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Barbara Bowen
Addresses 10/30/07
Mass Meeting

"The question before us tonight is what we aim to achieve in this contract and how we plan to achieve it. "


Good evening, PSC members, CUNY students, colleagues and friends.  I have the honor of serving as president of this vibrant union, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you tonight about strategy.  Thank you for every effort you made to attend this meeting, especially to those who organized others to be here.     

Before I turn to strategy, I’d like to ask you to join me thanking the PSC staff, without whose work this meeting would not be possible.   

The question before us tonight is what we aim to achieve in this contract and how we plan to achieve it.  That is not just a technical or a logistical question, it is necessarily a political one.  Much of the work on collective bargaining is technical—it takes place at the negotiating table, in small sidebar meetings and in one-on-one meetings I have with officials from CUNY, the City and the State.  But negotiating a contract for the PSC is not about lawyers and logical arguments; it’s about politics, political will and political power.  In a very real sense, it’s about what we can do together.  And you have taken a major step in increasing our power simply by coming here tonight.  The pressure of the mass meeting was felt at the bargaining table even before tonight’s event: at yesterday’s bargaining session CUNY management was quick to point out that the major State union, CSEA, was on the verge of settling their contract and that the City and State were moving toward an offer for us.  Whether the offer will be sufficient is the real question, but it’s clear that even in prospect, this demonstration of our unity and our numbers is putting pressure on management to deliver.  

The story we’ve heard tonight is not just about working conditions at CUNY, it’s about a decline in salaries and conditions.  When Steve London talked about the erosion of the real-dollar value of our salaries, Frank Kirkland discussed CUNY’s difficulty in retaining senior faculty, or Marcia Newfield described the effects of the adjunct system, they were discussing conditions that have measurably declined.  I will talk later about improvements we have won in our working conditions over the last seven years, but over the last generation, the main story is one of loss: in the value of our salaries, the competitiveness of CUNY positions, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track faculty, the professional autonomy of our professional staff, the time we have to work with students.   

And that is a political story.  We suffer from declining salaries and working conditions because our employer, CUNY, is content with this situation, and because New York City and New York State have decided throughout the last 35 years not to make our salaries and working conditions competitive. It’s as simple—and as brutal—as that.  If CUNY, the City, the State and the business interests whose revenues support them determined that it was in their interest to provide working-class students and students of color in New York with a top-quality college education, they could do so.  It is well within the reach of New York City and State to have a nationally competitive public university—that should be axiomatic in New York.  Now that CUNY has reached a crisis point with salary erosion, the failed adjunct system and the lack of basic supports like parental leave, the question for us is whether the PSC can organize an alternative political pole and bring about genuine renewal. 

To answer that question, I want to offer a new approach, one that is not seen often enough among American unions: a multi-contract strategy.  The declining conditions just described did not develop in the space of one contract—they took 35 years to create.  The PSC bargaining team and leadership believe that we will be in the strongest position to reverse those conditions if we think strategically and think in terms of more than one contract at a time.  What I’m presenting tonight reflects the work of many people—including many in this room—and it represents the consensus of both the union’s bargaining team and its executive council.     

We would like to ask you to think about the last two contracts, the 2000-2002 contract and the 2002-2007 contract, as Phase I of an agenda to transform and reclaim the City University of New York.  I’m not talking about the kind of superficial transformation that is CUNY management’s specialty—a few lavishly supported programs aggressively and expensively marketed—I mean a profound transformation of the conditions under which we labor and under which our students are taught.  I would describe the two contracts of Phase I—the first contracts under our leadership—in this way: the PSC pushed hard against the limits of the contractual settlements offered by CUNY and sanctioned by the City and State, but did not significantly exceed the bounds of those fairly narrow economic terms.   Instead, we used creativity and imagination and—most important—the unified, organized force of the membership—to stretch and extend and leverage the terms of those settlements and make them yield more.  We would not have been successful if we had not had the united support of the membership.  In the last round of bargaining, the PSC was the only union in the City to gain a substantial increase in welfare fund contributions: we achieved that only because you did not give up until we had achieved that demand.   

