to mobilize behind the demand that Albany reverse the erosion of CUNY funding, including funds for our contract. Years of patient work exposing the extent of underfunding for CUNY enabled PSC activists to press hard in Albany this year. We knew that the only way to achieve a contract with retroactive pay and even modest increases was to make state government pay its share.

The governor’s office held adamantly to the position that Albany could not afford to fund the CUNY union contracts; employees would have to accept below-inflation “increases,” or CUNY would have to cannibalize its own inadequate budget.

As the PSC fought back against an outlandish budget cut for CUNY, we also built momentum for the demand that the state invest in our contract. In the end, CUNY managers negotiated with the state for funds, but they were able to do so only because of the pressure we built in meeting rooms, legislators’ offices, on campuses — and on the streets.

Echoing students’ passionate chant, “Don’t let CUNY die!” the union organized a die-in and civil disobedience action outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office, just days before the state budget deadline. We demanded withdrawal of the proposed cut, a tuition freeze, and funding for a fair contract. Not coincidentally, on the day of our action, the governor withdrew his proposal.

Three months later, it became clear that we had succeeded on all three demands: there was no cut, tuition was frozen, funding for our contract was produced. None of the victories was complete, however, and we expect intense pressure for a tuition increase next year (when legislators are not up for reelection). But the reversal was dramatic.

The action that defined our campaign was a strike authorization vote, the first for the PSC in forty-three years. The decision to strike, while always a momentous one for workers, carries a graver significance for New York public-sector workers. The Taylor Law, the 1967 state labor law, designates any form of organized job action as illegal and imposes severe penalties such as fining workers an extra day’s pay for every day of a strike, prohibiting dues check-off for the union, and adding the likelihood of fines against the union and penalties up to jail time for union leaders. The law’s prohibition against strikes is designed to deprive labor of its most powerful weapon, and the memory of the 2005 New York City transit strike made it clear that it would be fully implemented.

We decided that the university’s failure to make an acceptable economic offer after more than five years created conditions dire enough for our members to be prepared to break the Taylor Law, if necessary.

The union took on the task of organizing our twenty-seven thousand members, close to half of whom are contingent faculty in vulnerable positions, to be prepared for a vote that would authorize the PSC leadership to call a strike. It was a mammoth task and could be accomplished only by turning a large number of members into organizers.

Over several weeks, PSC staff and leaders trained hundreds of members across CUNY’s nineteen campuses. Members learned how to hold one-on-one conversations with coworkers, to elicit the perspectives of others, to assess the readiness of the colleagues they talked to, and to compile a record of each conversation. More than a thousand members, many of whom had not been active before, stepped up to the task, got trained, and in turn organized others. In addition to one-on-one organizing, we held meetings on every campus, mobilizing members for the vote and related actions.

Large numbers of academic department chairs signed a statement declaring that they would not initiate any form of retaliation against their colleagues for participating in the strike authorization vote or in a job action. Thousands of CUNY students signed a petition stating their support for the vote and a fair contract for faculty and staff. More than five thousand members signed a public pledge announcing their intention to vote “yes” on strike authorization.

In the vote that occurred in May 92 percent voted to authorize the union to call a strike if necessary. PSC members, risking financial loss and heavy penalties to their union, had taken a huge step.

The vote defined our strength at the negotiating table. If we could not get a satisfactory agreement, we knew we would walk out and start organizing for a strike.

One executive council member commented afterwards that we should have begun strike training right away, and that criticism makes sense. What happened instead is that the strike authorization vote — together with pressure on Albany — created enough momentum to get a serious economic offer, and bargaining intensified. All leadership efforts were absorbed in two pressured weeks of bargaining, while members refocused on finishing the semester.

But the knowledge that we had an alternative to accepting an unacceptable contract transformed the negotiations, forcing CUNY to agree to structural improvements that repudiate austerity.

The Contract

The salary increase, at 10.4 percent over seven years, largely breaks even with inflation but does not offer raises beyond that. The raise will be on top of annual salary step increases received by the majority of members, a contract benefit negotiated in earlier rounds of bargaining and preserved in this one.

A key demand for the union was that the contract include retroactive pay increases; we were able to negotiate retroactive pay going back to 2012. While we consider the financial package barely adequate, the strength of the contract is in the structural changes that were won against ideologically opposed management demands and vision.

CUNY management’s demands were consistent with the vision of a highly stratified university with a large contingent workforce and superficial attention to educational quality. To the extent our demands challenged and sought to reverse their priorities, they had to be won in the face of strong resistance.

For the first time since the 1970s, the union was able to make significant headway on the need to establish a teaching load that allows time for both research and meaningful student attention. The demand speaks to our central concern regarding the quality of education. CUNY students, who typically negotiate complex work and family responsibilities, make an admirable commitment to further their education. Faculty, who now teach three to five courses a semester, are simply unable to offer them the time and attention they deserve.

The teaching load also has an increasingly deleterious impact on the hiring and retention of faculty. We negotiated a contractual agreement that states management’s “shared commitment” to a one-course reduction in the teaching load for all full-time faculty prior to the ratification of the next contract. A labor-management committee is charged with identifying the necessary resources and implementing the change. Few things the union has done will have greater impact on faculty lives and student success.

