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CUNY Professors and Staff Consider Future Strike to Defend Public Education Funding

New York City’s public university system employees have turned to confrontational tactics to obtain a long overdue contract.

Professional Staff Congress members march during the 2015 Labor Day parade on September 12, 2015, to highlight their lack of a new contract. (Photo: Brandon Jordan)

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Higher education in the United States is facing serious problems with state disinvestment, lack of protections for adjuncts and low pay for faculty, among other reasons. The situation is no different at the City University of New York (CUNY), where the problems have affected professors, staff and students for decades. But 92 percent of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union representing more than 25,000 CUNY professors and staff, decided earlier this month to approve use of a strike to fight not only for a new contract, but also to ensure a quality education for students.

“None of us are in this for the money. But six years without a contract is demoralizing and devaluing of our labor.”

The origins of this vote begin in 2010, when the last contract agreed upon between CUNY and the PSC expired. Both sides negotiated with each other, but external problems led to no new contract. Barbara Bowen, president of the PSC and an English professor at Queens College, told Truthout that then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg halted any progress in meetings. “There was a wage freeze under Mayor Bloomberg, and no contracts were being settled under Bloomberg’s term,” she said.

However, the union could not wait for a contract. Wages of CUNY professors and staff needed to keep up with the cost of living in New York. This includes housing, the cost of which increased by 12 percent between 2002 and 2013, according to the Furman Center.

After the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, unions were to get new contracts — but not the PSC. “After waiting many years under Bloomberg, we still had to wait,” Bowen said.

The union met with CUNY officials in more than 20 meetings since 2010, but the administration never provided an offer. The main issue was that the state government declined to provide sufficient funding for CUNY. In fact, the state kept cutting funds for CUNY.

“Public Education Is Under Attack”

The City University of New York did not always charge tuition to its students. Until 1976, most students attended CUNY for free. A financial crisis in New York State in the 1970s forced the university to charge tuition to supplement state-provided funding.

Despite this new role for the state, funding for CUNY fell, starting in the 1980s. At Baruch College, state funding provided 65.9 percent of the college’s revenue in 1987. By 2012, it fell to 36 percent. Other colleges, including Queens College and Hunter College, saw sharp drops in state revenue since the 1980s.

“Public education is under attack in this country,” Bowen said about the disinvestment in CUNY. “The way it gets attacked is by withdrawing money.”

The financial burden shifts to the students, who must pay more tuition to attend CUNY. While the system is affordable relative to other universities, especially private schools, many colleges need more funding and must rely on students to keep up the costs.

“Planned austerity and scarcity is what we feel in the faculty and the staff, and we just won’t tolerate it anymore.”

Many students who attend CUNY are working class. More than one in three students, or at least 38 percent, come from households earning less than $20,000 per year. Students of color make up half of the university’s demographics as well. Moreover, the university experienced a record-breaking attendance rate of students earlier this year.

But the university, guided by state policy, is increasing tuition on students each year. Before the latest tuition increase for 2016, CUNY Chancellor James Milliken acknowledged on November 23, 2015, in a meeting with CUNY’s board of trustees, that no one, including him, wanted a tuition increase. But, “the reality is that nationally a general disinvestment in public higher education has taken place for decades,” Milliken said.

Rafael Mutis, a coordinator of external organizing for the CUNY Graduate Center Adjunct Project, told Truthout that the result of the strike authorization vote partially reflected this burden on students. “We want the support to provide better education for our students, more resources to give them the support we all need,” Mutis said. “Many of our students understand this, and it is baffling why the CUNY administration and the city and state governments cannot value our work and our students’ college and university education.”

Bowen called the disinvestment at CUNY “planned poverty,” as it burdened students and cut valuable resources for them.

This situation is no different than other places around the country, including Chicago, where teachers went on strike on April 1, 2016, over the lack of funding for their schools.

Arrests, Protests and Pressure

The union decided, after years without a new contract, to increase pressure on CUNY and the state. The first action happened on November 4, 2015, when members protested in front of CUNY’s central office to demand a new contract. At least 50 members were arrested, one of whom included Andrea Vásquez, a cross-campus officer with the PSC and associate director of the American Social History Project at the CUNY Graduate Center.

“We should be able to provide a good education,” Vásquez told Truthout. “This kind of denial of funding to run a huge institution is a serious attack on all of us in the city.”Vásquez never expected to vote on such a tactic during her career at CUNY. But she noted it is a useful tool to help pressure the administration for a new contract. “We want this to be over,” she said.

The same day the members were arrested, CUNY presented its first and only contract offer. However, the union rejected it for being too low. “It was an inadequate offer and, once you account for inflation, it was a salary cut,” Bowen said.

