By Luke Elliott-Negri. First published by Labor Notes.
As recently as 2014, just 22% of my co-workers were members of our chapter in our big wall-to-wall union. The rest — some 1,242 employees — paid the “agency fee,” which for us is the same as membership dues. The chapter had been defunct for several years. Few bothered to explain to new employees why it mattered to join and what power might come from engagement.
Both because of the right-wing assault in the form of legal cases like Janus v. AFSCME — the Supreme Court case that will make the whole public sector “right-to-work” by next year — but also because this is what unions should be doing anyway, a group of us set out to change these numbers.
Three years later, we have convinced nearly 800 fee-payers to become union members. But that’s just the union’s net gain — the real number is even more striking, because each year 200–300 new people are hired and about the same number leave. In reality we’ve signed up between 1,000 and 1,500 members over the past three years.
Here are some lessons that may be relevant in other unions.
The Professional Staff Congress (PSC) is an American Federation of Teachers local (2334) representing some 25,000 full-time faculty, part-time faculty, professional staff, graduate employees, lab technicians, and more. We are part of a single bargaining unit that negotiates a single contract, and are by far the largest union at the City University of New York (CUNY), the country’s largest urban college system.
I am active in the local’s Graduate Center chapter. Its ranks include well-known authors like Frances Fox Piven, online adjuncts making an extremely low $3,200 per course, and graduate student employees — the largest segment of the chapter — making little more (or sometimes less). It was in this highly stratified environment that we signed up more than 1,000 members over three years.
To Start, Find a Small Crew
When I arrived at the CUNY Graduate Center, the union chapter had been defunct for years and there was no formal union presence in the building. A long-time leader of a different chapter, who happened to work in the building, helped orient me to the union.
Initially, I connected with two particularly agitated co-workers. Before we started organizing in earnest, we convinced the union to change a policy so as to make it easier for graduate employees to affiliate with our chapter. This took several months of planning, conversations, meetings with central leadership, and ultimately a vote of the local’s Delegate Assembly.
With this change in place, a few of us set about to sign up fee-payers as members. This team ended up being different from the one that had lobbied for the structural change, and the central union’s assigned staff organizer was eager to support us.
In the first year we didn’t have much, but it was enough to get started.
Take Advantage of the Workplace Structure
We soon learned that the 200–300 new adjunct and graduate employees who were hired every year came through one room for a large orientation over three days. A rank-and-file leader and an organizer stationed themselves there every day and together signed up more than 100 members.
Our approach to these new members was two-fold. First, in our conversations we framed what their work experience would be like. Because they were just starting, they did not yet have issues, but we were able to relay common issues and help them imagine their future work experience.
As important, we told people we were organizing our constituency to make demands of management that we did not previously have the power to attain. Signing a card made them part of this effort. We also, of course, looked for potential leaders.
Now this recruitment at orientation is an annual ritual, with many more involved — eight rank-and-file leaders helped cover those three days this year, where we signed up 150 members.
We also soon took advantage of our building’s bottleneck. The thousands of people who stream in and out daily come through a single entrance. We set up shop there with union membership cards at times of maximum traffic. This is the university-worker equivalent of focusing on shift changes.
People often have more time when they are leaving, and this is the opportunity for strong one-on-one conversations, not just about why it’s important to be a member but also to learn about the issues that individuals and groups are facing.
In 2015, our union president announced a strike authorization vote for the whole PSC-CUNY bargaining unit, something that had not happened in our union since 1973. We had been working under an expired contract since 2010 with no raises in that time. Striking is illegal for public sector unions in New York state (though voting to strike is not), so the action sent a shock wave through the membership.
In the month before the vote, and during the 10 days of the vote itself, we built more leaders than before or since. Our small crew scrambled to consolidate all rank-and-file activists, however marginally engaged, and to make the vote something every member or fee-payer would know about.
We covered the building entrance all day long for the 10 days of the vote, which gave new rank-and-file leaders a chance to develop and test skills. We spoke with 1,000 members, agitating about state and city funding for the CUNY system and explaining that a big strike vote would build bargaining power for adjuncts and graduate employees.
Ultimately more than 10,000 PSC-CUNY members across the system participated, with 92% voting to authorize a strike. We ultimately settled without striking and gained 10% raises for everyone in the bargaining unit. Some 1,500 adjuncts also won three-year appointments, ending the semester-to-semester hiring insecurity they had faced. Many adjuncts and graduate employees were understandably frustrated with the across-the-board percentage increase — such raises inevitably exacerbate inequality in a wall-to-wall union, and adjuncts continue to earn just over $3,000 per course taught.
Still, we successfully worked the central union’s strategy, and, in the process, we enhanced the future bargaining power of contingent workers in the bargaining unit, especially graduate employees.
Many of those who led this effort are now in elected office in our chapter, after barely having been active in the union before. One of the leaders who emerged is now a delegate on our chapter’s executive council and leads our steward program. During the vote, we uncovered as many leaders in the various units and departments as we could. Some of these people became stewards. Half of the departments in our chapter are now covered by one or more stewards.
The new energy in our chapter enabled us to get a graduate employee on the local’s bargaining team, the first in years. Our contract expires again this fall, and in preparation, we launched a balloting process for members to set priorities (at the top of the list: $7,000 per course for all adjuncts). Over the course of a single week, we had one-on-one conversations with more than 400 members and connected with 200 online. We gained about 50 new members during this effort.
Public sector unions need to prepare for “right to work” to become the law of the land when the Supreme Court decides Janus next year. While it’s a huge blow to labor, some unions may even become stronger in the process. To survive, we will need maximum rank-and-file engagement, democratic participation, and steward structures that cover every corner of every union.
All of this takes hard work, but the good news is that almost anyone can do it. Find a couple of co-workers and get started.
Luke Elliott-Negri is the chapter chair of the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York Graduate Center.