CUNY’s library faculty, who are expected to meet faculty research requirements for promotion and tenure, have long called for parity in annual leave with other full-time faculty. Again, for the first time in the history of PSC bargaining, their annual leave, which includes time for research, was increased. We achieved not just a reversal of a concession made in 1988, but the addition of two weeks.

The contract we negotiated is as much about time as it is about money; some of the fiercest battles in labor history have been about time.

The union also made significant advances in work conditions for the most vulnerable sections of our membership. A constituency working on hourly rates and conducting immersion classes in basic skills for some of CUNY’s least prepared students will now receive annual appointments, health insurance, accrued sick days, and other benefits.

Higher education officers, who represent five thousand women and men (mostly women, and many women of color) working in student services and other administrative areas, will for the first time have a clearer path to advance in salary and rank. For these workers, too, a primary issue was time: the proposed agreement recognizes that the massive increase in volume of work that many have experienced can, in itself, transform their jobs and merit increased pay.

A remarkable accomplishment of the contract — and a hidden part of its economic value — is that it consolidates a gain negotiated in 2014, while primary negotiations had stalled. The union risked its credibility and used its entire political leverage to win public funding for health insurance for qualifying adjuncts through the same coverage as full-timers receive. We had entered this round of bargaining with adjunct health insurance as a central demand for the whole union; it is a demand we won.

Our strongest gain by far, however, was to institute three-year contracts with a guaranteed minimum income for long-term adjuncts. The growth of contingent labor with minimal job security and low wages is the scandal at the heart of American higher education.

Unable to offer effective resistance to the steady withdrawal of public funding, CUNY management balances the university’s budget by charging higher and higher tuition — and systematically underpaying more than half of its teaching workforce. No issue has greater economic consequence than whether one has a job; we made it a priority to address the question of adjunct job security in this bargaining round.

Over the last eighteen months, adjunct job security is the issue on which we spent the longest time, and the one over which we fought hardest. Until the final morning of bargaining, management was not willing to accede to our demand that there should be mandatory consideration of eligible adjuncts who meet the eligibility threshold to qualify for multi-year contracts.

Management wanted a system of self-selection, which to us was rife with the possibility of administrative abuse. Mandatory consideration challenged the central non-economic benefit of contingency for management — maintaining complete management control: what they refer to as “flexibility.”

In the final hours, negotiations almost broke down because of CUNY’s refusal to come to an agreement on what we considered the most salient piece of our proposal. The bargaining team took the position that without this provision the deal was off. In the end, we struck a hard bargain: we won the demand but relented on a few management demands not related to adjuncts. We got what we wanted.

Every provision the union gained will improve working and learning at CUNY, but each one is also a record of a compromise. What we wanted was an immediate reduction in the teaching load; full parity in annual leave for library faculty; an automatic path for promotion for higher education officers rather than one that involves management discretion. And our starting demand for adjunct faculty was job permanence akin to tenure after five years and per-course pay on the basis of parity with full-time lecturers. In each case, we were forced to retreat from our initial demand and develop a compromise consistent with the principle of the original.

The question members will decide in the ratification vote is whether the salary increases, retroactive pay, and structural changes won in this contract — entirely because of union power —are enough to accept the agreement rather than plan for a strike. The union’s elected delegates strongly believe they are.

The initial reaction from union members to the contract has been overwhelmingly positive, but there are also dissenting voices. A group of adjuncts have organized a “vote no” campaign. Even though the biggest gains in the contract were made for adjuncts, the conditions of adjunct work remain atrocious, especially for the several thousand who rely on their work at CUNY for their entire income.

They are right that their conditions must be changed, and that allowing substandard wages for part-time faculty members depresses the salaries of all. Inch by inch, PSC contracts are remaking their conditions, but incremental change will not be enough. Radical change in the system of cheap academic labor at CUNY is likely to take a combination of legislative action, job action, and a movement in the streets. The campaign for this contract at last positions us to take that step.

In this round of bargaining, we had to concede to management demands of increasing the number of non-tenure positions and the amount of discretionary salary raises. In both cases, what we agreed to was much less than what was demanded of us. The management demands gave us clear insight into their vision of the university, of what we must struggle against. Conversely, every bit of the structural changes we instituted challenges their agenda.

Moving Forward

We move forward with the knowledge that to the extent we made gains at the negotiating table, we owe it to the organized and militant campaign waged by our members. The fact that we were unable to break the austerity framework in our salary package and could not push through the strongest versions of our demands speaks to the political reality of our times and the urgent need to continue developing more effective strategies and alliances.

No single contract or contract campaign can reverse austerity and an economy structured by racism. Contract battles should be always be aligned to larger movements for a shift of economic and political power in favor of weaker sections, and accepted or rejected on the ground of whether they are consistent with the larger vision.

What is important for the union now is to build on the power we created. It is clear from management’s demands that larger battles about academic labor lie ahead. Their vision is of a university with a huge contingent workforce and a few well-paid “stars.” Ours is of university “for the people” in which all workers have the security and pay to do the work we love — and in which the astonishing potential of our students can be realized.

The PSC will need all the power union members developed in this round. We move forward prepared to build on our struggle and our organizing, build on the solidarities we forged with students, with other labor unions and community organizations, and committed to fighting against the logic of the neoliberal regime, in the interest of working people.