Union members attended a mass meeting on November 19, 2015, at The Cooper Union, where the union explained its next steps to obtain a contract. In fact, PSC officials first announced its strike authorization vote to members at the meeting.

Since then, the union became involved in more protests and rallies. The PSC was active in challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to cut $485 million from CUNY. They succeeded as the Democratic governor later reversed his decision.

Still, the union intends to wield its strike authorization vote as a political tool instead of acting upon it. “Everybody at the PSC hopes we don’t have to use a strike to settle this contract,” Bowen said.

Professors and staff demonstrated at the CUNY Rising Alliance rally on March 10, 2016, to protest proposed cuts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Photo: Brandon Jordan)Professors and staff demonstrated at the CUNY Rising Alliance rally on March 10, 2016, to protest proposed cuts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Photo: Brandon Jordan)

CUNY knew the union planned a strike authorization vote. In fact, it cited that as a reason negotiations were going nowhere. The administration petitioned the state’s Public Employment Relations Board to handle the issue. The board assigned a mediator to the case, but there is no deadline attached to solving the dispute.

Bowen said that the mediator is involved in negotiations between the union and CUNY. “We had some productive sessions,” she said.

Obstacles With the Vote

New York State does not allow public employees to strike because of the 1967 Taylor Law, which also created the Public Employment Relations Board. If union workers do go on strike, they are fined, and the executive committee of a union may go to prison.

Joe Burns, a labor negotiator and lawyer, wrote in Strike Back that public employees rejected the law when it was first proposed in 1967 and protested against it:

Three major New York City unions passed a resolution, stating “That no one, no body of legislators or government officials can take from us our rights as free men and women to leave our jobs when sufficiently aggrieved: when a group of our members are so aggrieved, then indeed they will strike.” True to their word, New York City teacher and transit unions violated the Taylor Law multiple times during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Yet if a strike does happen, the law affects adjunct professors the most. They make up most of the faculty at CUNY, despite earning little pay and having no job guarantees.

Mutis noted how adjuncts work many hours despite earning little relative to full-time staff. Adjuncts only make nearly $3,000 per course but can only teach four classes at most. “Particularly as adjunct faculty, we carry 80 percent of the workload in CUNY, [and] we face a great deal of job insecurity as we often do not know from semester to semester if we will have classes to teach,” Mutis said. “In addition, our pay is low for the amount of work we do. We often have iffy access to health insurance, though it has gotten somewhat better recently.”

Mutis taught as an adjunct professor at CUNY until an issue came up with his supervisor. “I was fired from my adjunct teaching job last year because of a deep conflict of interest by my supervisor, who refused to recuse himself from the consecutive semester evaluation process,” Mutis said. “I am currently fighting this illegal firing through the PSC grievance process…. For me personally, I have had to apply for public assistance and unemployment between semester breaks and in the summer, because I have not been able to save enough money from these teaching jobs to cover the cost of living in New York City,” he said.

One important point Mutis brought up — that many other CUNY adjuncts also echo — is that he enjoys teaching students. It is just difficult doing that without a contract. “None of us are in this for the money,” he said. “We do it because we love our students, we love teaching and learning, but six years without a contract is demoralizing and devaluing of our labor. We would like to live secure enough lives to cover our rent and other living expenses in this expensive, gentrifying city.”

A button left at the November 19, 2015, meeting organized by the Professional Staff Congress. (Photo: Brandon Jordan)A button left at the November 19, 2015, meeting organized by the Professional Staff Congress. (Photo: Brandon Jordan)

Bowen told Truthout the union is preparing a fund for adjuncts if there is a strike. But she noted it could not promise members that the fund will replace their income. “The union wants to make it clear that we will reach out to each other, and I know that will happen,” she added.

Mutis said he will go on strike should it happen, an option he viewed as a last resort. “While it is a significant risk for those of us who are contingent part-time labor, the CUNY administration and the city and state governments do not leave us another option,” he said.

There is good news for the union. The Cuomo administration noted it would provide $240 million in labor costs for CUNY once a contract is agreed upon. “We don’t know what the settlement is yet. They’re still in collective bargaining. So when we finally know a number then we’ll be able to address it,” said Robert Mujica, the state budget director, at the press conference.

CUNY did not respond to multiple requests from Truthout to comment on the situation. The union notes that if no contract is agreed on during the summer, it may strike during the fall.

“Planned austerity and scarcity is what we feel in the faculty and the staff, and we just won’t tolerate it anymore,” Bowen said. “That’s why we’re voting ‘yes’ on strike authorization.”

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