In 1973, the Professional Staff Congress, the union representing professor and staff at the City University of New York, struggled in obtaining a contract for employees. After exhausting all means, the union’s leadership turned to its last option—a strike planned for October 1.
The threat had its roots in dual disputes. For one, the union was not respected by CUNY management. Israel Kugler, known for the 1966 strike at St. John’s University, had managed to unite the two labor rivals—the Legislative Conference of the City University and United Federation of College Teachers—as the PSC in 1972. Yet university leaders refused to recognize the PSC, forcing professors and staff to formally elect the PSC as their representatives. Second, CUNY refused to accept the union’s demands and proposed instead “salary freezes, increased workload, [and] more ‘productivity,’” as Belle Zeller, PSC president at the time, said.
The environment, as it is today, was not friendly to strikes. The Taylor Law, passed in 1967, bars public employees from going on strike, while allowing collective bargaining. If PSC members went on strike, they would face punishment in the form of fines. Despite that risk, nearly 80 percent of members, or 3,097, voted for to use the strike on July 8, 1973.
The threat, as it turns out, was never executed. Later that month, CUNY caved, and both sides agreed on a new contract.
A similar scenario—its outcome still uncertain—is developing in 2016. Last month, 92 percent of PSC members voted to authorize the executive board to use a strike if necessary. After six years without a contract, the vote gave union leadership a new tool pressure the administration for a deal. Over more than 20 negotiating sessions since 2010, the administration has yet to make an adequate offer to end the impasse. For members, it is both troubling and frustrating, considering the high cost of living in New York City. The only contract offer by CUNY, on November 4, 2015, was actually a “salary cut” once inflation was accounted for, according to PSC President Barbara Bowen.
However, there are differences compared to 1973. The reason the administration cannot provide an offer to the PSC is not because it does not view the union as legitimate representatives. It is because the university is in far worse financial shape than it was 43 years ago.
After New York City’s near-bankruptcy in 1975, the state assumed control of the City University of New York system. It has failed to fulfill its responsibility to that system ever since.
Since the 1980s, the state reduced funding for all of CUNY’s colleges. For example, City College, located in Harlem, saw its share of revenue from the state fall from nearly 72 percent in 1987 to nearly 48 percent in 2012.
Without funding to improve colleges, administration officials cannot provide an adequate and satisfactory offer to union officials. Even after Gov. Cuomo and his administration discussed a higher level of funding during the 2016 budget process, there is still no solution to the significant disinvestment in a system that serves many of the city’s youth, especially those of color. Nearly 33 percent of students who attend CUNY come from families who earn less than $20,000. A majority of students are black, Latino or Asian.
Not that CUNY’s administration does not share some of the blame. The union has criticized Chancellor James Milliken’s lavish salary: He was paid $490,568 last year as professors and staff struggled. Moreover, Milliken lives at an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, which is covered by CUNY at $19,500 a month. It is complete with “four bedrooms, four and a half baths, a formal dining room and a terrace.”
Other CUNY administrators also make six-figure salaries.
Union officials say the dispute is not only about getting a new contract, but also ensuring the quality of education at CUNY. In her address to members after the strike vote, Bowen told members that “we are prepared to fight to defend our working conditions and our students’ learning conditions.”
To quote Tammie David, a student government official at City College, “students are doomed.” Her comment referred to a $14.6 million budget deficit at City College, but the concern applies across CUNY. Overcrowded classes, a failure by the schools to provide courses that are required to graduate, buildings in need of repairs and other shortfalls are cited as obstacles to student success.
At York College, rats have become a common sight, such that the faculty created an Excel sheet titled “Ratpocalypse 2” to report encounters. Other sites, such as John Jay College, reported similar infestation problem. Cafeterias at Brooklyn College and Hunter College were temporarily shut down by health investigators because of the presence of rats, roaches and other pests as health violations.
Students stand in the gap between CUNY’s needs and its resources not just as pupils but also as payers. CUNY was once known for offering most, if not all, students from the working class a quality education for free. In 1976, tuition was officially implemented after the state failed to provide necessary funds in time.
Ever since then, university officials have used tuition to cover budget gaps, though that option is beloved by no one. Milliken explained at a Board of Trustees meeting last November that the university needed more funds to cover expenses. Without the state providing such funds, an option he preferred, CUNY was forced to rely on students. As he viewed it, “the reality is that nationally a general disinvestment in public higher education has taken place for decades.”
Indeed, this disinvestment is not isolated to CUNY. Higher education is becoming expendable for states. Especially since the financial crisis in 2007, colleges and universities have relied more on tuition as states decreased funding.
These budget pressures have reshaped the higher education product, especially at CUNY. Adjuncts now play a dominant role in how education is delivered there. In 1975, a year before tuition was officially implemented, the university employed more than 11,000 full-time professors. In 2013, the number of full-time faculty at CUNY fell to over 8,000. Using the same 2013 statistics, 56 percent—or 11,042 out of 19,475— of faculty are adjuncts.
Adjuncts are paid roughly $3,000 per course. There are few benefits attached. Assisting students with work outside the classroom, working with other professors on projects and similar work are not paid. (If an adjunct holds office hours for at least one hour per week, they are paid as part of their teaching rate.) Adjuncts typically earn around $24,000 per year, barely enough to survive anywhere in New York City. Adjuncts are covered by the union, and PSC has said they will have a very limited strike fund to assist adjuncts (as well as full-time staff) if the union ends up walking out.
Will a strike happen, and what will be the impact if it does? It’s anybody’s guess. But if it does, it will be yet another sign that public leaders have abandoned their duty to protect the future of New York City.
Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist living in Queens, N.Y. He recently graduated from CUNY Queens College.