Demand and Compromise at CUNY


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.

They conclude:

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

5 thoughts on “Demand and Compromise at CUNY

  1. Will Academe interview or quote proponents of the “No!” campaign, too?

    Just to summarize, our union leaders say they are fighting against the CUNY agenda “inch by inch.” We say this contract “inches” in the wrong direction. By awarding the salary increases only as an across the board percentage increase, they widen the wage gap between tenure track and adjunct faculty because 10% of a high salary is a lot more than 10% of a low salary. Think “them that’s got shall get.” Full-time faculty also got a type of salary increase with the promise of a reduced workload. And most adjuncts got absolutely no improvement in job security, the only thing the union actually tried to win for adjuncts in this contract despite previous commitments to do more.

    What really hurts is that any hope for adjuncts recouping a bit through retroactive “equity increases” in pay back to 2010 was thrown out the window. We are supposed to accept that we taught for the last 6 years for a little over $3000 per course — even though our union officially said that the fair price should have been at least $5000.

    The contract is pretty obviously the result of a union governance structure in which adjunct faculty — the majority — are radically underrepresented. Of 27 members of the executive council, only 4-5 are adjuncts. The delegate assembly is even more skewed, for reasons too complicated to explain here. When the delegate assembly voted to accept the negotiated contract and send it on to the membership for ratification, the body who could vote, sitting in reserved seats in the middle, were mostly full-time faculty and full-time higher education officers. Most of the few adjuncts who could vote because they were delegates voted “No,” including the Vice President for Part-time Personnel. Most adjuncts couldn’t vote and stood or sat in the “peanut gallery” on both sides holding “No!” signs.

    • Academe neither interviewed nor quoted anyone. I posted excerpts from a published article on a blog sponsored by Academe that includes a prominent disclaimer that opinions are those of individuals who post. And you have been afforded an opportunity to express your disagreement. Readers are fully capable of reaching their own conclusions. So what is the point of your first sentence?

      • Point taken. The blog was based on written publications, not interviews. And I am happy to have had the opportunity to comment. Just as a point of information, the “No!” campaign also has a lot of literature out that is available to be quoted and analyzed. Some can be found on

  2. Yes, indeed, the AAUP Vice-President reminds us by his attack on the first commenter that AAUP has a “noli me tangere” agreement with AFT unions by which AAUP receives guaranteed dues income — in the case of CUNY, for up to 1000 memberships — regardless of whether the PSC union bosses actually grant access to that many memberships to faculty from their bargaining unit. National AAUP leaders will not attack any of the policies of an affiliated union no matter how egregious they may be — the income from those dues agreements is more important to them than academic freedom itself.

    The VP is correct, however, that progress has been made in AAUP in that there is finally a venue for public response from those of us who dissent and protest union bossism in its many manifestations. When UUP bosses were “compromising” at the bargaining table and accepting contracting out clauses even for tenured faculty, the then AAUP General Secretary openly applauded the UUP for its contract, scolding those of us who dared to suggest that the contract negotiated was not one that should have been voted in by the union’s leadership and presented for ratification. And those of us who dissented found ourselves banned from the then AAUP General listserv, as well, when we dared to commit such seditious acts as post the link to the US Department of Labor Website where the AAUP’s requisite financial report just happened to not match the report submitted to the membership at the Annual Meeting. We just can’t have that kind of democratic attitude in AAUP.

    Conclusion: Indeed we have now witnessed yet another round of AAUP affiliated union negotiations where the full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty set the agenda for themselves and do not compromise on their own access to the financial pie in favor of bargaining unit equity. It is likely of small comfort that at least the PSC leadership actually did include in its demands that adjunct conditions be addressed; for decades the UUP leadership didn’t really bother to make serious demands for contingents at all and it refuses to even discuss the removal of the contracting out clause. Further, UUP bosses have and will abandon an adjunct member’s grievance in a heartbeat, bowing down to SUNY leaders in the most abject displays of “company unionism” imaginable — with AAUP’s blessing (cf. the Grabowski case and the AAUP General Secretary’s refusal to support adjunct academic freedom unless the UUP boss gave him permission). And, as horrible as adjunct conditions are in SUNY, conditions for persons with disabilities are even worse as the UUP leadership openly thwarts faculty disability rights advocates and discriminates against them themselves, lest SUNY administrators become upset with its “company union” and threaten the status quo.

    “It’s a long long way to Tipperary, a long way to go….”

  3. Ruth Wangerin’s second post is too kind to the AAUP VP. Her original posting did not limit her observation to “interviews” but noted that the AAUP official had also not bothered to “quote” any of the opposition to the contract.

    That is the point that is well taken: AAUP leaders will not engage in any critique of an AFT-affiliated AAUP union’s policies, no matter how egregious — AFT has purchased the silence of AAUP officials with “thirty pieces of silver.”

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.