Years of organizing at CUNY yields wins for workers

NEW YORK – Following years of mobilizations by the union memberships on campus, a quick succession of victories over the past week have arrived for workers, faculty, and teaching staff at the City University of New York. These recent wins should be seen against the broader backdrop of workers struggling with their employers at Verizon, the Fight for $15 movement, and other movements in New York and around the country.

On Friday, June 10, the members of AFSCME District Council 37, the largest public sector union in New York City, reached a first tentative agreement with James Milliken, chancellor of CUNY. Additional amendments were made to the agreement the following Monday. After nearly seven years of working without a contract, 12,000 non-professional workers at CUNY campuses across the city will be receiving benefits.

The agreement must be approved by the CUNY board of trustees. It also awaits confirmation from the 12,000 non-professional workers at CUNY who are represented by the union.

Covering the period from November 1, 2009 through January 31, 2017, the new contract includes retroactive 10.41% compound wage increases and a $1,000 bonus. Wage increases from November 1, 2009 until now will be given to workers in one lump-sum payment. The income rise marks an important step forward for staff workers who were excluded by New York State governor Andrew Cuomo from the incremental steps towards a $15 minimum wage in New York City. The $15 wage will be realized in that city by 2018, but the isolation of DC-37 workers from this measure had created difficulties in maintaining the unity of the coalition fighting for it. Retired workers and current employees of DC-37 will now also see a $200 increase in their welfare fund for each year of the contract’s terms. This welfare fund covers prescription drugs, tuition reimbursement, legal services, dental work, and personal services.

SEIU Local 300 and the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) have also won similar benefits covering a slightly earlier time period.

Once ratified, the workers at CUNY’s 24 campuses around the city will enjoy benefits similar to those of the 100,000 DC-37 members working in other key areas of New York City’s public services. These include hospitals, libraries, museums, and other city agencies, cultural institutions, and infrastructure.

This agreement was reached soon after members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which represents about 25,000 faculty and instructional staff at CUNY campuses, in May overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike. More commonly known as the Taylor Law, the Public Employees Fair Employment Act made the use of the strike by public sector unions illegal in 1967. But PSC members have been working without a raise for six years. The vote to strike was authorized by a 92% ‘Yes’ vote after all other attempts to reach a fair agreement had been exhausted.

On Thursday morning, June 16, PSC also announced a major victory. Bargaining teams had worked all night long to reach a tentative contract agreement that will also contain a retroactive 10.41% wage increase from October 20, 2010 to November 30, 2017. Upon ratification, PSC members will also be receiving a signing bonus.

“I am inspired by the PSC membership,” said Barbara Bowen, PSC president. “We were able to negotiate a strong, imaginative contract in a period of enforced austerity for public workers because our members mobilized. The fight for our contract was a fight for investment in quality education at CUNY.”

The agreement made with PSC also meets many of the structural demands put forward by the union. The university has agreed to work on opening up more time for faculty to work with individual students. The contract would also put into place the university’s first system of providing multiple-year positions to adjunct professors.

Adjunct faculty have been bringing awareness to the public regarding the conditions of poverty in which they have been forced to work. The Barnard Contingent Faculty Union (BCFUAW), which won recognition from Barnard College in October 2015, put forward the bold demands in February of this year for $15,000 per course per semester for all teaching staff. This is roughly five times the going rate. Adjunct professors, factoring in time spent outside the classroom, have calculated their hourly rate of pay to be around $8/hour.  Many of them identify strongly with the stories of fast food workers in the #Fightfor15 movement. In its last bargaining session with the college, the BCFUAW wrung from the college’s administration a concession of $6,000 per course semester of 3 credits or more.

These developments have all taken place in the context of labor struggle powerfully emerging throughout the country in many different sectors of the economy. Verizon workers completing the longest labor strike in many years recently won important concessions from the corporation, including a first contract for wireless retail store workers. The #Fightfor15 has been building strength and growing in unity with movements for immigration justice, against structural racism, for affordable childcare, and affordable housing. It, too, is winning victories in cities and states around the country.

If ratified, these victories for workers engaged in the reproduction of New York City’s knowledge base could create the basis for further victories in other parts of the economy and in other regions of the country. 

Photo: DC37blog


Cameron Orr
Cameron Orr

Cameron Orr is a musician and writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.