Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Every year at the family Christmas event (that's "event" as in what they held in the Roman Coliseum), my Republican brother-in-law and I have gone through the same script:
Republican Brother-In-Law: "So, you're on winter break?"
Me: "Yep." (I am uncharacteristically pithy at these things)
RBIL: "When do you go back to school?"
Me: "End of January."
RBIL: "What a racket!"

At that point, I usually pour myself another Irish eggnog and look for an escape. But last year I finally came up with a response that shut him up:
RBIL: "What a racket!"
Me: "Did you get a Christmas bonus?"
RBIL: "Sure!"
Me: "Well, mine is our winter break."

The folks who won't be getting any bonus this year, or any year, are the folks in the HEO Class—the various ranks of Higher Education Officers at CUNY who are covered by the collective bargaining agreement between the City University of New York and the Professional Staff Congress (PSC). The CUNY-PSC contract refers to HEOs and other 'non-teaching instructional staff' (this is language only a labor negotiator could love), such as the registrars, and the college lab techs (CLTs). For simplicity, I'm going to include all these job titles in the collective "HEO Class".*

The HEO Class are the folks who show up every day. They are our colleagues who do much of the administrative and non-teaching work that allows the faculty to do faculty-type activities, such as teach, research, and consult. They are the ones who have to monitor their vacation days. They are the ones who work during the winter intercession and the annual summer leave. If they're sick for more than a couple of days, they have to document it. And these days, they are not allowed to talk to the media about CUNY issues without permission of their campus minister of information or face dismissal—we're not talking academic freedom of inquiry here, we're talking constitutional free speech (for an example of one policy, see Baruch's at

Now, some faculty may wonder what's the big deal--the HEO Class have the same pay scales as faculty, they have tenure or its practical equivalent, and they can even get overscale pay of 165% of their salary (which is news to most HEOs). Compared to equivalent jobs in other educational institutions, the HEO Class at CUNY seem to have a pretty good deal. But the HEOs I know are seething.

Basically, the HEO Class are marginalized by the CUNY administration, the PSC, and the faculty themselves--one friend defines the HEO Class as "the people whom the faculty don't treat as equals". It is no surprise that the administration treats them badly--it's the administration's job to treat all CUNY employees badly, whether it be economically through less-than-COLA wage increases, or non-economically by limiting our personal rights and professional authority (see free speech above). But because of the PSC's structure that was set up years ago, the HEO Class endure benign neglect from their union. There are separate 'cross-campus' chapters for the HEOs, the CLTs, and the registrars, and this cross-chapter structure weakens the HEO Class' work situation. While a faculty chapter chair represents one local campus, the HEO Class' cross-chapter chairs have to cover over 20 campuses in the five boroughs in New York. When faculty have a grievance, especially over tenure, reappointment, or academic freedom, there is a local grievance officer, and a network of campus-based faculty who can talk to those with the juice to remedy the situation. The grievance officer for each cross-campus chapter of the HEO Class has to handle grievances at those 20-plus campuses, with few local connections and with little knowledge of the local campus' political terrain. HEOs have to rely instead on local 'labor-management' committees, which have no real teeth and whose workings are often hidden from the grieving HEO. Hence, the HEO Class have few defenses in the face of administration abuse. Even when it comes to chapter meetings, the HEOs have to travel to some other campus, often in another borough, for a meeting—and at Baruch, we can't even get some faculty to cross the street for a chapter meeting! There is weak cultivation of a local fabric of unionism and support among the HEO Class because of the current PSC structure.

I have colleagues who ask me rhetorically "when did PSC stop being a faculty union?" I don't remember a time when the PSC was solely a faculty union, and frankly, I don't care. What I care about is the PSC having some teeth when we go back to our next round of contract negotiations, and the full-time faculty are not willing to bare their teeth—but I think the HEO Class are. During the last contract negotiations, it was clear that a strike was not palatable to the bulk of the faculty, and thus would be a failed tactic if used. But equally clear was how badly CUNY's administration treated its professional employees in the last contract negotiations--it took CUNY 18 months into the expired contract to make its first economic offer--and that we need some legal but sharp-edged weapons with which to negotiation. And the HEO Class can wield some of those weapons.

The HEO Class can 'work to rules'. They can take all the vacation time that is due them. All those HEOs who are working late into the night or on weekends can stop doing that work. The HEO Class should put an end the myth of 'comp time'. CUNY can find plenty of adjuncts to replace absent faculty, or can offer overload courses to full-time faculty to fill the gaps in the classroom. But CUNY would be hard pressed to supplant or augment the extra work that the HEO class currently perform if they stuck to their 35-hour weeks. Oooo-wheee—now that would make the contract negotiations more interesting!

But we cannot ask the HEO Class to do that unless the PSC creates a structure that gives them real local protection through campus-based grievance officers and campus chapter support.

