Fellow Union Members—
It has been exciting and educational to follow the conversation surrounding the open letter to Barbara Bowen, the president of our union, the Professional Staff Congress. It is clear from the many positive responses and the few negative ones that the letter has tapped into a vital energy and frustration—at this writing more than 150 people have signed on. Moreover, the letter has sparked a campaign to turn our union’s symbolic commitment to a $5,000/course starting salary for Adjuncts into a material commitment at the bargaining table (sign the petition here!). I can hardly think of a better outcome of an open letter, whatever exactly its tone.
Perhaps what I find most interesting are the understandably defensive responses to the letter from several members of our union’s New Caucus leadership.* These responses strike me as useful reminders of the fact that our union leadership is progressive and has won some fights for and with Adjuncts. I am sympathetic to this case and have been around the labor movement long enough to know that even leadership with the best politics is often caught between the rock of the boss and the hard place of labor law. In short, I have genuine empathy for the circumstances faced by our union leadership.
But I have also been around the labor movement long enough to know that some leaders are excited and inspired by rank-and-file organizing, while others feel threatened by it. If we at CUNY are going not just to slow or to halt but rather to reverse and ultimately break the two-tier “adjunctified” system under which we labor, it is going to take deep and creative organizing. To start with the basics, somewhere between 20 and 25% PSCers have not even signed a union card. There are nearly 5,000 people covered by our contract who have not taken the first step toward participating in the union. The lack of urgency to engage these potential members—who are, in all likelihood, not apathetic but rather the most vulnerable and least represented among us—is disturbing.
Moreover, the open letter references a modest proposal put forward by Graduate Assistants and Adjuncts, requesting that they have flexibility in which PSC Chapter they join. This proposal has sat on the table for months without a substantive response from the leadership. One begins to develop the impression that when Adjuncts attempt to address the issues they face, it is viewed as a hijacking of the time needed to deal with “real” union issues. In fact, the issues faced by Adjuncts are central to reversing the “adjunctification” of CUNY. Simply put, Adjuncts must be so organized, so angry and so prepared to better their conditions that the two-tier system becomes untenable—indeed $5k/course or, even better, full parity would obviously help to incentivize CUNY to transform contingent labor into full time positions.
I sincerely hope that the New Caucus leadership has the tenacity, the open-mindedness and the creativity to make serious strides in reversing the two-tier system. Sean Kennedy, who drafted the initial open letter, has taken to signing his emails “Rank-and-file union democracy now!” If we are going to tackle the issues at hand, this prospect must be as exciting to the New Caucus leadership as it is to the many PSC members who have endorsed the open letter and the campaign for $5k.
Luke Elliott, PSC member; labor relations coordinator, The Adjunct Project; PhD student, sociology
*For those new to the PSC, unions are required by federal law to have elections every three years. Caucuses are essentially political parties within the union that run for offices in these elections. Our current leadership comes from the New Caucus, which took control of the union starting in 2000.
[To sign the open letter, go here.]