Blogs > Cliopatria > The Perils of Academic Unionism

Feb 10, 2005

The Perils of Academic Unionism

CUNY's academic union (the Professional Staff Congress) is an odd entity, in that it consists of full-time senior college professors, full-time community college professors, part-time faculty, and staff--groups whose interests do not necessarily coincide. The current leadership came to power in a close 2000 election on the strength of heavy votes from adjuncts, staff, and some of CUNY's community college campuses. As a result, some of its contract demands (such as tenure for adjuncts after 5 years of service, and adjuncts receiving first priority for many tenure-track lines) run wholly against the interests of the full-time faculty. Indeed, the union actually tried to strip from some full-time faculty raises they had received in 1999-2001 as part of a limited merit pay experiment. Since its current leadership took office, to my knowledge the union (which is very active on educational as well as labor matters) has not supported one major educational initiative of CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein.

Led by Barbara Bowen, however, the current PSC leadership's major interest is not in protecting the adjuncts but in using their power as heads of a union to champion radical policies. One of the new leadership's first actions was to donate $5000 to the legal defense fund of Lori Berenson; last year, the delegate assembly passed a resolution of support for Hugo Chavez.

The disastrous nature of this approach has become clear in the past week. Wholly unsurprisingly, given their conduct and their stated agenda, the PSC received a terrible initial contract offer from the CUNY administration (a 1.5% raise over a 4-year period). The response of a sane union would have been to negotiate (or, perhaps, to stop comparing the agenda of the CUNY administration to Colombian paramilitaries, as the union leadership implied this past October, when it picketed the Colombian consulate in New York). The response of this union: to declare a negotiation crisis and have its delegate assembly unanimously pass a resolution saying CUNY faculty should consider a strike.

Two problems with this move. One, under NY labor law, a strike by public employees is illegal. Two, as the New York Sunrevealed Tuesday, the union's rationale for a strike is a most peculiar one. According to Anthony O'Brien, a close associate of Bowen's,"It would be a political strike, in other words, something students and intellectuals have historically been good at." How? The union would add to its demands"ending the war in Iraq which so obviously via the deficit and the right-wing racist climate it helps create drains resources from CUNY and from the whole social budget." How reassuring.

Then, earlier this afternoon, a federal jury in the Lynne Stewart trial in Manhattan convicted former York College adjunct Mohamed Yousry of providing material support to terrorists. Yousry could receive up to 20 years in prison.

Under CUNY guidelines, adjuncts have no right to reappointment, for sound financial and policy reasons. After Yousry was charged, York College paid him for the remainder of the semester but didn't rehire him. The PSC claimed that the refusal to re-hire violated Yousry's academic freedom. Beyond the absurdity of a claim that being charged with criminal activity is protected by academic freedom, the union seemed to argue that adjuncts charged with politically-tinged crimes deserved automatic reappointment, while those adjuncts who didn't break laws would have no such right.

No reaction from PSC headquarters on Yousry's conviction. Perhaps his freedom can be added to the list of strike demands.

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Robert KC Johnson - 2/13/2005

The PSC leadership at Brooklyn publicly advocated my dismissal, and one member of the campus executive committee contributed to the "Shadow File," the illegal cache of secret letters whose existence provided the most serious legal infraction of my case. I initially began by working through the PSC grievance procedure, only to discover that the campus grievance counselor had, apparently, been leaking information about my sessions with him to a member of the department who supported my dismissal. At that point, I hired a lawyer.

Even more disturbing, the same year of my case, the college went after another untenured prof. on grounds of "uncollegiality," and the PSC refused even to meet with him, much less represent him. This was a result of a joint effort--since abandoned, unfortunately--by the campus PSC leadership and the BC administration to install collegiality" as a factor in evaluating the research, teaching, service, and overall performance of all BC untenured faculty. Fortunately, his denial also was overturned, although the experience embittered him to Brooklyn, and he left the college.

