November 08, 2021

Community College Conference: In solidarity, there is power to change

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source:  NYSUT Communications
bowen and fabricant
Caption: Barbara Bowen and Mike Fabricant, both of the PSC. Photo by Andrew Watson.

“Everything or nothing. All of us or none.” — Bertolt Brecht

When the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY bargained its historic deal to get paid parental leave for all academic faculty and professional staff, it played the kids card in a big way.

But solidarity proved to be its ace in the hole.

The faces and families of union members won sentimental support as they described why children need their moms and dads, as well as why parents can’t afford to work and tend to infants at the same time.

“Under that pressure, management cracked a little bit,“ former PSC President Barbara Bowen told union activists gathered for the 42nd annual NYSUT Community College Conference last weekend in Saratoga Springs.

The union moved in for 15 weeks paid parental leave for teaching faculty and professional staff. The administration countered with eight weeks, but for teaching faculty only.

The members said no thanks, that’s not what they were looking for.

They went back to the university and said, we need it to cover both groups, and we’ll be willing to take six weeks.

“They were so shocked by that show of solidarity,” Bowen recalled, “that they gave us eight weeks for both.”

That was a decade ago. A few years later, the union won health insurance for adjunct faculty members when full-time faculty — who already had health insurance — agreed they would not settle if their part-time sisters and brothers didn’t get it. That kind of selflessness amazes and intimidates employers, Bowen said.

“Solidarity can disrupt power and the system of control that has kept us down,” she said.

Bowen, who returned to the classroom this fall after 21 years as president of the 30,000-member PSC, delivered the keynote address at the conference, chaired by Roberta Elins, president of the United College Employees at FIT.

“We’re at a new political moment in the history of community colleges,” Bowen said, and urged the activists to stand in solidarity for a stronger federal plan and an improved state funding method to allow for free tuition and significant investment.

More than 120 higher education unionists gathered for the conference under the theme, Unions: Social Change through Solidarity.

Hitting that chord on the opening night, NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango told participants, “We can accomplish remarkable things and hard things together through our solidarity, activism and belief in unions. … Our communities will not survive and thrive without you at their center. We need your moral compass, your academic programs and your passion and commitment to public higher ed.”

Among the nearly 20 workshop topics were negotiations; political organizing; safe zones; adjunct issues; labor history — education unions; racial inequity on campus; and teaching in the post-COVID classroom.