So what must be done? There are lots of possibilities, and I know that the PSC is looking into remedying the HEO Class' situation. Here are a few ideas:

  • Eliminate the cross-campus chapters: merge the HEO Class with their local campus chapters (at Baruch, the HEO Class are coming to all the meetings and killing our food budget anyway, so we might as well make it official);
  • Create HEO Class roles on the local campus exec committees: any slate running for campus chapters will need to include members from the various job classifications. This can help minimize the 'give us more and give them less' perspective of some union candidates, which doesn't help any of us at negotiation time;
  • Include the HEO Class in the eligibility for chapter chairs: some faculty may balk at this, but faculty almost always outnumber the HEO Class on each campus. If the faculty really want a faculty member as the chapter chair, they have to come up with a good candidate, and have to vote in the chapter elections;
  • Have grievances for the HEO Class handled by the campus chapters: this is the most problematic, mostly because some college administrators have an indefatigable ability to commit grievable offenses, making the campus grievance counselors overworked as it is. So the PSC will have to find some ways to reinforce the numbers of the existing campus grievance officers.

Let's retire the iconic strategy of 'strike and struggle'—that served only as a red herring during the last round of negotiations, distracting us from the issues. Instead, let's lay a structural foundation that will give us some tactical advantage in the next negotiations. Bring the HEO Class from the fringes of the union, recognize their frustration, recognize their power, and make them a central part of our strategy for a better contract.

What do you think? Write me at, or post a response to this blog.

* In the HEO Class, I'm not including the librarians and the counselors, because they have some faculty-type obligations, and some HEO-type obligations, and I'm still working trying to figure out the specifics. And most of all, I'm not including the CUNY employees who are represented by DC37. They labor under much worse contract conditions and pay, and that's a topic for another blog.

PS. I know it has been a while since my last posting—frankly, I was burnt out with the PSC elections and the last contract's unending travails, and I needed a break. With the new round of negotiations coming up, however, and CUNY's voracious appetite for ways to circumscribe our working and professional lives, I'll be a lot more active, and will be looking at issues relevant to each constituency group of the PSC.


Anonymous said...


Your comments are eloquent and on target, I hope they don't fall on deaf ears. Thanks for taking a stand. (signed a HEO with a long memory)

Curse of the Undead said...

Some very interesting and well thought out points.

However, there is this underlying question; why would HEO's WANT to be part of a Union that has deliberately kept them down for years ?
The Union structure was organized specifically to make sure that the HEO's were marginalized and that the faculty ALWAYS had the upper hand. There's no reason at all to expect the system to change or correct itself. Have you EVER heard of a Faculty member willingly giving up power ?

Ah, but the Faculty in their Ivory Towers of Self Delusion have forgotten one little thing.
The Faculty may have numbers, but they have no REAL power. None whatsoever.
The HEO's run everything.


The Faculty can't get paid, or even make a phone call without a HEO making it happen.
Thanks to the rampant idiocy of the Union, every day more HEO's waking up to this fact. And when enough HEO's realize how badly they've been treated, they will move to take their rightful the HEAD of the table.

If the Union tries to deny them their rightful place, well, maybe it will be time to find a different union to be that actually stands up for the HEO's.

Yes, every day more HEO's are waking up.
There's a freight train headed straight for the faculty, so either get on board or get run over....

Anonymous said...

I fully support HEOs getting a fair deal from both the PSC and CUNY. But I've got a response for RBIL and everyone else who thinks I am on break when not teaching: the weeks during the semester, especially in this era of less and less reassigned time (both research and administrative) are so wholly consumed by teaching, meetings, and paperwork that I don't think serious scholars have any choice but to work through the intersessions. I'll be doing some college business during the 'break,' as well as preparing for spring classes, but mostly, my work week (which will not diminish in hours from a semester work week) will be filled with catching up on journals in my field and trying to write. When the union is negotiating earlier start dates for us, it's worth remembering that this cuts even further into precious research time, not into my "yearly bonus."

Bill Ferns said...

I've tried the answer that Anonymous II lays out about how faculty work during non-class times, but eyes glazed over and everyone reached for their eggnogs. For those not 'in the life', my answer had that Fox-News je ne sais quoi.

beating a dead horse said...

It’s funny, just a few minutes before I read this I was reflecting on the state of several academic departments here that can't find people willing to serve as department chairs. The fact is that many faculty are so lazy they don’t want “power” (hah!, the idea that any of this constitutes power over anyone but students). Which means that too many of the few who do accept real responsibility tend to burn out and retreat. I’ve seen plenty of faculty give up “power,” run from it screaming in fact.
But that’s beside the point. During the last contract go-round I heard far too many faculty screaming about how much attention the PSC pays to HEOs and adjuncts. I think we really do need to do some remedial education on the meaning of “union” and of solidarity, in the sense of the old bromide, “In unity there is strength.” I think Bill’s absolutely right to direct us toward dis-establishing the awkward distinctions between faculty and HEO chapters. This would be a good first step toward trying to get faculty to understand what we need to do to regain some credibility and strength, that is, unionize.