CUNY adjuncts demand higher wages



The Professional Staff Congress, PSC, is the union that represents faculty and staff at CUNY. Photo: Elizabeth Mulvey.

As public school teacher strikes surge across the nation this year, instructors in public higher education are following suit. On September 27, members of the Professional Staff Congress, a union representing 30,000 faculty and staff from the City of the University of New York, gathered in the Financial District for a contract demonstration.

The union is demanding a $7,000 per course salary minimum for adjunct professors at CUNY. Union leadership, which comprises an executive council of 27 members and a delegate assembly with representatives from each CUNY school, is actively committed to advocating for the pay increase. But it is not pursuing a strike authorization vote at this time, and some PSC members believe it should be. 

Manhattan is home to several colleges in the CUNY system including Baruch College, City College, Hunter College, and the Graduate Center, among others. There are 12,000 adjunct faculty at CUNY who have a starting pay of $3,200 per course with some making $20,000 a year. With the high cost of living in New York City, some union members believe a pay raise for adjuncts is an indispensable demand that warrants a strike.

Fran Clark, PSC’s public relations officer, said, “We want a fair contract for the lowest, most-contingent members of the union.” But leadership is opposed to a strike because of penalties CUNY employees would face under the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, also known as the Taylor Law.

That law, enacted in 1967 in response to a rise in strikes during the 1960s and 1970s, regulates collective bargaining and union organizing in New York State, said Luke Elliott-Negri, a labor expert and professor at Baruch College. The Taylor Law grants public employees the right to unionize, but penalizes them for work stoppages. The repercussions include fines that are equivalent to two days’ worth of pay for each day an employee strikes. Leadership is also subject to jail time, and unions can lose their ability to collect dues, according to the Public Employment Relations Board’s website.

Nina Connelly, a former adjunct professor at Baruch College and an alternate delegate for the PSC chapter at the Graduate Center, located in Midtown, supports a strike authorization vote. In 2017, as an adjunct professor and pregnant with her first child, she was paid less than $7,000 per semester.

“The fact that I have a baby and can afford to have a kid is 100 percent attributable to the fact that my husband has a decent paycheck,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are in similar situations that I am in who readily talk about the fact that they know they just can’t have kids, or they can’t foresee a time in their lives that this is a possibility for them.”

Chris Natoli, an adjunct and graduate teaching fellow at Hunter College, also supports the wage increase. “Seven-thousand per course is both a living wage in New York City and a fair wage, since it’s roughly equal to what full-time professors get paid per course.” Many adjuncts have to hold part-time jobs outside of CUNY to afford living in the city, he said. “A minimum rate of $7,000 per course would free up our time to meet with our students, prepare more materials for classes, and give them the education that working-class New Yorkers need and deserve.” 

“It has been a little frustrating and disheartening that there is diversity of opinion about how demanding we should be,” said Connelly. “Your family planning, your basic human dignity is dependent on this negotiation.”

Contract negotiations with CUNY are only the first step in a months-long process. For a salary increase, the union will also need consent from CUNY’s board of trustees and budget approval from Governor Cuomo. CUNY did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The amount needed to reach the desired $7,000 per course would require over $100 million, according to Steven London, first vice president of PSC and a visiting fellow at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies on West 43rd Street. “The state sets patterns for across the board increases in salary, and it’s very difficult to break those patterns for an individual union,” he said, adding that a “$7,000 or strike” approach will never result in adjuncts making gains.

While the leadership is not willing to take on the risk of a strike, it said it will continue to support adjuncts and apply pressure on CUNY’s board of trustees by hosting events on campus and meeting with board members. The union is also demanding that the additional funding needed for the pay raise come from the state budget, not through cuts to academic programs or tuition hikes.

Per-student state funding has declined over the past ten years. According to PSC, “Since 2008 New York State has reduced inflation-adjusted per-student funding for CUNY college seniors by 18 percent.”

For now the union remains “ready to fight for the raises and investment needed to ensure an intellectually rich college education for CUNY students,” according to its September news release.

“Leadership needs to have clear eyes and will continue to weigh their options,” said Clark.