Wednesday, May 10, 2006

'D' Is For Disengagement

I don't often get to vote for the winners in presidential elections--the Clinton years were a welcome break from my usual preference for the losing side. So, when Barbara Bowen and the New Caucus swept the recent Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY) elections, my first response was "Yessss!"; maybe my current losing streak was over. Looking at the numbers behind the election results, however, it is a bit early to start singing "Happy Days Are Here Again."

'Illuminating' is the non-committal word for the election numbers; 'disturbing' is more appropriate for those of us interested in a stronger union. To simplify this analysis, I'm going to focus on the presidential balloting, because the most votes were cast in that race. The numbers are posted at the PSC-CUNY website, and were compiled by the American Arbitration Association.

Approximately 5856 votes were cast for PSC president. I say 'approximately', because the tally actually was 5855.778 votes. The fractions of votes represent weighted retiree votes—more on that below. Barbara Bowen, the current PSC-CUNY president, received 3201.195 votes (54.7%) versus Rina Yarmish's 2654.583 votes (45.3%). This is a comfortable margin, but despite George W. Bush's definition, it is not a mandate. The New Caucus, Prof. Bowen's slate, has been around since 1995, and has the benefit of incumbency. Prof. Yarmish's slate, the CUNY Alliance, had gone public only a few months before the election (the first email I received from them was February 3, 2006). The CUNY Alliance did not have the ground troops of the New Caucus—I know two faculty members who were listed on the CUNY Alliance election slate who didn't know they were on the ballot. Still, with a skillful email campaign, the relentless sarcasm of the Patriot Returns, which plays the role of Bill O'Reilly for the CUNY Alliance, and the CUNY Alliance's reworked theme song of that Bing Crosby hit, "Accentuate the Negative", the margin was narrower than it should have been for the New Caucus. Just on these numbers alone, the newly elected PSC leadership needs to look at its direction.

But before the folks from the CUNY Alliance start patting themselves on the back, a bigger concern for all of us who want a stronger union is the poor turnout in this election. The union reports that the total number of ballots sent out were 13,769. The total number of ballots returned was 6721—that means that just 48.8% of the folks eligible to vote bothered to do so. In recalculating the retiree weighting, 17% of those ballots were retirees, which means only about 5600 of the active members voted. Considering that CUNY's professional employees were 3-1/2 years without a contract, and it was a bitterly contested election, this is a dismal number. A colleague chalked the low turnout up to "apathy with a capital 'A'". But people with college degrees tend to vote--according to the US Census Bureau, over 94% of registered voters with bachelor degrees or higher voted in the 2004 elections. Assuming that almost all job categories represented by PSC require a bachelor's degree if not higher, there should have been a huge return on ballots.

Clearly, neither the New Caucus nor the CUNY Alliance spoke to the majority of the membership. On one hand, the incumbent leadership has been militant yet ineffective in bargaining with the City University of New York, and was at the helm when members' health benefits took a plunge. On the other hand, the upstart and well-organized alternative ran a largely negative campaign with no concrete strategy how it would do better. We can all go back and forth as to the precise factors, but in the end, we have to chalk up the low vote to Disengagement with a capital 'D'.

More worrisome, however, is that there were so few voters compared to the potential number of voters. According to the union, there are over 19,000 individuals in job categories represented by PSC-CUNY. Minus the retiree chapter—over 2,000 people—PSC-CUNY has about 11,500 dues paying members. Comparing the union membership to the job category membership, we see that more than 1/3 of the individuals in PSC-CUNY job categories are 'agency fee' payers, i.e. not in the union. The 5600 votes cast by active members are looking punier and punier by the moment.

With the elections and the current contract debacle almost behind us, it is time for the re-elected PSC-CUNY leadership to redirect its efforts. People who know me know that I agree with the broader political perspective of the New Caucus—that we need to improve the lot of adjuncts; that immigration reform will be good for CUNY, both in terms of our student numbers and faculty hiring (my department's masters programs have been eviscerated by new INS rules); that reforming the Rockefeller Drug Laws is a CUNY issue (that's a future blog); and other issues. But we currently have a 'disconnect' between an activist leadership and a disengaged membership—the shoemaker's children are going shoeless. If PSC's lackluster performance in building an involved membership continues, lawmakers will eventually realize how weak its underpinnings are, and much of the legislative support that PSC has built will evaporate.

Assuming the current contract proposal is approved by all parties involved, we have until September 2007 to prepare for the next contract battle. In the next few postings, I'll discuss some concrete steps the PSC, and we as its members, can take to strengthen the union and our bargaining position.


Curse of the Undead said...

