Taking the Fight to CUNY

Barbara Bowen

The City University of New York system has been ravaged by austerity. Educators have gone on strike throughout the country, but CUNY employees are hamstrung by anti-strike laws. CUNY’s biggest union wants to change that.

PSC members rallying in support of a strong contract, March 14, 2019. PSC / Twitter

Interview by
Ben Beckett

Since February 2018, the country has seen a wave of strikes in public education, with major work stoppages in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Oakland, and shorter strikes in Louisiana, Washington, Kentucky, North Carolina, Colorado, and Virginia.

Though the biggest strikes were in public primary and secondary education, a number of higher education workers also went on strike, including at Columbia, the New School, Wright State University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and across some of the largest campuses of the University of California system. Meanwhile, after working without a contract since July, faculty at Rutgers, the largest public university in New Jersey, are currently conducting a strike authorization vote.

What about New York, of the largest states in the country, and the state with the second highest density of union members? While there were two important private sector strikes in New York — Columbia and the New School — there seemed to be no danger of the public education sector strike wave crashing there. At first glance, this seems even more odd given that several of the country’s largest, oldest, and most powerful local unions in the education sector are in New York.

Among the most important factors that set the organized labor movement in New York apart from other parts of the country is the Taylor Law. An important component of the New York State Civil Service Law, the Taylor Law provides many important protections for workers and unions in the state and local public sector. But the law also makes it illegal for public sector workers to strike.

Workers have broken the law, with varying degrees of success, since its inception in 1967. But in the most recent New York public sector strike, TWU Local 100 faced harsh penalties in response to its 2005 strike, including a $2.5 million fine and jail time for the union’s president.

In 2018, progressive gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon called for changes to the Taylor Law to legally allow public sector workers to strike. While Nixon lost the primary to incumbent Andrew Cuomo, her call for amending the Taylor Law gained a lot of media coverage. When pressed, Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio both said they opposed changing the law.

Now, New York educators could be taking up amendments to the Taylor Law head on. In February the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), passed a resolution calling on the state teachers federation to work to repeal the no-strike provision of the Taylor Law. Representing faculty and support staff across the City University of New York system, PSC is one of the largest education unions in the state and one of the largest higher education unions in the country.

Rank-and-file union activist and New York City Democratic Socialists of America member Ben Beckett spoke with PSC president Barbara Bowen about conditions at New York City’s public colleges, the union’s desire to repeal the no-strike provision, and where the resolution goes from here.

Ben Beckett

What are conditions like for PSC members? What about CUNY students?

Barbara Bowen

Conditions are austere. The deliberate underfunding of CUNY has reached a crisis point, felt equally by CUNY students and PSC members. Classrooms are overcrowded, library hours have been cut, buildings are in disrepair, salaries are uncompetitive, and the ratio of students to mental health counselors is nearly ten times the recommended average. Close to a quarter of undergraduates report not being able to register for a course required for graduation because course offerings are inadequate. One college library is dependent on student government for the money to buy books. Roofs leak, classrooms are sometimes without heat, drinking water can be unsafe, and repairs can take years.

Both New York City and State governments have actively disinvested in CUNY over the course of decades, and the effects are inescapable. Despite CUNY’s cringe-worthy self-description, “the greatest urban university in the world,” CUNY has been systematically starved of the resources needed to stay afloat, let alone be the greatest urban university in the world.

The university’s fiscal condition cannot be separated from its student demographics. The long withdrawal of public support for CUNY began in New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis, five years after the doors of the colleges had been forced open by a student movement. Thousands of black and Latino New Yorkers entered CUNY for the first time. Today, more than three-quarters of CUNY undergraduates are people of color, and most have family incomes under $30,000. It’s a question of political will: if New York State and City wanted this population to thrive, they would invest.

The only public voice consistently challenging the underfunding of CUNY is the PSC. Three years ago, the PSC stopped a half-billion-dollar budget cut to CUNY with a militant, broad-based campaign. And every year we make inroads against economic austerity through budget activism and our contract.

