What Faculty Unionism Really Accomplishes

I have spent nearly twenty years teaching at the City University of New York and to keep my job I have had no choice but to pay dues to CUNY’s faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC). 

Organized in 1974, the PSC was one of the first public university faculty unions. Since it is located in pro-union New York City, the PSC has had every opportunity to work with politicians to improve CUNY’s reputation, its students’ outcomes, and its faculty’s working conditions.  

It has failed on each of those measures. The main reason why is that the union leadership prefers to maximize its power and inflow of money at the expense of the students’ education and the well-being of many faculty members.

A large part of the explanation for the PSC’s failure at representing CUNY’s full-time faculty is that it represents many people who aren’t even close to having common interests. Federal labor law and New York State’s Taylor Law require that employees in a single bargaining unit share a community of interest. However, the PSC sought a bargaining unit that includes full-time faculty, adjunct faculty, liberal arts faculty, and professional school faculty. It exceeds any conceivable community of interest.

The PSC represents 6,700 full-time faculty and 10,500 adjuncts. But those groups actually have conflicting interests. The interests of the full-time faculty include improvement in support for research and improvement in the dental plan, whereas the interests of the adjunct faculty include better basic benefits and compensation. Because the number of adjuncts exceeds the number of full-time faculty, the PSC has sacrificed the full-time faculty’s dental plan and research support in favor of trying to improve health benefits for adjuncts. 

Another problem is the union’s commitment to uniform wage rates and elimination of performance premiums. Unions usually insist upon a single-rate pay schedule and oppose performance-based bonuses because they want maximum solidarity among members. While this rigidity may be good for the union, it harms the education CUNY can offer students.

For example, the median annual salary for accounting professors nationally is in excess of $110,000, and the top ten percent earn more than $240,000. (In contrast, the median annual salary for English professors is about $83,000, and the top ten percent earn in excess of $181,000.) Colleges must, of course, pay the market rate to hire accounting professors. 

But the contract negotiated by the PSC sets a rigid step-based wage rate that applies to all faculty. The result is that my college cannot find enough accounting professors and repeated searches for professors with PhDs in accounting have failed. Although the School of Business has 3,000 majors and 560 accounting majors, it has only 11 full-time accounting professors, just three of whom have doctorates in accounting. 

Moreover, compensation for business faculty is so depressed that the department has been unable to find qualified entry-level professors across the board. Without qualified faculty, students suffer.

The union also pursues its objective of maximizing dues by expanding access to the largest number of students. When CUNY ended remedial programs in 1999, the union set up an Open Access Committee, which has pushed for open admissions. It also advocates greater tuition support, hiring more financial aid counselors, and more career counselors. Everything the PSC does is geared toward making CUNY bigger, but not better.

Another noteworthy aspect of PSC representation is that it is politically slanted.

When favored faculty—those with left-wing views, or those whom a departmental chair favors—are denied appointments or tenure, the PSC has been quick to protest. However, when KC Johnson, a politically moderate history professor who had published two acclaimed books but wasn’t sufficiently zealous about many leftist causes was denied a promotion, the union sided with the departmental chair who had denied it. (Eventually, Johnson’s position was secured, but only because of the intervention of trustees and the chancellor.) 

This reflects a conflict of interest that wouldn’t be permitted under private sector labor law: Departmental chairs, who function as supervisors at CUNY, are members of the same union as the junior faculty whom they manage. Because departmental chairs are more influential than junior professors who suffer from adverse personnel decisions, the union frequently refuses to represent the less powerful professor. It is evident that academic freedom and the views of numerical minorities (such as conservatives) are treated poorly under CUNY’s system.

The PSC’s political slant shows up even more clearly in the way it spends dues money. Instead of working to improve the university or to win better working conditions, the PSC has run wild as an advocate for a far-flung range of left-wing causes. These include demilitarizing the nation’s foreign policy, increasing taxes on the wealthy, addressing the “legacy of slavery,” stopping Coca-Cola’s alleged abuse of children, and opposing ROTC on campus.    

Under the Supreme Court’s Abood decision, public sector unions may spend dues money for political and ideological advocacy, but must return to dissident members their share of those expenditures if they object and file for refunds. The PSC, however, ignores the law.

In 2007, my Brooklyn College colleague, David Seidemann, brought a case, Seidemann v. Bowen, in which he argued that his dues were being used for a long list of left-wing political causes that were unrelated to the workplace.  

The PSC responded to his complaint by claiming that merely 2 percent of dues were being used for purposes unrelated to collective bargaining. By the time the case was settled, the union had admitted that 14.1 percent of dues were being used for unrelated purposes. 

Professor Seidemann believes that the true number was closer to 20 percent, but the union makes  accurate accounting deliberately difficult. For instance, the PSC had categorized expenditures for public rallies, picket lines and letter-writing campaigns as “office supplies.” 

The court ruled that the union violated the First Amendment rights of faculty members by its failure to provide them with enough information to judge whether many expenditures were properly work-related or political.   

On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, held that the union could not require that those who object to the political spending file an annual letter to obtain reimbursement. Despite that loss, the PSC continues to spend as much as it thinks it can get away with on politics and to refund as little as possible to faculty members who object.

Because over the past 15 years CUNY’s faculty have received raises that are a small fraction of what the New York City schoolteachers have received, the union has taken to militant public posturing. It is now calling for a strike authorization vote even though public sector strikes are illegal under New York’s Taylor Law.  

In February of this year the union’s newspaper, the Clarion, published an article entitled “Why I Am Voting ‘Yes’ on Strike Authorization.” The article asks members to sign a commitment form, which, naturally, only allows a “yes” vote. 

Given the city’s fiscal plight, a strike would be like trying to squeeze water from a stone. However it turns out, it’s clear to me that faculty unionism is a bad deal for students, for taxpayers, and for many faculty members.