PSC Union President Barbara Bowen leads CUNY faculty and staff at a protest last Thursday as they call for an end to the contract dispute that has left them without raises for six years.
By Andrew Caringi
PSC Union President Barbara Bowen will have to wait to resolve her five-year contract dispute with CUNY, as Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to deny the public university of additional state funding for employee raises.
CUNY professors and staff have gone six years without a raise since their last contract expired in October 2010. These five years are the longest CUNY employees have ever gone without a contract since the 1990’s, when massive cuts in state funding by Governors Mario Cuomo and George Pataki eventually led to a lawsuit and landmark victory for the union.
“New York City has indicated that they are prepared to settle the contract,” says PSC President Barbara Bowen. “The state of New York has not so far. They refuse to put even one penny towards the cost of raises for the CUNY faculty and staff.”
While Mayor Bill De Blasio is willing to fund raises for CUNY professors and staff, he will only do so at the same economic level as New York City’s other union contracts, according to Bowen. With 83 percent of the city’s unions under contract, PSC is left as the largest union without a contract, leaving 5,846 employees without scheduled raises.
Under the city’s current pattern bargaining agreement CUNY professors and staff would receive annual raises, but PSC is demanding more of a pay increase than the other 280,190 city workers have received.
“They [NYC] are prepared to settle it at the same economic level as the contracts they’ve already settled with other city workers,” says Bowen. “And that’s not a high settlement.”
PSC is not releasing specific numbers as it relates to wage increases until an offer from the university is on the table.
To meet PSC’s demands, the state would have to provide extra funding for wage increases. Cuomo continues to publicly argue this however, believing that CUNY raises should not come at the expense of the state.
Since their last contract expired in 2010, full-time CUNY professors have been earning a base salary of $68,803, which is $10,000 more than SUNY professors currently make under their union’s contract.
“When you count inflation, our wages have actually gone down,” says associate professor Steve London, 66, who’s worked 30-years at Brooklyn College. “Professors have to get housing two hours away from campus in order to live.”
Despite publicly supporting De Blasio in the 2014 mayoral election, Bowen has failed to secure a contract under the new administration.
Published on the PSC website is Bowen’s endorsement from 2013. “We support Bill de Blasio because he stands for an alternative to the politics of austerity that have dominated New York for too long.”
Now more than a year into negotiations with the De Blasio administration, Bowen has yet to find her alternative.
“The bad guy is an economy, an economic agenda that imposes austerity on working people, while enriching at unbelievable levels the richest one percent,” says Bowen. “The bad guy is economic austerity politics and the corporate and finance and political interests that support them.”
Similar to the contract dispute of the 1990’s, where PSC had to file a lawsuit in order to stop the proposed cuts in funding by Governors Cuomo and Pataki, Bowen faces a unique challenge in trying to secure state funding for a new contract. Without a financial commitment from Cuomo, CUNY has refused to offer any form of wage increases, claiming that the resources simply aren’t available.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult six years,” says Bowen. “Some people don’t know whether or not they can afford to retire. One member does not even know if she can afford to have a child if her salary isn’t going to go up. People are really in distress.”
While it has never been quite this bad, in her 15-year presidency Bowen has faced a number of issues surrounding public funding. For ten years Bowen and her staff fought for a new health plan for adjunct professors, which was previously funded solely by the union. As union funds depleted, Bowen managed an agreement with the city and state to provide additional funding for a new health insurance policy.
Perhaps the union’s biggest victory under Bowen, the new health insurance only applies to adjuncts that teach two consecutive semesters, a practice that will become less common as CUNY colleges are forced to cut budgets this year.
“We’re trying to remedy that,” says Bowen. “And get continuity for several thousand of the adjunct faculty, the ones who are longest serving, or most consistently serving at CUNY, so that there will be that kind of continuity for students as well.”
For adjunct professors like Maggie, who did not want her last name to be used in fear that she would lose her job, a new contract would help them afford the increasing costs of living in New York City.
“The faculty here feel squeezed,” says Maggie, a 30-year old adjunct professor at Queensborough Community College. ”When you need something like dry erase markers for your classroom, that comes out of your pocket. If you want chalk for your classroom, that comes out of your pocket. When you want to arrange extra meeting times with your students to advise them or write them letters of recommendation, that time is not compensated.”
This past year Bowen has brought adjuncts like Maggie out onto the streets, protesting both the CUNY administration and Cuomo over the five-year contract dispute.
“People are still going to support us,” says Bowen. “Sure they express frustration, but they look around and see in other places where there’s been a very effective challenge to austerity politics, especially in public education such as in Chicago and Seattle. It has worked because people have stuck together.”
PSC’s most recent protest took place in front of Chancellor J.B. Milliken’s $18,000 per month apartment, which is completely paid for by CUNY.
CUNY professors and staff protest in front of Chancellor Milliken’s $18,000 per month apartment.
“The university has always provided residential support for chancellors,” says CUNY Director for Communications Michael Arena, who called this contract dispute the university’s highest priority. “We’re working very hard to make sure the faculty and staff are compensated. We’re trying to find the fiscal resources that can help fund the package.”
In a recent email to CUNY professors and staff, Bowen told her approximately 27,000 union members that they will be holding a strike authorization vote. If approved, this would give Bowen and her executive council the right to call a union-wide strike if CUNY management fails to put a reasonable offer on the bargaining table.
“We’re prepared to escalate, and escalate and escalate,” says Bowen, whose next protest is planned for Nov. 4. “At this point we feel we are going to have to take an action that is more disruptive, even unpermitted, to produce an offer.”