For nearly two decades, the PSC has approached collective bargaining as an arena of struggle against the austerity conditions endured by our students as well as our members. We have been animated by the same principle at work in the powerful wave of teachers’ strikes across the country: teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

The collapse of sufficient public funding for CUNY is not an accident of nature. It is a political policy reaffirmed every time an inadequate State or City budget is passed. New York City’s support for CUNY, while still far from adequate, has risen under Mayor de Blasio, but New York State slashed per-student support for CUNY’s four-year colleges by nearly 20 percent just between 2008 and 2018.

Lacking the political courage to demand the funding the university needs, the current CUNY Board of Trustees apparently sees their job as managing scarcity. As public funds have diminished and enrollment has risen, they have balanced the university’s budget by doing two things: shifting costs to students and cutting labor costs. The result is a stripped-down, hollowed-out, impoverished institution in which faculty, staff, and students struggle heroically to carve out space for a serious college education.

Student tuition rose 46 percent between 2008 and 2018, and it’s still on the rise. The university’s biggest cost is of course labor, and that’s where CUNY has turned for most of its cost-cutting. Most CUNY courses are now taught by adjuncts — part-time, contingent faculty — who are paid near-poverty wages. Full-time salaries for CUNY faculty are tens of thousands of dollars lower than those at Rutgers, Penn State, or other comparable schools. Adjunct salaries are near the level of poverty.

Factoring in the number of hours required to prepare for a course and evaluate student work, CUNY’s 12,000 adjuncts earn close to minimum wage. An adjunct carrying a full load of courses would earn just $25,000 a year. As one adjunct, Elizabeth Hovey, put it in public testimony: “CUNY exploits our passion for our students.”

Ben Beckett

The last contract between CUNY and PSC expired in 2017. Why have PSC members been without a contract for so long?

Barbara Bowen

The issue is funding. CUNY management delayed more than a year before putting an economic offer on the table. Last round it took them five years. Our bargaining process is unusually complex, even for public sector bargaining, because it involves both State and City governments.

But the PSC has also raised the stakes in each round of bargaining since the current leadership caucus was elected in 2000. We have made it clear that we will not settle for contracts that deepen austerity.

Taking that position sometimes puts us in direct conflict with a political agenda of denying resources to the university that represents the only chance for a college degree for hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class New Yorkers and people of color. In previous rounds of bargaining, union members have organized and mobilized until we broke through the resistance to such provisions as adding paid parental leave, providing health insurance to adjuncts and graduate employees, creating a more reasonable faculty teaching load, achieving secure three-year appointments for adjuncts, and simply securing back-pay.

This time our biggest economic fight is for the additional funds required to transform adjunct pay. The PSC bargaining team has told management across the table that we will not accept a contract that does not address our demand to raise adjunct pay to $7,000 a course. Nor will we accept a contract that funds additional adjunct pay by cutting the already low pay of full-time faculty and staff.

The only solution is increasing investment in CUNY and in the lives of those we teach. In a zero-sum game, everyone loses; the PSC refuses to accept the premise that there’s not enough money in this rich state to provide a fair college education to our students. And winning that fight takes organizing and research and coalition-building and time.

Ben Beckett

What are the PSC’s most important demands for the new contract and what are the barriers to achieving them?

Barbara Bowen

We’re fighting for four major priorities: 1) increased salaries for all full-time and part-time faculty and professional staff, to bring our salaries closer to being nationally competitive; 2) additional equity increases for certain lower-paid full-time positions, whose salaries have lost ground; 3) an increase in the minimum adjunct pay from the current $3,222 per course to $7,000 per course; and 4) several non-economic improvements that are especially important in the context of CUNY’s modest salaries.

Every one of the changes we advocate would enhance the education of CUNY students. And every gain would help every PSC member. Our members understand that all PSC members share a material interest in improving conditions for the lowest-paid workers as well as a moral imperative to end CUNY’s reliance on exploited labor. Unity is more than an aspiration for us; it is the basis of our fight.

