Why Adjuncts Should Vote Yes on the PSC-CUNY Contract

After decades of state disinvestment and corporatization of higher education, both public and private, “part-time” adjuncts now make up more than half of the teaching force at U.S. colleges and universities; in 1975, they were only about a fifth. I have worked as an adjunct at the City University of New York (CUNY) since 2000, and I served on the bargaining team for my union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), during our recent hard-fought contract negotiations. The PSC represents 25,000 faculty and professional staff, including some 10,000 teaching adjuncts.

More than half of the courses at CUNY are taught by adjuncts like me. At CUNY and throughout academic institutions nationwide, adjunct faculty are often treated as disposable workers, even after decades of experience. Their course assignments often come without access to computers, without adequate office space to meet students in and without a voice in curriculum or campus governance.

Growing exploitation of adjuncts is the defining academic labor issue of the last 40 years, and it has tremendous implications for faculty and students and the future of higher education. Adjuncts are fighting back via a growing labor movement, demanding the basic rights that should be afforded all workers: health care, job security and fair wages.

After six years working with an expired contract and no raises, PSC members are voting right now on whether to ratify the proposed contract. The deal on the table provides a 10.41% salary increase, back pay and a signing bonus for all employees. It also includes three-year appointments and health insurance that will provide greater stability for many adjuncts. Both provisions are critical steps toward greater professionalism in the treatment of adjuncts; both are needed to improve academic continuity and quality education for CUNY students.

It took a militant, public contract campaign and strike authorization vote to build the power needed to negotiate this offer. Some CUNY adjuncts are advocating for a no vote because they argue the contract isn’t transformative.  

Voting no on this contract without a realistic and achievable plan to win something better would be a major setback for our members. While admittedly less than perfect (as all contracts are), this contract delivers important gains for all parts of the bargaining unit, including adjuncts. These gains can and must be built upon going forward, but this will require a broader movement than one single union, no matter how progressive and militant that union is.

This contract proposal is the result of intense negotiations between two sides with very different visions for CUNY, with one side seeking more contingency and the other trying to curtail it. It is hard to describe just how resistant CUNY is to give up the flexibility they have with a largely contingent workforce. Beyond money is the control of labor at management’s disposal. Negotiations also took place within a context of ongoing austerity budgets, with CUNY’s financial offer restrained by the state’s reluctance to significantly increase CUNY’s budget. The PSC pushed back hard on both fronts, and was able to achieve a lot within those very real constraints. While this contract neither ends the two-tier system nor includes the overall financial investment necessary to make up for years of budget cuts, it does provide important provisions that create better working conditions for faculty and staff, and better learning conditions for our students.

For adjuncts, this contract offers another important incremental step forward. Back in 2010, the union began soliciting members for what they wanted in the new contract. Not surprisingly, those adjuncts engaged in that process demanded greater security and equity. Both of those demands have been partially met in this round of bargaining.

The multiyear appointments, while falling short of the initial demand for Certificates of Continuous Employment, represent a true structural change. A large number of long-serving adjuncts will immediately be granted two-year appointments which relieve them of their semester-by-semester anxiety, and going forward, greater and greater numbers will qualify for three-year appointments. CUNY clearly saw this as a structural change and resisted fiercely. The inclusion of further conversion lines continues to create a pathway to full-time, tenured work for some long-serving adjuncts. Both of these steps away from contingency give us models from which to expand.

The demand for equity was also partially achieved: the inclusion in this round of bargaining of close to 2,000 adjuncts on the CUNY health care plan. For many adjuncts this has brought peace of mind, while for several adjuncts I know personally, it has averted financial and medical disaster. For my one friend who had breast cancer two years ago, and for another who has diabetes, this is no minor achievement. The bill for this has a value of almost 1% of the package which must be included in any calculations of the overall economic offer on the table. There was little room for achieving greater equity with the final 10.41% offer.

And this leads to the crux of the matter for me. Given the stakes, should we have walked away from the table and prepared to strike? Should we now vote no and prepare for an action? Doing so would almost certainly trigger a report from the mediator that negotiations have broken down, thus likely moving the process toward arbitration where it is very unlikely that either more than 10.41% would be offered or that equity would be achieved. The political forces necessary to shift both CUNY and the state are not currently arrayed, and they won’t magically appear because we raise our banner and march into battle. There is much work left to do in building such a support structure.

This contract delivers real gains, while still falling short of our ideals. Weighing the risks and costs to the members, particularly the most vulnerable members, of a no vote leads me to conclude that a yes vote is the most sensible option. But I also recognize that we must immediately begin organizing for the next round. Based on the many, many conversations I have had since the end of bargaining, members (including a majority of adjuncts I have spoken to) are encouraged by the progress, understand the contract's limitations and are eager to get this ratified and build momentum for the next round.

Instead of voting no on this contract ratification, I instead propose that we channel the anger and frustration into an organizing effort targeting both CUNY and the state. Achieving true equity and ending the two-tier system as we know it will require much greater ​investment in CUNY from the state, and a cultural shift within CUNY itself. The effort needs to be costed so that we all know what kind of numbers we are talking about, a survey should be conducted to better understand the pool of CUNY adjuncts and a clear goal needs to be set around which to organize. From there we can work on building a consensus among our members, and continue to build meaningful relationships with our labor and community allies. It is a heavy lift, but I believe it can be done. In fact, the support that we did receive throughout this campaign, along with the elevation of the discussion of higher public education taking place on the national stage, provides a unique opening to mobilize for this fight.​

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