The result of Phase I was two contracts that contained advances many of us thought were impossible for CUNY:       

    • a dramatic increase in the level of support for research and scholarship, with sabbaticals at 80% pay, an average of a full year of paid research leave for untenured faculty, CUNY’s first-ever professional development funds for HEOs, CLTs and adjuncts.
    • a stabilized Welfare Fund that was able to begin improving benefits.
    • increases in equity, through additional raises in the first contract for those in the lowest-paid full-time titles in the HEO, CLT and Lecturer series, and increases in take-home pay of up to 23% for the adjuncts who were now paid for office hours.
    • improvements in the adjunct structure—sustained health insurance, access to research grants, and 100 new full-time faculty positions reserved for the most experienced part-timers.
    • reversal of some concessions made by previous contracts—an especially difficult thing to achieve in the current anti-labor climate.

Phase I, then, fixed several long-standing problems at CUNY and brought to the University the kind of provisions that are typical of elite research universities—and that had been seen as unaffordable luxuries at CUNY.  Phase I was a conceptual and ideological victory as well as a political one: we defeated the unspoken premise, ultimately rooted in racism and contempt for our students, that certain standard conditions of an academic workplace were “too good” for CUNY. 

We should be proud of what we were able to do together.  But I also want to be honest about what we were not able to do.  The Phase I contracts, despite the advances they made, did not succeed in fixing what I see as the three major structural problems of CUNY employment:  

  1. salary erosion
  2. the adjunct system
  3. the teaching load

There are many other issues that cost money and need to be fixed, but these three are at a different level of magnitude, in both their effect on the institution and the cost of addressing them.  I do not have to spell out for you how the three structural problems—salaries, adjunctification and teaching load—hold CUNY back from being the university we want it to be and undermine CUNY’s ability to offer our students the best.  There is not a person in this room who has not felt both sadness and rage, I suspect, when confronted by the limitations the institution imposes on what we can do for our students.  If only we had two fewer courses a year, think how much more time we could give to our students.  If only our colleges could offer tuition waivers for employees’ children and paid parental leave, think about the applicants who would  have accepted your department’s job offer instead of going elsewhere.  If only adjuncts didn’t have to rush from campus to campus and scramble for money to pay the rent and the doctor, think how much more they could offer to their classes.  It is unforgivable to make us work in conditions that actively thwart us. 

A department chair at Brooklyn said to me, “I don’t understand why Matt Goldstein is not demanding a reduction in the teaching load.  It’s in the interest of the university to bring our course-load in line with Rutgers and comparable places.  Why isn’t that management’s demand?”  The answer is: because we live in the upside-down world in which CUNY management boasts about the university’s success while tolerating the conditions for failure.  Worse, it enlists us all in the project of building the corporate university while slowly leaving behind CUNY’s historic mission of democratic, liberal, free education.   
 There is a fourth area that does not appear in my list because it does not require the same level of economic settlement to achieve.  But it is equally important to CUNY and our students.  As you heard earlier from Donna Gill, employees in the higher education officer series—HEOs—face serious issues of job security, overwork and lack of promotion—in addition to our shared problem of salaries.  The PSC took the issue of overwork to the courts last year and won; CUNY is now being forced to adhere to the contract on HEO work hours.   

While I would not say that we have come to the end of what can be done by the approach of Phase I, I would say we have come to the point where we must decide whether that is enough.  Faced with the growing structural problems of salary erosion, abuse of adjunct labor and excessive workloads, the PSC has three options:   

  1. We could continue the Phase I approach of incremental progress but accept that fixing CUNY’s largest structural problems is ruled out by the small size of the typical contract settlements in the City and State.
  2. We could lie about what how well CUNY is doing and pretend that everything is fine.  This is basically the approach of CUNY management; it’s what’s behind their cynical proposal to create the illusion of higher salaries by taking away our salary steps and redistributing the money to a few.  This is also the neo-liberal approach of accepting, even embracing, the withdrawal of public funds from public services and leaving human needs to the vagaries of the marketplace.
  3. Or, we could decide to fight—continuing to press for incremental change and for progress on non-economic issues, but setting our sight on the major structural problems. 

