Dozens of faculty, staff and students originally planned to host a rally in front of LaGuardia Community College on Wednesday afternoon. Pushed in by the rain, they instead met indoors to talk about the difficulties faculty and adjunct professors have faced without pay raises in the last seven years.
Without a new contract this year, CUNY faculty and staff could soon enter a strike. Last month, 92 percent of PSC members voted in favor of strike authorization, allowing its leaders to take action.
“We are working very hard right now to get the contract done, our hope is we can get it done within this legislative session,” said Nivedita Majumdar, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and secretary for PSC. “If that does not happen, we will be starting to organize and work towards building a strike.
“Right now, we are completely focused on getting it done,” she added. “It’s down to the wire.”
Majumdar said they’re hoping to avoid a strike, especially because people are personally risking their paychecks and livelihoods, but they haven’t had a pay raise in nearly seven years. Coupled with the high cost of living in New York City, many professors are having a difficult time making ends meet.
The first demand in a new contract is a fair salary, one that is above inflation and commensurate with the work they do, Majumdar said.
There are also different demands for different types of members in the union. For full-time faculty, one of the primary demands is a reduction in the teaching load.
“Our students have pretty complicated lives in terms of jobs and work and family responsibilities,” she said. “They need much more time than we can give them.”
For adjuncts, the concern is job insecurity. Majumdar said they need a structural remedy that would give them longer contracts.
“Semester to semester, they don’t know if they’re going to get their contract renewed,” she said. “Adjuncts have it bad. They do not get enough money, they do not have job security.”
And for higher education officers, PSC is trying to create a system that will offer them professional advancement opportunities.
As contract talks continue, Majumdar said they’re making progress, but have yet to see the money, which is the important part.
The lack of a contract for faculty is hurting students too, she said. Majumdar argued that CUNY needs to invest more in infrastructure because many buildings are in bad condition and the equipment being used is inadequate.
“Our working conditions is our students’ learning conditions,” she said. “Our working conditions suck right now, so that has a direct effect on our students.”
Part of PSC’s demands is also a freeze on tuition through 2020. According to the union, tuition at LaGuardia Community College has increased $1,500 over the last five years, all while the college’s 2,500 faculty staff have worked under expired contracts.
“Most of our students come from economically underprivileged families,” Majumdar said. “More and more, the burden of running CUNY is being shifted onto students.”
She said because it’s a public university, the state should be paying for these costs, not the students. Majumdar said with so many cutbacks, there’s now a two-tier education system, a private one offered at schools like NYU and Columbia University and one for CUNY students.
“Where’s the justice in that?” she asked.
In March, amid talks in Albany of cutting CUNY’s budget by $485 million, 41 people were arrested staging a die-in outside of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown office. One of those people was Nichole Shippen, an associate professor of political science at LaGuardia.
A product of the public school system, Shippen said she was the first to graduate from college in her family. Now teaching with a PhD, she said she wants those same opportunities for her students.
“I was willing to get arrested because I believe in the cause,” she said. “I think direct action works.”
She said a lot of faculty members are worn down, but it’s important to keep a sense of unity between faculty and students.
“I hope we build a stronger movement as we move forward,” she added.
The lack of a new contract has hit Lara Beaty hard too. An associate professor of psychology, Beaty has two children, one of whom will soon go to college. She lives in Astoria, and said the biggest problem is that rent keeps increasing.
“I am very worried about my future, I have one child going to college soon,” she said. “I can’t afford to send her to college.”
The contract situation has also hurt her department. Beaty is the program director of psychology at the college, and said she has already lost one professor because he couldn’t afford to live in the city.
The situation is also potentially keeping away good faculty members from wanting to teach at CUNY.
Beaty is committed to the strike if it happens, but knows it will hurt her a lot financially.
“You have to look long term,” she said. “We often have to make sacrifices in the present for the long term.
“I would sure rather our politicians to think long term and really put the funding into CUNY,” she added. “Their tuition goes up but our salaries don’t, so where’s all that money going?”
In response to the faculty and staff rally, a representative from LaGuardia Community College said in a statement that the college also wants to secure a fair contract.
“We share the chancellor’s focus on securing a fair contract and the funding to support it for our faculty and staff, who serve our nearly 50,000 students per year and are among our most critical assets,” the representative said.