Part of the problem in CUNY is that the PSC and the effective faculty leadership at many colleges are one and the same, so on grievance matters, we have a perverse structure in which grievants are being "defended" by the very same people who might have violated their procedural rights.

Jim Williams - 2/13/2005

KC: Didn't the PSC provide at least a little assistance when Brooklyn College was abusing you? If not, they should be ashamed of themselves.

I am a conservative, but I believe the SUNY system would be in far worse straits without United University Professions serving as an advocate for the system and for public higher education in New York State generally. It often works hand-in-hand with the PSC to get the legislature to amend favorably the governor's budget proposals.

While I do not approve of the stands that UUP and the American Federation of Teachers take on many national issues, without the leverage of a unified voice for SUNY faculty, the cuts at SUNY would have been far worse and pay and benefits worse as well. For these reasons (firmly holding my nose at times), I contribute a modest amount to our political action fund.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/13/2005

The statement of the CUNY administration that's quoted in the Clarion was upheld by a neutral arbitrator as a proper interpetation of the contract.

As to Professor Segal's more general points, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. I believe the University would be badly served by granting adjuncts a right to tenure. Unlike full-time faculty, who are hired after national job searches, requiring (at most CUNY campuses, at least) evidence of scholarship and teaching promise, as well as outside letters of recommendation and Ph.D. degrees, adjuncts are not hired after national searches (they usually are not hired after searches at all), do not have an expectation of producing scholarship or attending committee meetings, and, when initially hired, often have no teaching experience.

The better adjuncts (and I've worked with several at Brooklyn) appropriately use their time as adjuncts to build up their resumes and get full-time positions, either within CUNY or more broadly. When they do, departments can bring in, as needed, new adjuncts, and can keep those with whom the department is satisfied.

But neither CUNY as an institution or CUNY students are well-served by creating a permanent class of instructors hired without expectation of producing scholarship and without the home department having conducted a national search.

Jacob paul segal - 2/12/2005

What is amazing for the Clarion article is the statement for the central administration that an adjunct may be "refused reappointment for any reason, or no reason at all,” except for reasons of discrimination. The union was fighting for the right of an adjunct to hold a position unless fired for academic reasons, not because of an indictament (as the person is presumed innocent) or the absurd reason given that Yousry was a bad role model, as if that meant anything, or could ever be applied to a myriad of bad role model full professors. Sadder still to me is that Johnson, like other full timers, cares so little about the plight of his adjunct colleagues, viewing establishing rights for them as a harm again education of CUNY students. Higher pay, rights to offices, some basic idea of job security, or a reason for being fired, and yes some idea of tenure are obvious values and won't harm education at CUNY.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/12/2005

As I noted in my previous comments, adjuncts--for sound pedagodical and financial reasons--don't have a right to reappointment under the CUNY contract. The PSC claimed that Yousry--because he was charged with a serious crime, for which, as we've seen, the evidence was compelling--alone among all CUNY adjuncts had such a right, on grounds of academic freedom. Under the PSC's rationale, CUNY would have been obligated to re-appoint adjuncts who had been charged with murder. It was, therefore, no surprise that the arbitrator dismissed the argument out of hand.

As I said, I have no idea what the CUNY adminsitration's bargaining tactics are. It seems to me, however, counterintuitive that the union leadership comparing the administration with which it will negotiate to Colombian paramilitaries; regularly disrupting BOT meetings; and stating right-out that it won't follow NY labor law are tactics that will produce smooth negotiations and a good contract. I very much hope I'm wrong there--as a CUNY faculty member, I could use a healthy raise.

To the (extremely limited) extent I've been able to use the hgiher profile created by my tenure controversy, I've tried to argue for improved standards and more rigorous personnel and curricular policies at CUNY--as when I testified on behalf of the Chancellor's proposal to extend CUNY's tenure clock to seven years, in line with the national average, so as to be able to more fairly evaluate the scholarship of untenured faculty at CUNY. (The union opposed this measure, with one union official, in public and on tape, saying that the Chancellor's rationale helped explain why American jobs were outsourced to India.) Union proposals demanding tenure for adjuncts on the basis of seniority or adjuncts receiving first priority for tenure-track lines at CUNY, I'm afraid, would directly harm the quality of education that CUNY students receive.

