BY HENRY REICHMAN
Last month the Professional Staff Congress, a joint AAUP-AFT union representing faculty and staff at the City University of New York (CUNY), reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement with the CUNY administration after working six long years without a contract. The union’s executive committee and delegate assembly have voted overwhelmingly in support of the proposed agreement. It is up for ratification by the membership this month.
In a probing and frank analysis of the proposed contract and the campaign to win it, published in the online journal Jacobin, Nivedita Majumdar, associate professor at John Jay College and secretary of the PSC, and Barbara Bowen, president of the PSC, thoughtfully contextualize and weigh the value of the inevitable compromises that any union must make. The entire article if definitely worth reading, but here are some of its concluding paragraphs that are, I think, highly relevant to faculty activists throughout higher education. They write:
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.
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.
Check out the entire essay at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/07/cuny-psc-strike-contract-adjuncts-cuomo-funding/