Contract impasse prompts strike authorization vote
In response to CUNY faculty and staff working without a contract for six years, the Professional Staff Congress CUNY has officially called a strike authorization vote.
Voting began on Monday, May 2, and will run until Wednesday, May 11, with results being announced the next day. According to the union’s website, members in good standing for four months prior to the vote are eligible to cast a ballot as per Article III, Section 5 of the PSC Constitution. Before voting began, more than 5,000 PSC members had already publicly pledged to vote yes to the strike authorization.
“It is a vote to authorize the union’s executive board to initiate a strike or other job action if we determine that it is the only way that we can reach a fair contract,” explained Barbara Bowen, PSC president and professor at Queens College and at the Graduate Center of CUNY.
“So it is a vote to give the authority to the executive board [of PSC] to make that decision. It is not a direct vote to do a strike.”
PSC has petitioned both the city and the state to supply imperative funding for contracts, which they have been working without since 2010.
Leading up to the start of the strike authorization vote, PSC members have participated in rallies on different CUNY campuses, have made hundreds of visits to Albany and have staged several acts of civil disobedience, resulting in the arrest of nearly 100 people.
“We have used every other possible method to apply pressure to Chancellor Milliken to get moving and to New York state and city to put the funding that is necessary behind our contract. New York City has said that the city will provide funding at the level that is equivalent to the funding provided for other contracts for city workers, but some of the employees of CUNY are supported on the payroll of the city and some of the state. So to completely fund our contract, there needs to be investment by the state as well as the city,” said Bowen.
The last time the union was under contract or received any pay increase was prior to 2010. Late last year, CUNY management proposed a 6 percent retroactive salary increase. The proposal was rejected by PSC, which cited the fact that the pay increase would essentially amount to nothing after taking inflation into account.
PSC members have discussed the difficulty of supporting themselves in New York City on their income, mainly due to a skyrocketing cost of living in the city. Adjunct professors, whom CUNY relies heavily on, are hit especially hard by the lack of pay as they do not have a set salary and instead are being compensated by each course taught.
“I teach nine courses a year, seven at Baruch and two at Hunter College. That is the same load that a full-time lecturer as opposed to an adjunct lecturer,” said Stan Wine, who has taught as an adjunct lecturer in Baruch College’s computer information systems department for about 12 years. “For that essentially full-time load I am paid $35,000 a year. I am paid poverty wages. I am paid a fraction of what a full-timer makes. I am paid a fraction of what a schoolteacher makes; yet, I work full-time. I teach grad courses where the tuition from a single grad course brings in more money than I get paid for the whole year, so adjuncts are exploited at the university.”
“If my salary was doubled it might start to approach something that was reasonable. Obviously there is no chance of anyone’s salary getting doubled as a result of a contract negotiation, but to run a university in which the majority of courses are taught by people who are paid poverty wages is a disgrace,” said Wine, who also has experience in the financial services industry and information technology. Wine voted “yes” to the strike authorization.
In one of PSC’s most recent efforts to call attention to their plight, 40 CUNY faculty and staff were arrested during a March “die-in” outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office in midtown. This action was preceded by a similar civil disobedience action on Nov. 4 of last year, when 53 members of PSC were arrested following a sit-in at the entryway to the CUNY headquarters building in midtown.
Among those who were arrested was Vincent DiGirolamo, an assistant professor in Baruch’s department of history as well as an activist in PSC. DiGirolamo voted “yes” to the strike authorization as well.
“I got involved, because it had been so long without a contract and so long without a raise that I was curious about what the problem was,” recalled DiGirolamo, who was charged with disorderly conduct.
“I went to some meetings, and then I went and observed the negotiations, one of the sessions. Up until that point I had not completely made up my mind to get arrested ... I saw some hardcore non-negotiating on the part of the CUNY powers that be ... What are we waiting for? Let us send the message, let us try to get off this stalemate and do it by showing that the rank and file is 100 percent behind the leadership and behind the bargaining team.”
According to Bowen, PSC is trying to reach a settlement sometime in the next two months, since the state legislature goes into recess at the end of June.
It is important to note that New York State’s Public Employees Fair Employment Act, commonly known as the Taylor Law, grants public employees the right to unionize and be represented by organizations of their choice. However, the same law also makes it illegal for state public employees to strike: under penalty of jail time.
“You are being asked to really be committed if you agree to this [strike authorization vote],” said DiGirolamo. “I think we are going into this with our eyes open knowing that this is probably one of the more serious votes we have had, one of the most serious moments for the union and for each of us individually as staff and faculty.”