The main challenge is the political decision over decades by New York State and City governments and those whose interests they represent to starve CUNY of public funds. Equally challenging is the acceptance of that decision by CUNY management. The PSC membership is pushing hard to overcome both.

Ben Beckett

Why is it important to amend the Taylor Law? What motivated the PSC to pass this resolution now?

Barbara Bowen

Section 210 of the Taylor Law strips public sector workers of the fundamental human right to withhold their labor. It forbids public sector unions to “cause, instigate, encourage, or condone” a strike. And “strike” has been defined by the courts to include a wide range of workplace actions, not just a complete work stoppage.

The Taylor Law’s sweeping prohibition on workplace action has no place in a state that prides itself on being progressive and friendly to labor. Repealing it should be at the top of labor’s agenda.

Strikes are a uniquely powerful tool of working people. Historically, and as recently as this year, they have been decisive in winning rights not just for the workers involved, but for all working people. Many rights and protections that are now considered bedrock conditions of public life were won only because workers were willing to strike: the eight-hour day, the right to collective bargaining, the prohibition on child labor, workplace safety regulations, and much more.

By outlawing strikes, the Taylor Law inhibits the power of the strongest sector of organized labor in one of the strongest labor states in the country to win more for all working people. And by issuing a ban on even “encouraging” a strike, the Taylor Law does massive unseen damage. It imposes what William Blake called “mind-forged manacles” on workers and their unions. The strike prohibition has had the effect of straitjacketing not only political action, but also political imagination.

The Taylor Law has limited even the way unions think about their power. The impact can be measured in gains not made both for public sector workers in this state and for the communities we serve. Would our public schools, public hospitals, and public colleges be better funded if New York public sector unions had the legal right to strike? The answer is yes.

Several factors have converged to make this the right moment to propose a change in the law. Many unions, including the PSC, have long taken the public position that the strike prohibition should be repealed. But the issue gained new urgency in 2018 with the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which sharply increased the imbalance of power created by the Taylor Law by prohibiting public sector unions from collecting fees from employees who benefit from the union’s gains but do not join.

The New York State legislature did pass an important set of Taylor Law modifications in response, and Governor Cuomo signed them into law. Both should be applauded for doing so. Cuomo has introduced further protections this year. But the changes to date do not touch the fundamental issue of the prohibition on strikes. That change should happen now.

PSC delegates also felt that this was the moment to call for repeal of the no-strike provision because New York State now has a Democratic majority in both legislative houses and a Democratic governor, all of whom have announced their intention to support working people and their unions. Few actions would show that support more powerfully than amending the Taylor Law. New York State has taken a strong stand in recent years on expansion of civil rights; it’s time for an expansion of the rights of workers.

Ben Beckett

My understanding is the next step is to take this resolution to the NYSUT Representative Assembly. What are the resolution’s prospects there?

Barbara Bowen

The PSC delegates to NYSUT, who include several NYSUT Board members, will present the resolution to our NYSUT colleagues in May, and we hope it will gain broad support. The issue is not new in NYSUT. Historically, many NYSUT members have supported amending the Taylor Law, and several NYSUT locals, when left with no alternative to reach a fair contract, have engaged in illegal strikes. Others have conducted strike authorization votes and have been able to reach agreement without striking.

NYSUT members are largely teachers. They are people who have dedicated their working lives to serving others. Many have been inspired by the teachers’ strikes of the past year because those strikes have invariably been about improving conditions for students — not just for teachers.

In West Virginia, Oklahoma, California, and elsewhere, the strikes have centered on funding schools as well as funding salaries. In presenting our resolution, PSC delegates will argue that we would collectively be better able to take a stand for what we all believe in — the right of every New York child and student to a great education — if the ban on strikes were lifted.

Ben Beckett

A lot of resolutions pass at union conventions and then nothing really happens to further their stated aims. Let’s say this resolution does pass the NYSUT RA — what will the PSC and NYSUT do to make sure the resolution has teeth?

