Celebrating Defeat

The proposed CUNY contract is no victory — a just settlement will come only through struggle.

On Monday July 11, members of the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, which represents more than twenty-seven thousand faculty and staff at the City University of New York, received an email from the American Arbitration Association asking them to respond to a short and straightforward question. “Do you accept the proposed PSC-CUNY contract: yes or no?”

Though the question was simple, making the right choice was much more complicated.

By the time the email arrived, PSC members, including full-time and part-time faculty, librarians, and staff, had been working without a contract for more than six years. While some tenure-track faculty had continued to receive promotions as well as annual raises which had kept their wages somewhat above water, many other workers — including adjunct faculty who are rarely promoted and are eligible to receive small salary step increases only every three years — had seen their wages stagnate and in many instances fall steeply thanks to the rapidly rising cost of living.

CUNY employees are hurting and desperate for solutions. Unfortunately, for a huge portion of the union membership, the proposed contract, which is still being voted on until August 3, offers little economic relief and, in some ways, actually exacerbates the problems that have plagued the union, the university, and academia more broadly.

Though the current offer fails to provide even inflation-level wage increases (only 10.4 percent from October 2010 to November 2017), and though it includes no substantive gains for reducing workload (substituting instead an agreement to form a committee to identify ways to possibly reduce the teaching load of full-time faculty), the worst and most divisive part of this offer is that it once again fails to address the already massive wage gap between full-time and part-time faculty.

The current PSC leadership (The New Caucus) had been elected to address the problems of this two-tier labor system seventeen years ago. They claim to support a $5,000-per-course minimum for adjuncts (the Modern Language Association actually recommends $7,350 per course) and had laid out an ambitious three-contract plan, which included significant movement toward pay parity in this third contract. But the result of their tenure so far is that the wage gap between adjuncts and full timers has actually increased.

This has, in turn, made it even more profitable for CUNY management to hire easily expendable and low-paid adjunct faculty, while slashing the number of tenured and tenure-track professors per student. At Hunter College, for instance, one of the gems of the CUNY system, the percentage of full-time faculty fell from 39 percent in 2009 to 34 percent in 2014, even as enrollments skyrocketed.

For these reasons, many PSC members have already voted “no” on the proposed contract, and many others have been vigilantly campaigning against ratification since its announcement, holding campus meetings and pickets and furiously debating on department listservs. Just last week on Bastille Day, a coalition of full-time, part-time, and graduate student faculty, as well as higher education officers (who help run many of CUNY’s most vital initiatives), protested outside the PSC offices demanding a fair contract and an end to the two-tier faculty system at CUNY.

Currently the union leadership is engaged in an aggressive media campaign encouraging members to vote “yes,” which has included targeted Facebook and Instagram ads as well as several articles in publications such as Jacobin, where PSC secretary Nivedita Majumdar and president Barbara Bowen offered a positive analysis of the contract’s practical strengths, despite its many admitted weaknesses.

In that article Majumdar and Bowen provide a crucial analysis of the problems facing the university, as well as the difficulties of organizing effectively in an age of austerity. Their analysis of the intransigence of city and state governments and the importance of organizing a broad coalition to demand full funding for CUNY is absolutely correct. Indeed, rank-and-file members of CUNY Struggle have been making this same argument since they began organizing in 2015.

Closed-room negotiations and clever compromises will never be able to address the massive structural changes needed to make CUNY great again. To do that the union rank-and-file must link their struggle with student demands and work together to fight for a fully funded, free, and open university that treats all of its employees with equal dignity and respect.

The PSC has not done this. Instead they have organized one public community meeting and a handful of canned sit-ins and civil disobedience actions around the contract designed to grab headlines while never threatening the actual functioning of the university or the university administration.

Even though Majumdar and Bowen are right about what is needed to win, their defense of this contract could not be more wrong. Rather than lead their rank-and-file forward through increasingly more aggressive and radical actions, the PSC leadership and the delegate assembly have chosen instead to accept defeat and call it victory.

Though they claim it resists austerity in several important ways, this contract, which falls about two points shy of the projected rate of inflation and comes nowhere close to keeping pace with the rising cost of living in New York City, is a clear capitulation to the logic of austerity.

Indeed, insofar as the contract is consistent with the pattern of other city labor settlements (DC 37 for instance), it actually strengthens the state’s ability to negotiate future austerity contracts by settling with the weakest and least militant unions first. The weakness of the main economic offer in this contract is even more pronounced when one remembers that CUNY faculty members are some of the lowest-paid faculty in the region and that the New Caucus has been promising to raise salaries since it was elected.

Of course, the PSC leadership know that the economic offer they negotiated is a capitulation to management. That is why they try to compensate for this failure by arguing, as they have in previous struggles, that this contract pushes back against management demands that “were consistent with the vision of a highly stratified university with a large contingent workforce and superficial attention to educational quality.” However, they fail to see that this contract, which they are eagerly campaigning for, actually reinforces this stratification.

By doing nothing yet again to address the divisive and unjust two-tier system of teaching at CUNY, this contract only emboldens management to continue to pursue a neoliberal corporate model of administration that values efficiency, flexibility, and measurable outcomes above learning and research.

Majumdar and Bowen argue that CUNY had refused to budge on the question of adjunct wages and that there was nothing they could do to end this exploitation. However, by campaigning for the ratification of this contract, they are asking PSC members to essentially vote for further austerity, further stratification of the workforce, and further administrative control of faculty.

It’s vital to remember that only a few months before this settlement, the PSC membership voted overwhelmingly (92 percent) to authorize a strike or strike actions if needed. Among this vote were many adjuncts, who despite their already tenuous economic circumstances, actively campaigned for a strike. A “yes” vote for this current contract would be a betrayal of all of those who worked so hard to build that historic strike authorization and would almost certainly kill the momentum and militancy that this struggle has created among the rank-and-file.

Majumdar and Bowen seem to think that the best way to win is to stop fighting and regroup, never realizing that union strength and militancy comes only from action. Ending this contract struggle now would send a message to CUNY management, the city, and the state that the PSC was never serious about going on strike, that the strike authorization vote was but a ploy to grab a small additional wage increase, and that they should expect no greater resistance from the union in future contract struggles.

A “no” vote, on the other hand, stands a good chance of further mobilizing the membership not only to take more radical steps toward a fair contract for all, but to begin to build the movements needed to transform the university.