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Looking Back, Moving Forward

Luke Elliott-Negri


The transition from 2018 to 2019 has me feeling nostalgic. This spring marks the five-year anniversary of the revitalized Graduate Center PSC chapter. In 2013, the GC chapter did not exist, though HEO activists Andrea Vasquez (now PSC First Vice President) and Bob Nelson (now retired) maintained a PSC presence in the building. Sean Kennedy and Jennifer Chancellor (now graduated), and I set about to rebuild the chapter with a focus on Graduate Assistants (GAs).

However, we soon discovered that most GAs were not eligible to be members of the chapter. In 2013, GAs were only eligible to join the chapter where they worked, not where they were paid (which for most is the Graduate Center). For those on five-year funding packages, this meant that they had three campus “homes” over five years of funding – and hence there was no chapter where GAs could cohere their interests.

Sean, Jennifer and I engaged in meetings with PSC central, and finally moved a policy change through the Delegate Assembly in 2014. GAs could now affiliate either with the chapter where they worked or where they were paid (most typically, the GC). The change was pivotal for GAs, because it created a home for them in the PSC where they could develop as a constituency.

In the years since this small policy change, we have been able to do a great deal. Most foundationally, we have signed up a net of approximately 700 members in the past few years, nearly tripling our representation in the Delegate Assembly between 2014 and 2017. This involved the thankless dedicated work of many members, but especially Chloe Asselin, Rachel Chapman, Rebecca Salois, and Maya Harakawa, all of whom served as the campus “Part-time Liaison” for important stretches of time. Staff organizer Sam Lewis has also signed up untold numbers of members. And today, Harry Blain serves in the role of Part Time Liaison, building out the department rep structure that Maya was pivotal to creating.

The GC chapter has had two important “firsts” (or near-firsts) over the past several years. To my knowledge, the GC has the first-ever non-interim part-timer chapter chair in the union’s history (though if there is a bit of history I’m missing, please correct me!). It is also the standard throughout the union for the campus-level grievance counselor to be a full timer, and to deal exclusively with full time faculty issues. Adjuncts and HEOs must call PSC Central to deal with grievances. Our chapter has now had three incredibly talented grievance counselors, all of whom are part time – Marc Kagan, Anh Tran and now Ivana Durovic. These counselors have fought hard for part-timers, especially GAs, but it is important to note that they have also represented full time faculty in grievance hearings, a very important “first” that suggests the kind of solidarity that is possible in a large and diverse union like ours.

The GC chapter actually represents seven campuses, five of which are administratively distinct from the Graduate Center. While we have not done nearly all that we need to on these campuses, we have made significant inroads at the School of Professional Studies in recent years. Susan Fountain has been dogged in fighting for healthy drinking water in the building and other broadly felt issues. She has hosted labor-management meetings, and acted as a de facto chapter chair. Because of her diligence, she is now being compensated as a Part Time Liaison, which is very good for SPS and for the chapter (and it makes us the first chapter to have an additional PT liaison to reflect our unique structure). Just this year, we had the first labor management meeting at the new School of Labor and Urban Studies, and we hope to get similar work up and running at the School of Journalism, Macaulay Honors and the School of Public Health.

With respect to contract bargaining, GC activists and GAs especially played an integral role in fighting for retroactive pay in the last contract round. We also closed a health insurance “loophole” if/when GAs become adjuncts after depositing their dissertations, and earned a $750 signing bonus (whatever one may think of signing bonuses, more than a million dollars went into our pockets as a result). We fought successfully to get some of the same exemptions full timers earned, making more GAs eligible for the bonus. And, perhaps most importantly, we won a fight at the local level to prevent the Graduate Center from reducing GCF stipends in response to contractually negotiated wage increases.

But with respect to improving the contract, GAs are just getting started. This round we have put forward an ambitious plan to line up the contract with some of the better practices that have developed on the ground at the Graduate Center. We have also advanced a number of other demands that would meaningfully improve our pay and working conditions.

Perhaps most importantly, we won a fight this fall, using old fashioned, boots on the ground organizing. When GC management proposed to restructure WAC fellowship in ways that would be bad for all fifth year Grad Center Fellows and worse for those on international visas, the chapter pushed back. We ultimately won a 1/3rd workload reduction for all fifth years, the most notable restructuring of the WAC package since its inception in the 1990s.

Yet the biggest fight in PSC history lies before us – more than doubling the wage that CUNY pays its adjunct faculty. On a survey last fall in which hundreds of graduate employees participated, 7k for adjuncts was far and away the top issue. In part this is because of the issue’s political importance, because of grad employee solidarity with adjunct faculty. But of course, many – indeed, most – graduate employees also adjunct. This radical pay increase would benefit us materially.

This April 1st, 2019, when the state budget is settled, our Albany employers – the governor, the senate and the assembly – will decide whether CUNY will have the money it needs to pay its part time faculty adequately. As a start, please register to pay them a visit on February 12th. We should have more members than ever before in Albany that day – our numbers alone will send a message. But just one visit is not enough. In my view there is an open question: how do we get the hundreds of millions of dollars – really billions of dollars – more for CUNY that we need? We know there is a new State Senate, so there are opportunities that have, in essence, never existed in New York State. Will we take advantage of them and how? I urge you to reach out directly to me with your energy and your ideas. The next three months are pivotal not just for adjuncts, but for all PSC members and for CUNY as an institution.


Looking Back – Part 2

Shortly after I indulged my New Year-invoked feeling of nostalgia and wrote a reflection on five years of building the GC chapter (above), I started thinking of more names, more characters who have been integral to this work. In fact, you’ll see Gerry Martini’s name above this piece, because he manages our website. After the first chapter meeting that I chaired, Gerry (a HEO) came up to me and said “Hey, I’d be happy to build the chapter a digital presence.” Today we have well-traveled Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, in addition to the website.

Penny Lewis served as Vice Chair for our first term, and continues to chair our labor-management meetings. She is a key union leader at the School of Labor and Urban Studies and has done work at School of Professional Studies over the years. Michelle Fine, David Chapin and Michael Handis all served on the first EC, getting this whole project off the ground before stepping back. Steve Brier has served both terms, and committed real time to our chapter. Jean Grassman is our resident health and safety expert, and Ruth Milkman and Roxanne Shirazi have done great work as well. Travis Butt and Jeremey Sawyer were the first two GAs to commit to running for office on the new EC, and were active in the fight for retroactive pay in the last round of bargaining. Amelia Fortunato stepped up in our fight to fix the WAC fellowship, and was a pivotal leader in the outcome. Full-timers and part-timers alike have committed countless hours to build this chapter.

There are names I have not mentioned who I undoubtedly should (even as I write I’m thinking of Rosa, Travis, Isaac, Stephanie, Erin, Lynne, Zee, Jennifer, so many have done vital work in both formal and informal roles). Dozens and dozens of activists have engaged in the GC chapter to make it what it is. As we go forward, we have many goals, including 7k – but core among them is to turn the dozens in to hundreds, the hundreds in to thousands.

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