Jacob paul segal - 2/12/2005

It is hardly surprising that a union claims managment has the money for a generous contract. I fail to understand why the CUNY administration should offer less because of a political disagreement with the union on matters irrelevant to a fsical contract suchas the issue of a "colombian paramiltaries." Does CUNY have a position on that?

The issue of Yousry pertain to his status as an adjunct when indicated (therefore technically still innocent) when his college and department wanted him rehired but not the University. He appeared to have been an excellent teacher. For anyone reading this who is interested in the union's position that can read it at


I wonder if Professor Johnson has spend any time or energy defending the interests of adjuncts, given his greater profile after his tenure controversy, rather than attacking a union trying to defend the poorest of CUNY teachers.

Jacob Segal

Robert KC Johnson - 2/12/2005

According to the PSC leadership itself, CUNY has plenty of money for raises but is refusing to offer it, for nefarious reasons--hence the "contract emergency."

I'm obviously not privy to the CUNY administration's negotiating posture. Looking at things from the administration's standpoint, however, it's hard to see what incentive they would have to offer a good deal to the current leadership, given that its agenda is so fundamentally opposed to everything the administration has championed and given the leadership's habit of constantly employing childish tactics such as comparing the administration's agenda to that of Colombian paramilitaries or disrupting CUNY Board of Trustees meetings.

The leadership is perfectly willing to throw even the adjuncts overboard when its ideological agenda requires doing so. In the Yousry case, for instance, the PSC carried the matter to arbitration--which it had absolutely no chance of winning, since it was claiming that not being reappointed (to which he had no right anyway) after being charged with a federal crime constituted a denial of academic freedom. In the process, the leadership got, for the first time, a clear statement that the lack of a timely written offer of non-reappointment did not entitle adjuncts to reappointment. This was a grey area until the Yousry arbitration decision; now it's a clear loss of adjuncts' rights.

Jeff Vanke - 2/12/2005

Even where there is no formal union, tenured faculty collectively have similar powers and behavior, at least on issues where they have jurisdiction, i.e., curriculum and hiring. Tenure may preserve academic freedom for the tenured, but the vast majority of the time, its utility is practiced rather in the working conditions of the tenured.

In my experience, tenured faculty tend to pursue policies in their own collective interests (certainly with many individual exceptions), such as relying on untenured faculty, recently tenured faculty (a transitional group, still seeking full professor rank), and/or graduate students for more burdensome workloads (time and tedium) at a fraction of the pay.

It's a free world, so I left my particular situation (which also included a long commute), and I will reenter academia only under very specific conditions.

Jacob paul segal - 2/12/2005

I'd be fascinated to know how Professor Johnson knows that the offer the Union got was a result of thier "given their conduct and their stated agenda" as opposed to the fiscal restraints of the city? Also, the current leadership PSC-CUNY already negotiated a decent contract once before. Finally, does not Professor Johnson give the union any credit for trying to get a fair deal for adjuncts who teacher more than 50% of the courses at horrible wages and working conditions? The older union ignored adjuncts and actively discouraged them from joining the union.

Jacob Segal
Assistant Professor
Kingsborough Community College

Jonathan Dresner - 2/11/2005

I don't have a lot of experience with the grievance procedures, for which I am deeply grateful. My impression, though, is that our local reps are pretty consistently aggressive on principle, though lawyers do end up involved sometimes.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/11/2005

The grievance issue is something in which I'm particularly interested. One thing that became apparent to me right at the start of my tenure case was that the union's grievance structure also had been politicized: they would fight only for the professors they wanted to retain. This was one reason I hired a lawyer, and the settlement that we ultimately worked out went outside the grievance process entirely.

