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PSC 2017/ CUNY 2017: Five Steps Toward Being Ready for the Next Contract Fight

PSC 2017/ CUNY 2017

Five Steps Toward Being Ready for the Next Contract Fight

Luke Elliott-Negri



When you organize in the PSC, you eventually hear these two statements: “PSC is an adjunct union.” And: “PSC doesn’t do anything for adjuncts.” The new contract is settled and depending on your perspective it has “unprecedented” gains for adjuncts (in the form of 3-year appointments for those who are long-serving), or it is so bad that the PSC should be decertified and replaced with an adjunct-only organization (a stance that I can only characterize as either conservative or outright anti-union, however valid the substantive concerns may be). You can look elsewhere for assessments of the contract. And whatever you may think of the new contract, the next year will involve fights around implementation, for full-time faculty, part-time faculty and HEOs. But here, I am focused on 2017.

Whether you’re in a tenured post or you’re struggling to pay rent as an adjunct, “the future of CUNY” and “the future of the tenure system” are abstract concepts. Let’s make them concrete. The School of Professional Studies—part of the GC chapter where I am Chair—in the words of one Dean, “heavily utilizes adjunct labor.” In practical terms, this means that a student can earn a CUNY degree never having met a tenured professor. Think about this for a moment. The future of the tenure system is here—or at least one possible version of that future, in which the tenure system has been profoundly undermined. It is here, I hope, to motivate us to organize—to build a different future.

One way to understand the PSC contract is that there is one pot of money and for every dime one group gets, a dime is taken away from another. In this view, the fight to end adjunctification would be a hit to the tenured professor, higher education officers, the college laboratory technicians & the other series in our bargaining unit. But if we are serious about preserving the tenure system – or put differently, if we want to assure security for all academic laborers – than there is a collective interest in all of us working together to end the two-tier labor system at CUNY. There is simply no way of fighting for the future of job security—and in my view, for free, high quality education at CUNY—without also fighting to end the two-tiered labor system.

Our strike authorization vote last semester was powerful, but frankly, we were not ready for such an action. 10,000 members participated, but our unit covers more than 20,000. We must start a virtuous cycle, whereby increasing unity leads to more power to improve our contract for the most vulnerable, and those improvements lead to more unity. And then, if we are able to make serious steps toward adjunct job security and pay parity, our leverage with respect to CUNY Management, the City and the State, will grow. This was one lesson from Jonathan Karpf of the California Faculty Association when he visited us recently. If we are able to erode and ultimately break the two-tier labor system, we will be a truly unified bargaining unit. Our next strike authorization vote will be a more sincere threat and will – if we position ourselves well politically & ally with students and their families – bring in much more money to the CUNY system. If we truly want to fight for free, high quality public education, we need a unified bargaining unit, without radical disparities in pay or job protections.

The devil is in the details when we talk about “parity” or “ending the two-tiered labor system.” (I can imagine some combination of seniority, conversion lines for adjuncts and negotiated caps on the number of adjunct classes/campus—but this is a plan that we need to think through collectively.) That the devil is in the details, however, is all the more reason why our union needs to face this question squarely and directly. Here are five things we can do to move forward this conversation in advance of the 2017 contract fight.

  1. Fight like hell to defend the contract we do have. We need a much stronger contract for adjuncts and lecturers. But we have a contract in front of us, and we must defend its provisions. Let’s be sure that all eligible adjuncts receive 3-year appointments. Let’s be sure that no one is getting hired “off contract” (We’ve found members at Baruch getting hired to grade at a pitiful $10/hour.). Let’s vigorously implement the HEO assignment differentials. Let’s get teaching hours reduced without increased class size or deeper adjunctification. In short, let’s be sure that the contract we do have is enforced, even as we work to make the next one better.
  1. Talk about preserving tenure and achieving parity publicly in every chapter. Most chapters will be hosting chapter meetings this fall. Preserving tenure through achieving parity must be on the agenda – 2017 is around the corner, and we must start having these conversations collectively, now.
  1. Build adjunct committees on every campus. We must talk about parity and security in chapter meetings and other public settings, but part-timers also need to meet as a group, campus by campus, to think through the details of what they want to see in 2017. Campus-based committees are essential to this process, and will ideally get linked together in a cross-campus adjunct council (presumably through First Fridays). At the same time we must be sure that all Agency Fee payers become members. At the Graduate Center, we have nearly tripled our membership numbers in the past two years. We can get to 90% adjunct membership, but we have to do the work!
  1. Full-timers (faculty and cross-campus members) should have their own conversations about parity, and how such a demand meshes with their more immediate priorities. We must not kid ourselves that making serious steps toward pay parity is a huge, collective decision for our union. Though it is in the long-term interests of many full-timers to break the two-tier system, it may not be perceived as being in their short-term interests. And more importantly, we must develop the conviction as a union that we need to preserve and expand job security in higher education, even if as individuals, some of us already have it. How does this long-term need mesh or fail to mesh with the short-term priorities of full-timers? Full-time members must have these conversations together. What is the future of the tenure system?
  1. Keep our eyes on the prize. Whether full or part-time, with job security or without, all PSC members want to see CUNY fully funded. There has been a decades-long disinvestment in CUNY that we, as yet, have not been able to reverse. If want to see free, high quality public education for all of New York City’s working class, then we must work together to end the erosion of pay and job security for all CUNY jobs. Our moral claim about adjunct parity is resonant, and is inextricably linked to our moral claim about a free and fully funded CUNY. When we as PSC members act as champions of the CUNY system and of those in our ranks who are underpaid and lack meaningful job security, then we are both doing what is right, and we are positioning ourselves politically to make broadly resonant moral claims in the city and the state.

Luke Elliott-Negri, Chapter Chair

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