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.