I've talked probably with two dozen profs in the last two years in some type of employment difficulties, and am unsure whether unions and contracts help or hurt in personnel problems. On the one hand, they set up much more clearcut written guidelines than exists at non-union schools. On the other, they often impose a settlement system that works to the disavantage of the aggrieved professor.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/11/2005

Our union includes only instructional faculty, including community college, library/technical staff, and (some) adjunct faculty.

Great folks if you have an employment grievance; did a pretty poor job of negotiating our last contract (you might remember some of my Spring postings on that); traditional political endorsement policy (though with a nod to actual democracy in the collection of votes from membership on major endorsements; though only a few percent of the membership actually participates) which has gained us nothing that I'm aware of.

It's political, but in a pretty ineffectual and predictable fashion. Not radical, nor showing any signs of being so.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/10/2005

I consider this comment to be highly uncollegial--and we all know how the uncollegial are punished in the academy!!

Deeni Steen - 2/10/2005

PSC is my first experience with a union and it has been infuriating. I feel sick when I know that in some way I've been associated with this union. As an adjunct I have the opportunity to get the money back that goes to various "causes" and I do eventually get it back but it involves jumping through hoops and dealing with people who are unhappy to deal with me.

Mitch Lerner - 2/10/2005

How about a little less blogging and a little more work on those page proofs that are supposed to be on my desk by the end of this week? It is a good thing we are friends, or I would accuse you of being very uncollegial.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/10/2005

The Taylor Law does, indeed, continue to governor NY Labor Law--and it has had the perverse effect of encouraging the capture of at least some municipal unions by leaders more interested in non-economic crusades. The current leadership of the Transit Workers Union is another example.

Richard Henry Morgan - 2/10/2005

If things haven't changed since I lived in NYC, labour relations are governed by the Taylor Law. What isn't mentioned is what the Taylor Law implies for the nature of NYC unions, and their relations with the city.

The Taylor Law mandated two days' pay penalty for each day out on strike. The 1.5% offer over four years is entirely in line with city practice. The teachers' union went three years without a contract back in the late 80's and early 90's. That's three years without a raise. It then settled for something ridiculous like 3.5% over 4 years. That comes to 3.5% over seven years, or a pay cut in real terms. During this time, the union had no trouble taking political stands in favour of the party in power -- the party that was running over its membership (a membership that supported the party in elections).

The unintended effect of the Taylor Law is that the unions, unable to deliver on pocketbook issues, become captive of the politically organized and motivated, and turn them into political action groups.

By contrast, when the Bergen County teachers' contract ran out, they went on strike, demanding an immediate 15% raise. After only 6 days out, the County gave them 13%. Different labour laws, different results.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 2/10/2005

As a member of the United Faculty of Florida, my experience with faculty unionism has been extremely positive, on the whole. On my campus, we just won a one-year, 5% raise pool that included non-ranked faculty, plus a contract that included several new provisions (including a subtle but important improvement in the academic-freedom provision)—this in an extraordinarily anti-union, anti-intellectual environment in Florida after Jeb Bush abolished the old Board of Regents and his cronies tried to decertify the faculty union. The University of Central Florida chapter also just concluded negotiations with a very fair contract. In my experience, we've been even-handed in defending faculty and academic principles, and we've done our best to represent the interests of everyone in the bargaining unit, regardless of rank or discipline.

I'm reluctant to draw any conclusions about the PSC from the outside. I know all too well that news reports on unions are comparatively good if they're 70% accurate (which leaves lots of room for improvement!), and that there are lots of dynamics inside negotiations that you just can't tell from the outside. In Florida, bargaining sessions are public, but not the breakout meetings of each bargaining team by itself. I'll just note that the best way to change the path of a union is to become active. By law, faculty unions are democratic and have a duty of fair representation.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/10/2005

I actually would, too. As I've stated before, the other places at which I've worked were non-union. This has been my only experience with one, and it's hardly been pleasant.

Jonathan Rees - 2/10/2005


You have a bad union there. But I don't think it's fair to generalize from the union at CUNY to academic unionism in general. I'd like to hear from other faculty who read this blog as to their experiences with academic unions.