I didn't vote in the election, and deliberately so.
When the choice is between the Kookie Klowns and the Krazie Klowns, what's the point ?
Neither one of them deserves my vote.

Why is there such apathy ?
That's easy. The Union is irrelevent, except when it does something stupid to screw the membership.

The disengagement isn't with the's with the Union "Leadership" ! 5500 PEOPLE WHO AREN'T MEMBERS, AND THE UNION IS DOING NOTHING TO GET THEM ON BOARD ??

That pretty much says it all, doesn't it ?

I'd give them a quarter to call someone who has a clue, but since I've already paid them thousands of dollars that they pissed away, there's no point.

Anonymous said...

Cuny Alliance had the issues: salary increases that are pathetic and below the inflation rate and a bankrupt welfare fund mismanaged by London. The contract is probably the worst in the history of the PSC--an example, giving new recruits 24 hours of release time and a 7 year tenure clock--if that isn't redistributing benefits from the living to the unborn what is. The mutual hatred between Bowen and Goldstein + Trustees cannot be overcome except by burying the New Caucus.

lwf said...

It would be a wonderful and hopeful thing if the union administration would take these lackluster election results as a wake-up call. However, it doesn't seem to be happening that way. Those of us in the professoriate who have been in CUNY for a long time don't harbor any illusions about either union or management- neither speaks for us. However, I did pick up something optimistic from your blog. Some of your ideas and issues I agree with, some I don't. Regardless, it is a pleasure to read a piece written by someone who has an agenda (that's not necessarily a bad thing) AND an open mind. If nothing else, we should be able to have stimulating discussions. That is, after all, what we do!

Expatriate Owl said...

My specific concerns are the secretiveness surrounding the proposed contract. Refer to my own blog posting of today (12 May 2006) for my take on this issue.

-- Expatriate Owl

for argument's sake said...

Compared to what, I ask. In my thirty-plus years with CUNY there have been, to the best of my recollection, only two contested PSC elections: the first time the New Caucus ran (and lost) and the second time it ran (and won). Do we know what the balloting numbers/percentages were on those occasions? And under the old Polishook leadership there was virtually no broad membership participation. Whatever its sins, the New Caucus has in fact worked hard to engage members. Some of its tactics may have been misguided, but it has made vastly greater efforts than its predecessors. Aside from the rallies, it has sponsored a variety of programs, including day-long workshops for new faculty and a film series. Of course some of you will disparage these, but they are outreach.

My comments here are addressed more to the ensuing conversation than to Bill’s original blog: I assure you that this contract, however pathetic it is, is far from the worst in our history. We went through long dry spells in the 1970s and ‘80s. And the union is in constant action grappling with the administration over a host of working condition issues. It is continually engaged with grievance matters. To suggest that it is not having an impact misses the point, I think. The question is whether one agrees with its impact. It is certainly much more aggressive than the old leadership. Perhaps this has alienated the central administration, but what I see coming from the state, the city, and 80th St. is a consistent pattern of demanding give-backs and salary cuts, and general opposition to labor. I find it difficult to believe that our problems stem primarily from the union’s stance. And while some city unions have agreed to take away benefits from new hires—-i.e., taking advantage of the vulnerable—-ours has sought to improve conditions for them. I wish I’d had a seven-year tenure clock and all that released time; I certainly don’t begrudge the newbies.

All this said, I nevertheless agree that given the short time the CUNY Alliance had to organize itself, the vote against the incumbents is striking. With three more years to work at it, they may well succeed next time. And given their essentially negative and even reactionary program, that troubles me.

Anonymous said...

I recently learned that about 37% of the faculty and staff at CUNY have reached the maximum salary step for their level. The new contract has no salary provisions for these members besides the annual increments. When compared to the SUNY contract, the PSC boasts that they have retained steps for their members, all 63% of them. What about the top-of-the-line high dues paying other 37%? The reward for dedicated years of service – a pitiful gain in salary and the opportunity to look for ways to keep up with the cost of living. Talk about doing more for less!

On February 27, 2006, the Chancellor offered a tentative settlement that included the following: An $800 rate increase for all full-time instructional staff, a $500 rate increase for tenured faculty, tenured CLTs, Lecturers with CCE, and HEOs with 13.3.b. appointments, and an additional 0.93% increase for teaching and non-teaching adjunct titles. Many of the 37% fall into these categories. Did the PSC make this part of the contract? Hell no. Instead they denied those members who contribute the largest sums of money per paycheck and those members who have dedicated themselves to making CUNY become what it is today.

Expatriate Owl said...

I voted against the agreement, for reasons detailed in my latest blog posting.

-- Expatriate Owl