“There’s so much joy and energy in our union. I want to leave a healthy union that’s much stronger than where we found it,” said Professional Staff Congress President Barbara Bowen, who after 21 years representing 30,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York is stepping down from that role.
Ms. Bowen, who has fought not only for her members but also for the working-class students CUNY serves, said she made the decision a few years ago that her current term would be her last.
Good to 'Renew' Union
“I feel it’s important for the union to be renewed with new energy,” she said. “Politically, it’s healthy and it’s right.”
On May 25, James Davis, who has served as chapter chair at Brooklyn College for five years, will succeed her as PSC president. First Vice-President Andrea Vásquez was re-elected, while Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center Chair Felicia Wharton was elected treasurer. Penny Lewis, an Associate Professor of Labor Studies at the School of Labor and Urban Studies who has been the PSC’s vice president for senior colleges, was elected secretary.
Ms. Bowen believed that the new leadership would bring “rich, deep experience” to their roles. Reflecting on her decision late last century to participate with others in forming an insurgent caucus at the PSC, Ms. Bowen, who had worked as an organizer for migrant farm workers and later for clerical staffers while obtaining a PhD at Yale University, said that during her 15 years teaching at CUNY, the union “wasn’t very active in the struggles of the working class.”
Many of the educators, including herself, who came to teach at CUNY were attracted to the system’s role in serving low-income, primarily black and brown students.
'Force for Social Change'
“We’ve consistently championed that unions should be a force in changing social and economic conditions in society,” she said. “I had the goal of making the union a fighting union.”
Her “New Caucus” slate in 2000 went on to defeat Richard Boris, who had stepped into the role of president months earlier after the retirement of the union’s leader for 24 years, Irwin Polishook.
At the bargaining table, Ms. Bowen held to the philosophy that the staff’s working conditions were students’ learning conditions. The PSC became the first public-sector union to get paid parental leave for full-time workers in 2008. The union also negotiated a year of paid research time for nontenured faculty and pay differentials for staff with higher degrees, obtained health insurance for adjuncts and graduate employees and reduced teaching loads.
After going six years without a contract, in 2016, the union reached a deal that provided 10.4 percent in raises, and, for the first time, granted some job security for adjuncts in the form of three-year appointments for part-time staff who had worked at least six hours per semester for 10 consecutive semesters.
“Everything the PSC has done has been possible only because of the thousands of PSC members and allies,” she said.
Advocated for CUNY
The biggest—and ongoing—fight the PSC has faced has been advocating for increased funding for CUNY. Because of decades of disinvestment, many campus buildings are deteriorating, with exposed wires, missing floor and ceiling tiles, out-of-order bathroom stalls and peeling paint all common issues.
In 1990, just 20 percent of CUNY’s funding came from student tuition, with the majority coming from the state, according to the city Independent Budget Office. Now, tuition provides more than 40 percent of CUNY’s revenue, with the union noting that over the past decade, funding per student has dropped 18 percent adjusted for inflation.
The cuts reflected part of a larger pattern of disinvestment in public systems—but “CUNY has been hit harder than almost any other higher-education institution,” Ms. Bowen said.
The other challenge has been addressing the “two-tiered” labor system in which CUNY has increasingly relied on contingent workers (about 60 percent of classes are being taught by 12,000 adjunct instructors).
Although over the past several years the union has secured several wins for adjuncts, there’s much more to be done, she acknowledged.
'An Exploitative System'
“I wish we could have broken the whole exploitative system of adjunct labor,” Ms. Bowen said. “The inexcusable employment structure of higher-education is part of the austerity model.”
One major battle the PSC won was significantly boosting adjunct pay. The part-time staff earned as little as $3,220 per course, meaning that the average adjunct made less than $30,000 annually.
For years, PSC members held rallies and flooded Board of Trustees hearings demanding that adjuncts be paid $7,000 per course. In 2019, the union negotiated a contract that boosted the minimum pay for adjuncts to $5,500 per class by offering pay for office hours.
And while some criticized the fact that adjunct pay had not reached the union's goal, “The minimum salary went up 71 percent,” Ms. Bowen noted. “I have yet to see a contract that has increases that come anywhere near as close.”
The pandemic has brought additional challenges: because of anticipated budget cuts, last summer, CUNY sent letters of non-reappointment to 2,900 adjuncts. That prompted the PSC to file an unsuccessful lawsuit calling on management to use Federal coronavirus funding to reinstate the employees.
Strike Threat Got Action
Last fall the union protested the planned reopening of Hunter College Campus Schools over coronavirus safety concerns, with 85 percent of members approving a strike vote. A deal was reached “just hours” before the Teachers had planned to strike, with the school’s administration agreeing to a safety check by an independent inspector and COVID testing.
Ms. Bowen believed that “the right to withhold your labor is a human right,” adding that the state Taylor Law, which imposes harsh penalties on public employees and their unions for striking, “violates those rights.”
Even though hundreds of rallies and five rounds of contract bargaining have kept her extremely busy, “I’ve never given up my love of teaching,” she said. Ms. Bowen, who taught English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, said that she will take a sabbatical this year to perform research in her fields of study, 17th Century Literature and African-American Literature.
“There’s a lot to catch up on,” she noted.
After two decades leading the rallying cry of a very active membership, Ms. Bowen said that of the lessons she'd learned, the biggest was “what people can accomplish together.”
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