Thursday, February 16, 2006

What's Not Acceptable

I just got done reading an important message from my union president about the ongoing negotiations over the CUNY faculty's contract. (it might take a while for the 2/16 update to hit the webpage - so if it's not there when you check the link come back later.)

There's a lot in it this latest report from contract negotiations with CUNY management to provoke anger.

To catch you up to speed, here's the context. Our union is called the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and we represent CUNY's faculty. Our most recent contract expired on Halloween of 2002. For two years, the administration made no financial offer at all, despite efforts at bargaining and proposals by the reps. of the faculty. THEN, in December of 2004, management offered us a 1.5% raise over four years and a set of major give-backs. One of management's most obnoxious demands was that the department chairs become administrative positions and no longer part of the faculty. For faculty governance, hiring and tenure decisions, this would be a disaster. Other demands included the idea that members of the bargaining team would not be allowed to take notes during bargaining sessions. They wanted us to return early in the Summer, and they gave us nothing for health care benefits, which are already minimal. (no dental coverage, for starters).

As you can imagine, we weren't interested.

So, the biggest problem is management intransigence, which is part of a larger pattern in city employee contracts recently, but another problem has been the lack of a coherent campaign on the union's behalf for this contract. When the University made their insulting offer, people got mad, and there was a serious effort to create real action within the union to push for a good contract. Unfortunately, while I believe that the leadership wants to involve the membership, the organizing efforts have not been as strong as they could be. Our first actions went little beyond weekly phone calls to various members of management, not a tactic that brings faculty together in something that feels "collective." Members complained at meetings that there must be "more" that we could be doing, and were indeed eager to do it themselves.
Things began gathering steam as union members (and leaders too) started talking about creative actions that we could take. Meetings and training sessions were held and energy began to build in the Spring of 2005. While there was a concerted desire for more action and genuine frustration with the university's offer, the engagement of that frustration in the membership was inconsistent. Plans began, were tried briefly, and ended almost before they began - before they had a chance to work.
The most serious of these plans of action was the notion of a vote on a job-action (an action on the job affecting work that could include anything from grading papers in public to not turning in grades, to going on an all-out strike). While risky, this idea did lead to an impressive mass membership meeting and a series of conversations with faculty members, but there was not enough turnaround time or continued effort to build it. Building for something like a job action can't be done for two months and then stop just in time for a bargaining session. But that's what happened. Just as the work seemed to be starting, organized events and discussions within the membership ground to a halt while we waited to see just what was going to happen at the bargaining table this time.
In the end, the provisional agreement reached in November of 2005 did involve an increased financial offer, but it made concessions to management (such as changing the time to tenure from five to seven years and adding a full office hour to each week for full-time faculty) about which the membership was not informed until last week. I see this offer as less than what we could have gotten, even in today's harsh climate. Now, however, the University has gone back on its word, and returned to the bargaining table today with a different offer from what was agreed to back in November. During the entire time between the Nov. 14th agreement and the present reneging on the administration's part, there has been almost no organized action by the union. Now, management has left concessions (like extra time to tenure and additional office hours) on the table, but has taken back compensation offers for those changes that had been part of the agreement in November.
What happened??
I believe that the focus on the act of bargaining itself, and the belief that the most critical action is taking place at the bargaining sessions is the reason for this paralysis in our union. Member action, instead of being the focus that really drives the leadership at the table, has become a cheerleading section for whatever is going on at the table, and action starts and stops around the schedule of bargaining sessions, stopping? during or right after sessions at times almost as if too much action might somehow "jeapardize the process." This notion of the bargaining session as in itself the center of the struggle (rather than say, the public square or the workplace) has both immediate effects, such as a contract campaign that "starts and stops," or does a "hurry-up-and-wait" around the bargaining sessions, and more long-term consequences. The focus on the action around the table reinforces the notion that the union is a service organization that exists to "get" the faculty a good contract. No matter how much the leadership says in speeches that the membership actions are "what's putting pressure" on management during the sessions, the fact that every union meeting is focused on reporting to the membership about "what's happening at the table" leads to a feeling of spectatorship and powerlessness among the membership.
The fact that none of us even knew what was in the tentative agreement when it included such a whopping concession as two years added on to our time before tenure adds even more to a dynamic that separates the membership from the union leadership and throws us into a position of dependence. It's likely that the union was legally bound by some agreement not to talk to us, but I find this strange. Why shouldn't we be asked about whether we think it's a good idea to add time to our tenure clock?

But, you might ask..."isn't the bargaining table where the contract is decided?"
The answer is, Yes, of course it is. But - the power of the CUNY faculty is not predominantly located at the bargaining table. It exists in two places: first, in the workplace and secondly, in the city at large. While it may be illegal and difficult for us to engage in a succesful "job action," it should not be difficult for us to make an effort with our larger "social" power. We are a public university that serves more than 400,000 students in 19 different colleges in New York City. The public respects and cares about this institution, and yet there has been seemingly no outreach to the public through the media, or even mass demonstrations that target the people who might support CUNY (rather than members of the bargaining team) to bring this public pressure to bear on the city. It's a major missed opportunity to get the city on our side. Finally, a consistent, ongoing, and obnoxious campaign for ANY particular strategy is bound to put more pressure on management than a campaign that stops every time the leadership hopes that something's really happening "at the table," just as maintaining ongoing one-on-one organizing conversations with members about strategy and goals (regardless of what's going on at the table) is essential for building faculty support that will make the union stronger in the long run.
Meanwhile, it would help if you
write a fax to these guys (follow the link to the PSC website to send faxes to the Governor, Mayor and CUNY chancellor.

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