The PSC leadership has decided to fight.  We have decided to pursue a solution on the scale of the problem.  We have developed a strategy whose aim is to solve the three high-cost economic issues—understanding that that takes us well beyond the bounds of the usual minimal settlements.  The PSC executive council looked hard at how much progress we would and would not be able to make within the kind of contracts now being settled by the City and the State.  Contracts at the current rate, around 3-3.5% a year, simply do not provide enough money to undo the kinds of problems Steve London and others tonight described.  The standard settlement might just allow us to maintain our current eroded salary levels and current degraded conditions; it would not allow progress.  But the point of being in a union is to change the status quo for working people, not to accept it. We take on that responsibility, and ask you to do the same. 

It will not be easy to crack any one of these three structural problems—each one of which would take more money than was in our entire last contract.  To attempt something this big, we have to be strategic, and we have to be united.  The union leadership has made the strategic decision to focus first on one and a half of the three big issues—this will be Phase II of the multi-contract strategy.  The remaining issues, plus the structural question of HEO advancement, will be our focus in Phase III.   

Salary erosion has reached a crisis point both in our individual lives and in the life of CUNY as an institution.  There is also a growing awareness in Albany and elsewhere that CUNY salaries must be raised.  For these reasons—and because salaries affect us all—we have determined that a strategic focus for Phase II—the current round of bargaining and perhaps into the next—will be to make measurable progress in restoring our salaries.  By significant progress I mean something that closes the gap we heard about earlier - an increase above the level of inflation that moves us back toward national competitiveness.  Without that, all the advertisements in the world cannot ensure that CUNY will be able to attract the best scholars of the current generation—as it attracted the best scholars of the last. 

It’s not enough to focus on salaries, however, if CUNY is to succeed in recruiting and retaining the faculty and staff our students need.  This is the twenty-first century, and CUNY’s family policies haven’t even made it into the twentieth.  Paid parental leave is essential in this contract.  It’s an insult to every woman and every man at CUNY that the university does not offer a single day’s paid leave to bring a child into the world. 

Second, we will tackle at least two aspects of the adjunct system: the lack of job security and the lack of secure health insurance.  While the bargaining team recognizes the acute salary needs adjuncts face and will continue to work on improved adjunct salaries even in this contract, we have had to make a strategic choice, and the adjuncts themselves have prioritized job security.  And without health insurance everything is endangered: we must gain City and State support for health insurance for eligible adjuncts and graduate employees in this round of bargaining.  CUNY is one of the few major research universities in the country that fails to offer its graduate employees health insurance.   

The fight for adjuncts is everyone’s fight.  If you hear no other message tonight, I ask you to hear that the scandalous system of adjunct labor hurts every single person in this room.  Not only does the system of cheap labor diminish the moral stature of the university and deprive our students of the access to faculty that is essential to their education, it helps to depress the salaries and working conditions of full-timers.  The adjunct issue is not an “adjunct issue”; it’s a structural problem, and until we organize unapologetically to solve it, we will be unable to make dramatic progress in transforming our work environment. 

Phase II, then, focuses on the strategic goals of restoring our salaries to competitive levels - including in that restoration paid parental leave - and on winning job security and health insurance for part-timers.   

In addition, CUNY management has introduced a series of deep concessionary demands for management control—and these have nothing to do with the economic decisions of the City and State.  Therefore, Phase II must also include forcing those demands off the table. And of course naming strategic priorities does not mean that we give up on the array of non-economic and lower-cost demands still on the table.  We will continue to press hard for these, and in fact have begun to make progress on several of them.   

This phase also includes doing the groundwork that will prepare us to fight on the remaining issues for Phase III: adjunct salary parity, the teaching load, and access to promotion for HEOs.  On all three, we are preparing now and doing preliminary work at the bargaining table to begin to make progress.  The union is forming a special task force on teaching loads so we will be ready with data and arguments when we enter Phase III.

