This means that when the PSC sits down with CUNY management, the labor negotiators from the City and the State, appointed by the Mayor and the Governor are looming in the background. While CUNY and the PSC have flexibility in negotiating a variety of “non-economic” aspects of the contract, such as disciplinary procedures or the process for reappointment, the basic “economic” package is set by the city and state. Salary increases or new benefits that cost money, such as junior faculty release time or 80% sabbaticals, all have to come out of a pot of money set by the City and State. We can argue with CUNY management about how to spend the money, but the amount of money is largely fixed.
But how is the size of that pot of money determined? The short answer is that it’s determined by the financial packages agreed to by certain unions, which is then applied to all other unions. In practice, what this generally means is that the City will work out a contract with one of the major municipal unions—often AFSCME DC 37, and then apply the same percentage increase in the financial package to each subsequent negotiation. At the State level, the process is essentially the same, with the state often beginning the pattern with either the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) or the Public Employees Federation (PEF).
Usually the unions accept this arrangement, which they initiated in the 1980’s, in an effort to provide a united front in bargaining. Unfortunately, they have not always been able to prevent a union from breaking off and agreeing to a concessionary package to avert member displeasure with an extended impasse. DC 37 took this approach in recent years, and in 1998 its leadership was thrown out of office after it was revealed that they had doctored a contract ratification vote that had large givebacks, and set an austerity pattern for the rest of the municipal work force.
Some unions, however, have been able to set their own patterns. Uniformed unions, such as police and fire, have been able to exert enough political muscle at times that they have gotten a better overall financial package than other unions. In some cases, mayors have tried to break the pattern to their own advantage. Currently, Bloomberg has demanded wage freezes in negotiations with unions who are still owed raises from the last pattern. The most notable example of this is the UFT, which is currently in “Fact Finding” over this exact point, hoping to get two 4% increases in the first 2 years of their new contract in keeping with the previous pattern. The PSC has similarly argued that we are also owed one 4% increase in the first year of our next contract.
Sometimes individual unions attempt to fight the pattern. Two years ago the rank and file membership of PEF rejected the contract negotiated by its leadership. In the end, however, the basic pattern held. Unfortunately, this means that the pattern is often set by the “weakest link” in the labor movement. More powerful and well organized unions are often passed over in negotiations until the pattern is well established, leaving them little room to maneuver.
Since CUNY is financed by the state and the city, we have two patterns to contend with. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity. In some cases we have been saddled with the worst of both patterns, as in the 1990’s when we were forced to accept wage freezes and benefit cuts. However, this situation also creates the possibility of getting the best of both patterns and even possibly squeaking out a few things that don’t conform to the pattern, because of our unusual hybrid status. Sometimes we are also able to win things that come out of the CUNY operating budget rather than the pot of new money.
In the past, the PSC leadership has struggled to eke out any gains it can from this complex arrangement, but always within the context of the larger patterns set by other unions. We've pointed out that many of our members are recruited out of national and international labor markets, that CUNY is a revenue generating institution because it is now primarily supported by tuition, and that the basic mission of educating students is compromised when the institution and its employees are inadequately compensated.
These are important arguments, but to win a good contract we need more than compelling arguments and skilled negotiators, of which we have many. We need power. That power can take two central forms. The first is political power. Over the last 10 years, the PSC has taken dramatic steps to raise its profile in the electoral arena in Albany and the City. In order to expand the pot of money for the PSC and other unions, it is imperative that we have a major political movement away from austerity. This year we were the only municipal union that endorsed DeBlasio in the primary, because of his strong anti-austerity stance, significantly raising our political status. We've also become major players in the Working Families Party and the State and Municipal labor federations. Dozens of our members are involved in the hard work of vetting candidates in these forums and working to get the ones we endorse into office. We need more people to join in this effort.
Second, we need to show CUNY management as well as the mayor and the governor, that the union has the strong backing of the membership. This means that when the union calls on people to take action to support contract negotiations, that people respond. This builds the strength and legitimacy of our demands for better pay and working conditions. We need members to come out to events like the Sept 30th rally at the Board of Trustees at Baruch.
While, “the pattern” sets the context for bargaining, there are ways to maximize that process, but we need your help to do it. Please follow this blog and take action when possible to support the power of the union, because ultimately, the union is YOU!