While the city government has threatened layoffs, the boom has already dropped at the City University of New York.
My union, the Professional Staff Congress, which represents faculty and administrative staff, estimates that 2,800 workers were notified in late June that they will not have a job when colleges reopen in eight weeks. At least hundreds of District Council 37-represented workers—ranging from IT technicians to custodians to office aides—have had their hours slashed and are precariously hanging on to their jobs.
Exacerbating both sets of attacks are the lack of seniority rights or basic "just-cause" job protections for thousands of workers in the contracts between CUNY and both the PSC and DC 37.
In most municipal and state unions, the numbers of workers who lack just-cause and due-process protections are relatively small: mostly just workers still on probation. Provisional workers have some rights and lack others. And if layoffs come, there is an orderly process based on seniority and civil-service rules, which also govern rehiring.
In the PSC, though, half of the 30,000 represented workers in its bargaining unit are contractually designated "part-timers." Most are essentially "at-will" workers, who can be fired without any provided reason either at the end of a semester or academic year. In contractually polite parlance, this is soothingly and misleadingly called "non-reappointment." (A separate group of 2,500 part-timers has renewable three-year contracts and better contractual job security.)
For these "part-timers," layoffs are indiscriminate. Adjunct faculty and lab techs who have been working for CUNY since the 1980s have no more protection from layoff than colleagues who taught a single class for the first time this spring, and no surety that they will be re-hired first—or at all—if CUNY's budget improves. (This also reflects a failure to amend civil-service laws to cover these workers.)
The layoffs peel the lid off other inequities. Some "part-timers" actually teach more courses every year than "full-time" tenured faculty—and have done so for years—yet due to their contractual status, they are denied rights common to virtually all unionized public employees: vacation time, banked sick leave, full pension rights, health care for their partners and children. Their benefits are so sparse that, according to a PSC lawsuit, their "fringe-benefit number"—the cumulative total of all non-salary costs of their employment—is a startlingly low 13 percent of their wages.
Even full-time administrative staff are subject to annual dismissal until they have worked eight years! Compare this with the justified outrage when the Department of Education started stretching out the awarding of tenure to Teachers to three and four years. For our adjunct faculty, how about...never?
State of Perpetual Anxiety
In more normal times, this lack of job security, this second-class status, produces perpetual fear and anxiety. A new boss will take a dislike to you. Someone's nephew needs a job. Race and gender discrimination, and ageism, abound. Lose a promised course a day before the semester starts (when it's too late to find work elsewhere) and lose your health insurance.
Now add mass layoffs with no regard to seniority and no assurance of recall before cheaper workers are hired in their place. This is precariousness on steroids—exactly what unions were organized to prevent.
DC 37 also represents thousands of CUNY workers. Some are genuinely part-time workers, students or others working just too few hours to qualify for any health insurance whatsoever. Others are fake part-timers. CUNY purposefully schedules them for 32 hours of work a week instead of the "full-time" 35. This denies them some health-care benefits and paid holidays, leaves them with a diminished pension, and—once again, and most important to CUNY, the ability to fire them each summer, for as long as they work, with no due process and no just-cause rights.
Late last month, as PSC adjuncts were being laid off, these DC 37 "part-timers" received letters re-writing their standard yearly reappointment. Instead of their normal 32 hours/week, they were unilaterally offered only 87 hours of work this month, and told there is no guarantee of any work thereafter—take it or leave it.
While CUNY cold-bloodedly swings the ax, we also have to look at the genesis and perpetuation of the inequality that allows particular segments of union members to be so victimized. What is now the PSC began as two separate unions. One was a union of full-time faculty, who gain tenure primarily through amassing a body of publication and scholarship. For better or worse, this path to job security is the particular culture of high academia, but it proved an ill fit for the administrators and adjunct faculty who joined its ranks when it merged with a second smaller union. (Ironically, there were two unions in the first place because the Public Employment Relations Board held that these two groups did not share a community of interest.)
An Imbalance at Top
Although tenure-track faculty are only a third of the union's current members, they have historically dominated the union's leadership and negotiated its contracts with CUNY. And so, administrative staff's torturous path to permanent employment crudely mimics tenure, although why it takes eight years to assess whether someone is a good admissions counselor, for example, is incomprehensible, except from the standpoint of an employer who wants to maximize control over its workers.
When that merger occurred, adjunct faculty were fewer in number, mostly disinterested in full-time teaching, and grossly underpaid. The last is still true, but today adjuncts and other part-timers teach over half of CUNY's courses, supervise labs, repair equipment, staff libraries and administer programs, all at bargain-basement salaries and lacking almost all benefits. Thousands long for permanent full-time employment and something resembling equal citizenship on the campuses and within the academic departments where they work. That's of course a contractual (and legislative) question to be fought against CUNY, but also one of internal solidarity, since it's other union members—department chairs and so-called P&B (personnel and budget) committees—that hire and fire.
To its credit, my union is vigorously fighting the thousands of layoffs. It has reached into its reserve fund to finance a campaign for the state to fully fund CUNY. It has held virtual and in-person rallies. It has been working to mobilize allies. It has asked department chairs to try to mitigate damage to our full-time part-timers. It has launched an interesting lawsuit claiming that CUNY is in violation of the Federal CARES Act, which distributed money to higher-education institutions—$251 million to CUNY—on the condition that it would, "to the greatest extent practicable," pay its employees "during the period of any disruptions or closures related to the coronavirus."
It's too bad that it wages this fight constrained by four decades of bad contract language, never fixed, which gives the employer such extraordinary control over such a large section of the workforce. This crisis should make it clearer than ever that, if it believes in the union maxim that an injury to one (section of the membership) is an injury to all, existing conditions of permanently precarious employment—so foreign to basic union practice—must be swept away for good at the earliest possible opportunity.
Editor's note: Mr. Kagan, a longtime union activist, is a PSC member and a Ph.D. candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center History Department.
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