Some may be disappointed and even angry to hear that the issues that are most burning for them are not our major focus in this phase.  Others may think, “We waited so long for a contract last time, let’s just take any settlement near the level of inflation and get our money.”  But to do that would be to continue—and to deepen—the problems at CUNY.  I don’t think any of you came to CUNY because you wanted to perpetuate conditions that mean our students have a poorer educational experience than students at expensive private colleges.  You chose CUNY because you have a different vision of what education can be and who is entitled to be educated.  And you believe that we ourselves deserve dignity, respect and the resources to do the work we love.  That’s what this contract strategy is about.   

How do we succeed?  How do we gain what one PSC activist, Lorraine Cohen, called “the hope and faith and power and belief” needed to achieve this ambitious agenda in a deeply reactionary period?  

First, we have to be at least as organized and strategic as those who oppose us.  For a long time the far right in this country has been much better organized—and a lot more strategic—than the left or the progressive forces.  The PSC strategy is an attempt to think beyond the short-term, where unions are often trapped, but also within the long-term, where progressive movements must set their sights. We are offering an ambitious but achievable plan that encompasses a  series of contracts over time.   

Second, we are not powerless and we must use the power we have.  It’s easy to fall into anti-intellectual jokiness about how little power professors have.  That is a myth designed to keep us in our place.  The truth is that we occupy an influential position within the City, as the labor force that provides public higher education.  The truth is that CUNY is a major city institution.  46% of all college students in New York City are students at CUNY.  If we take a public, united stand and tell the truth about what is needed to support higher education, we will gain public support.  And as workers, we have a power that goes beyond even telling the truth.  One of the tasks of this campaign will be to educate ourselves and each other about the potential benefits and risks of using labor’s most forceful tactics.     

Third, the PSC has a growing track record of success that signals to others and to ourselves that we can win.  The victory this summer on pension equity legislation showed that the PSC can make gains even in an area such as pensions, where all the political momentum is toward cuts.  The PSC also has a record of dramatically increasing its numbers and its strength: membership in this union has grown by 83% since our leadership took office in 2000.  Few unions nationwide can match that.  

Fourth, the moment is right.  Our strategy begins by breaking the silence about CUNY’s low salaries and ugly adjunct labor system; we only help management if politeness or embarrassment causes us to hide the truth.  Starting tonight, the PSC is launching a public campaign to inform New Yorkers about just what has happened to CUNY salaries and why everyone who cares about education and the future of this City has a stake in seeing them made nationally competitive.  Governor Spitzer has made higher education a centerpiece of his agenda and his Commission on Public Higher Education is poised to release its report in December.  We will time our public campaign of hearings, ads, testimony and op-eds to make sure that the need for higher salaries and for improvements for adjuncts is part of the conversation. 

Fifth, we will aim our campaign strategically at the different locations of power. The contract settlement for the PSC involves not only CUNY management, but also New York City and New York State.  Some of what we are trying to achieve in this phase of the contract fight is directly in the control of CUNY management—adjunct job security and management’s own demands—and on those issues we will target CUNY, starting on each campus.  Other issues, such as health insurance and salaries, also involve the City and State, and we have been working closely with both to make our case.  Expect the union to call on you when we need to bring public pressure at those levels.   

Sixth, we will not fight alone.  The PSC has begun a strategic campaign to gain the support of our natural allies in the campaign for a great university.  There is a vast constituency of potential supporters for CUNY, and it’s hard to underestimate what CUNY means to working people, the middle class, people of color and immigrants in this city.  That power has yet to be mobilized, and when it is, we will have an unstoppable force to demand the university they need.  

Last, we are fighting for something bigger than our own salaries and our own working conditions, important as they are.  We are fighting for the future of an institution that has one of the most progressive pasts in this country.  We are fighting for each individual student whose life we have seen transformed by CUNY.  We are fighting for the principle that education is not a privilege or even a right, but a need—a fundamental, defining human endeavor from which no one should be excluded.  And we are fighting for an alternative to the greedy, destructive culture that is more interested in sending our students to war than in educating them, that tolerates the intolerable—like nooses hung from schoolyard trees or sent to African-American professors—and that would roll back the gains of a hundred years of progressive struggle.  It’s a hard fight.  But I believe that if we approach it in a way that is smart, strategic, unified and unafraid, we have a good chance to win.  It’s a project worthy of us; let’s do it together.

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