Strike authorization brewing in New York

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Rallying in the streets is nothing new for members of the AFT's Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty and staff at the City University of New York. It's a union that leans heavily toward activism, and even arrests for civil disobedience are not infrequent. Now, having gone six years with no contract and no raise, members are so fed up they are considering a strike authorization vote.

This is a big deal, even for PSC, because in New York, it is illegal for public sector workers to strike. When the Transport Workers Union went on strike in 2005, the union was fined $2.5 million, individual members were fined two days' pay for each day they went on strike, and the union president was jailed for 10 days.

Members of the Professional Staff CongressA strike authorization vote is not a strike—and thus far, PSC is only collecting signatures from members who pledge that they will vote for strike authorization. But PSC means business. Members have had no pay increases since 2009. The state has continually underfunded the schools and has refused to fund their regular operating costs. This year, the budget shortfall is $51 million. Courses have been cut, some part-time faculty members have been dropped, and funding for student services and laboratory supplies has decreased.

The city and the state are fighting over who should fund the schools, but the bottom line is that an underfunded system threatens the quality of its education. Not only are faculty teaching conditions the students' learning conditions, but the state of CUNY's campuses, the sustainability of programming and the viability of essential educational resources for low-income students also are at stake.

Now CUNY has declared an impasse in PSC-CUNY contract negotiations. CUNY Chancellor James Milliken has offered what amounts to a salary decrease: no increase for the first three years of the contract (2010-2013), and a total of 6 percent for the period between 2010 and 2016, a number that is below the level of inflation. The union countered with a proposal for a package of salary increases that would total 14 percent.

"If the CUNY administration had advocated more aggressively for public funding for CUNY rather than accommodating to scarcity, they would not be trying to create an impasse now," said PSC President and AFT Vice President Barbara Bowen in a statement to members. "Instead, we waited five years for an economic offer. CUNY's half-million students deserve a high-quality education. To ensure that, the university must complete a collective bargaining agreement that pays faculty and staff fairly for the important work we do and that makes CUNY competitive for the faculty and staff that CUNY students deserve."

An impasse, said Bowen, could slow the resolution of the contract by more than a year. "Management may have the luxury of enjoying their large salaries while waiting for a raise, but we do not," she said. "There are PSC members who have been evicted from their apartments because they cannot pay the increased rent and PSC adjunct members who have to rely on food stamps. We cannot wait."

"The consequences of breaking the Taylor Law [which prohibits a strike] are severe—at least on paper," Brooklyn College PSC Chapter Chair James Davis told a crowd of about 900 members at a unionwide meeting in November. "But the stakes of inaction are high. And I think there are real consequences if we decline to take the steps that are more militant and more public. It's important to recognize the power we have and the role we play in the national conversation about higher ed."

PSC has been buoyed by support from sister unions, which sent video messages to the November rally. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, AFT 2121 President Tim Killikelly at City College of San Francisco, and California Faculty Association President Jennifer Eagan were among them. "Our colleagues, like us, are fighting not just for salary raises, but for a quality education accessible to all students," said PSC Secretary Nivedita Majumdar.

Indeed, the fight for a fair contact for PSC has implications far beyond CUNY campuses. It is a reaction to national movements "that seek to delegitimize higher education as a public good and rebrand it as a private investment," said Davis. "We have an opportunity to change that narrative, to reframe higher education not only as a public good, but as a good for the particular public that we serve—working-class students, students of color, immigrants and their children."

[Virginia Myers, Professional Staff Congress reports/PSC photo]