Barbara Bowen

NYSUT is a powerful force within New York organized labor. It has the capacity to lead a statewide campaign, especially in coalition with other unions and the New York State AFL-CIO. NYSNA, the statewide nurses’ union, also passed a resolution this year calling for an end to the prohibition on strikes. Other unions may do the same.

But it’s premature to map out a campaign before presenting the resolution at NYSUT. A campaign this important has to be built carefully, with the goal of gathering the greatest possible support.

Ben Beckett

Given that amending the Taylor Law would require legislation, is a candidate’s support for public sector right to strike going to be a requirement to receive the PSC’s endorsement going forward? You are a member of NYSUT’s executive board — do you think it should be a requirement to receive NYSUT’s endorsement going forward?

Barbara Bowen

Legislation passes when you build support for it, legislator by legislator. It makes more sense to concentrate on that process with the legislature currently in place — which includes an organized cohort of new, progressive legislators — than on developing a litmus test for future candidates. Assuming the PSC’s proposed resolution on the Taylor Law becomes NYSUT policy, we will begin to work on it right away with the current legislature. This is the moment to get it passed.

Both NYSUT and PSC have democratic endorsement processes that involve hundreds of rank-and-file union members. There is no single litmus test. The PSC has been a powerful influence within NYSUT in favor of endorsing progressive candidates, and many of NYSUT’s positions on challenger candidates in the last election came as the result of PSC advocacy.

Obviously we will be looking hard at whether a candidate supports ending the Taylor Law’s ban on strikes. But we also look hard at a candidate’s commitment to fixing the dysfunctional funding model for CUNY.

Ben Beckett

Across the country, we’ve seen fed-up educators go on strike and effectively shut down their school systems (and sometimes their cities). So far the PSC has largely pursued a lobbying strategy targeting the CUNY board and elected officials. Is that kind of mass action or other on-the-job action in the PSC’s future?

Barbara Bowen

I don’t think you have the whole picture on the PSC’s strategy. The challenge in our contract is securing the necessary public funding to lift all salaries, improve other conditions, and transform adjunct pay. That means that we are necessarily involved in advocacy and pressure on State and City governments, the sources of public funds for CUNY. There is no substitute for engaging directly with the sources of funding, although advocacy alone is never enough.

The PSC has developed a strategic approach within the realm of representative government, building coalitions, grassroots pressure, and social media advocacy. But that is far from the whole of our approach.

The collective power of our membership and those we mobilize to join us is the source of the union’s power. Everything the PSC has won has been because of that power. We knew we faced a tough challenge in this round of bargaining, so we started organizing long before the contract expired.

We built a campaign of escalating pressure. Over the course of the year, the PSC has organized demonstrations that wound through the streets of New York City, a protest and civil disobedience on Wall Street against President Trump’s tax bill, a demonstration outside the Wall Street office of the chair of CUNY’s trustees, and a march with a brass band through the financial district calling explicitly for a shift of resources to CUNY. Organized by the union, hundreds of union members have testified publicly at CUNY Board meetings and public legislative hearings; thousands have signed petitions to the college presidents. The union leadership was arrested blocking the doors to a Board hearing as the budget was passed within, and five hundred adjuncts are currently engaged in a collective project to log every low-paid or unpaid minute they spend working for CUNY.

As State and City budget negotiations got underway this winter, the union’s collective action has intensified. Several campus union chapters have organized “grade-ins” and “work-ins,” during which adjuncts, full-time professors, and academic staff have made their work visible by doing it together and in public — sometimes in front of the college president’s office. At other campuses, members are showing up at public events held by the college and handing out fliers exposing the low pay of adjuncts and the urgent need for a contract.

On March 14, the PSC held protest demonstrations at both City Hall and the governor’s office, where we arrived early in the morning with 150 alarm clocks and a band for a “wake-up call.” We have taken our fight into the media, with a series of opinion pieces, interviews, radio shows, and articles; and we have now launched an ad campaign. We will continue to organize and increase the level of pressure until we reach a contract settlement we can accept.

