Rita C. Tobin
One morning in September 1974, having just earned my M.A. in English and begun my long trek to a Ph.D., I borrowed my sister’s car and drove to Lehman College in the Bronx, where I had just been hired to teach freshman composition. It was my first teaching job: I was 24 years old and had no training as a teacher. Yet, with the support of my CUNY colleagues and a few good textbooks, I muddled through that first semester. I was paid $1,500 for my efforts, the standard salary for a first-year CUNY adjunct.
Forty-two years later, I am a seasoned teacher. I’m also a practicing attorney. I taught for many years while a graduate student at Columbia University, where I earned both my Ph.D. and J.D. I also taught at the New School and, for a year, as an adjunct lecturer at Barnard College. For the past 10 years, while practicing law, I’ve been an adjunct assistant professor at Hunter College. Now at the high end of the pay scale for that position, I earn the grand sum of $3,928.05 per course – a bit more than half (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Standards inflation calculator, 53.7%), in real dollars, of what I earned in 1974 as a first-year adjunct.
Today’s first-year adjuncts earn about 40%, in real dollars, of what I earned in 1974. The new contract, which raises salaries for both part-timers and full-timers by a bit more than 10%, will not begin to bridge that gap. In plain English – my subject – it ain’t enough. Every other public sector union has won raises for their workers over the years that have at the very least kept up with inflation. The Professional Staff Congress (PSC) has failed to do that. Time after time, our union leaders have accepted bad deals.
Full-timers have suffered; but adjuncts have been the worst affected. Moreover, the presently proposed across-the-board 10% merely widens the gap between full-time and adjunct faculty, while failing to provide adjuncts with a living wage. This means that the instructors who teach more than 60% of CUNY courses, particularly introductory and remedial courses that require the most individual attention, are paid far less than full-time faculty – in many instances, not enough to pay their basic living expenses -- and that this gap is merely widened by the present contract offer. We are seasoned professionals with advanced degrees, including PhD’s, who are dedicated to our students and the NYC community. Yet once again, we are being short-changed.
While acknowledging that the salaries for adjuncts remain unacceptably low, the PSC nevertheless touts the promise of 3-year contracts for some adjuncts. That promise, however, is illusory. To obtain a 3-year contract, an adjunct must have taught at least two courses in the same department, at a single CUNY school, in each of the previous 10 semesters. As all of us know only too well, however, courses are often canceled, sometimes only weeks before the first day of classes. That is because enrolment is not predictable, and full-timers take priority when classes do not fill. Adjuncts who signed contracts to teach two courses can lose one or both of those courses, often when it is too late to find another section to teach.
For this reason, few adjuncts can meet the criteria for a 3-year contract. For example, although I’ve been an adjunct assistant professor at Hunter for over 10 years, about three years ago one of my courses was canceled. Therefore, I am not eligible for a three-year contract. Indeed, few adjuncts, even those teachers who have been hired year after year for decades, will qualify. Moreover, CUNY has the right to review the contract provision in 2020, thus making the promise of job security even more illusory. The 3- year contract is tempting, tasty bait; yet few will qualify and that bait may soon disappear.
In addition, the new contract continues to limit the number of credits that adjuncts may teach across CUNY in each semester. Combined with the paltry raise, this means that thousands of CUNY teachers will continue to earn poverty-level incomes. The PSC claims that this is the best that can be achieved. Really? Are they kidding?
Many adjuncts and full-timers believe that this contract is half-a-loaf, better than none. I disagree. This deal is not even half-a-loaf. It’s not even a slice of bread. It is bait: a crumb attached to a hook. That hook is continued exploitation, insecurity and poverty. The PSC leadership promised to fight for us adjuncts; yet all that it has delivered is a salary that remains about half of what I was earning on that morning, 42 years ago, when I navigated my way up to Lehman in a borrowed car. All CUNY has given us in the way of job security is a raise that brings us nowhere near the cost-of-living; and a 3-year contract for which I, an experienced professional, as well as most of my colleagues, will not qualify. Even worse, such contracts may “go away” in 2020.
I am voting “no,” because it’s time to tell the PSC, CUNY and Governor Cuomo that it is not okay to finance hundred million dollar developments in Buffalo while CUNY teachers scrounge the money for a metro card. Could the Governor live on 40% of Malcolm Smith’s (then the NYS governor) 1974 salary? Do the members of the UFT and other public sector unions have no job security? Does Barbara Bowen think that we adjuncts will take the bait, shut up, and “wait till next year” – again, and again, and yet again?
This time I around, I won’t take the bait and wait; I’m voting “no.”
Rita C. Tobin is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Hunter College (2005-present) and a practicing attorney.