The PSC’s goal in this round of bargaining should not be underestimated; we are tackling the whole basis of CUNY’s austerity budget. Understandably, some union members observe the wave of teachers’ strikes and feel that the only solution is to join that wave. The power of the wave of teachers’ strikes is undeniable, and it has changed the labor terrain nationally.

To date, the PSC leadership has not called for or supported a strike authorization vote in the current round of bargaining. The question of a strike should never be off the table for a serious union, but it must include an analysis of what it would mean to win and whether a strike could be a road to victory. Our union leadership would not consider a strike without one-to-one conversations with every sector of the membership, without honest discussion with members about what a strike entails, without a plan for how to handle the severe legal and economic penalties a strike would trigger for the union and individual members, and without a sober assessment of what the union would stand to gain in a strike versus what we would risk losing.

The PSC is in the fight of our lives. The only way we will win is by engaging everyone to work together. Austerity cannot be beaten without unity.

Ben Beckett

Though it is illegal for PSC members to strike, the PSC has conducted a strike authorization vote in the past. Under what conditions would you propose another strike authorization?

Barbara Bowen

In 2016, we had been without a contract for six years. The PSC had not held a strike authorization vote in forty-three years. Almost every other contract involving New York City government had been settled once Mayor de Blasio came into office, but the contracts being settled with New York State were concessionary. The PSC leadership made a commitment not to accept a concessionary contract and not to accept a contract without retroactive pay increases for the many years our members had gone without a contract.

On the day fifty PSC members, including much of the elected leadership, staged a civil disobedience at CUNY’s headquarters, management finally put an offer on the table — but it was way below inflation and included no back-pay. After another mass civil disobedience in March, this time at the governor’s office, Governor Cuomo withdrew his plan to cut $485 million from the State’s allocation to CUNY. Community groups, student groups and union supporters joined our fight. But by May, we still did not have an agreement.

The union’s elected leadership bodies voted to conduct a strike authorization vote. A thousand PSC members stepped up to be trained in how to hold one-to-one conversations about the strike authorization vote, and 5,000 pledged publicly to vote yes. When the vote was taken, in late May, the result was decisive: a 92 percent yes vote, and an absolute majority. Just over a month later, we had a signed agreement, which was ratified by a 94-percent margin that August.

Whether the PSC will need to take that action again depends on the assessment made by the bargaining team and the union’s leadership bodies. If the union reaches a point in the current campaign where a strike authorization could be necessary, we will have an open discussion and a vote in our largest leadership body, the Delegate Assembly.

Ben Beckett

What can leaders and rank-and-file members of other public sector unions in New York do concretely to get the Taylor Law amended?

Barbara Bowen

First, do old-fashioned labor organizing. Members should talk to other members, one-to-one, about why a change in the law is important. Members can look at the history of strikes, study that history together: how strikes have been critical to the survival of working people, how they have helped to secure better salaries, health care, safety, and rights for all working people. A campaign to build support for amending the Taylor Law could be an organizing opportunity, especially post-Janus, to strengthen our unions by rethinking the possibilities of militant collective action if we were free of the strike ban.

Second, union leaders in the public and private sector should talk honestly together about what amending the Taylor Law would mean — both to those immediately affected, in the public sector, and to those in the private sector and those without unions. The political and moral effect of a strike can extend far beyond the workers who participate directly. Some of these conversations are already beginning.

Third, we should talk with the public we serve about the importance of gaining the right to strike. The reason usually cited for the strike ban is that it would create havoc in public services and even endanger lives.

Look at the teachers’ strike in Los Angeles this year: yes, by striking they disrupted families and children, caused parents to make arrangements for childcare, inconvenienced thousands of people, and interrupted the school curriculum. But they made advances in the resources for public schools that had not been possible to achieve any other way. And think of the unforgettable education they offered. Children and students saw their teachers fighting for them. They saw that workers taking a stand and taking risks can bring about change. They saw that working-class people and people of color are not powerless. And they saw that a different politics is possible, one in which people work collectively for the collective good. Those are things worth seeing, and maybe worth striking for.