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Working People and Their Unions Rally to Support Members Affected by Travel Ban

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“I was fortunate enough to have the support of a union, and I was a member of a union. And I think in this situation, I’m convinced more than ever how important the unions are. And I just wanted to mention that I know here in New York there are so many students from private universities who have been trying to and fighting to get their right to have a union, and the administration of the universities are denying them this right.” – Saira Rafiee

Faculty, staff and students studying and teaching in the United States have been scrambling since Donald Trump barred entry into the country for foreign nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries. Although the executive order has been temporarily blocked by court order, the matter remains a moving target as the White House challenges the rulings — and the legitimacy — of the courts.

The AFT has many members who have been and could be shut out of the country or prevented from traveling under the Jan. 27 executive order. For example, Saira Rafiee (pictured), a doctoral student of political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and member of the Professional Staff Congress/AFT Local 2334, was among those who were blocked from entry during the chaotic initial week of implementation. While attempting to return from vacation in Iran to visit her family during winter break, she was detained for 18 hours in Abu Dhabi before being sent back to Tehran.

Despite the uncertainty about her own future, Rafiee conveyed on Facebook that her main concern was for others, including a student in the United States who had to cancel a last visit with a sister who has cancer in Iran. Her sister has since died. There also are students doing fieldwork for dissertations that have taken years to research; whether they will be able to return to their work is undetermined. “These stories are not even close in painfulness and horror of those who are fleeing war and disastrous situations in their home countries,” wrote Rafiee, whose CUNY colleagues rallied to #GetSairaHome at the Brooklyn courthouse Jan. 30.

Read Rafiee’s Jan. 29 Facebook post:

Rafiee returned to the United States Feb. 4 to a rousing welcome from CUNY student activists, lawyers from CUNY’s Citizenship Now program, family members and others who had worked to make her return possible. “Union support matters,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “Hundreds of PSC members responded to the union’s call for messages urging action on Saira’s case, helping to focus public attention on her case. Collective action worked.”

If reinstated, the executive order would temporarily ban entry to the United States for all citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somali, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The ban is widely seen as an attempt to ban Muslims from the U.S., a religious ban that would be constitutionally prohibited. Acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates was fired for refusing to enforce the ban, which she determined was illegal. Courts have challenged the new policy, but border agents reportedly ignored court orders. Details of enforcement have been confusing at best.

In addition to the turmoil academics and other travelers have experienced, another aspect of the order would suspend all refugee admittance for 120 days and turn away desperate families seeking safe haven from war and violence. These refugees already have gone through extensive, often years-long approval processes, yet these families risk being sent back to refugee camps.

The AFT is distributing information and resources on these executive orders and offering some legal advice for foreign nationals from the affected nations.

Rafiee wrote:

The first quote above from Saira Rafiee was provided via an interview with Democracy Now.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 10, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Virginia Myers is a writer/editor for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).


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CUNY Workers Overwhelmingly Approve New Contract With 94% Voting Yes

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RobertSchwartzAfter six years without a contract, City University of New York professors and staff will finally get a raise.

Members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which represents more than 25,000 professors and staff at CUNY, voted overwhelmingly—94 percent—in favor of a new contract.

The deal is retroactive. It covers workers from October 2010 through November of next year. CUNY employees will receive a compounded salary raise of 10.41 percent, along with other benefits that include retroactive pay and health insurance for adjuncts.

“I am grateful for the members’ strong support for ratification of the contract and eager to begin work on what remains to be done. If we stay organized and remain in solidarity, a better university is within our power—and our power will continue to grow,” PSC President Barbara Bowen said after the results were announced this week.

Voting began on July 11 and ended Wednesday. The contract deal had already passed the union’s delegate assembly on June 23; CUNY’s board of trustees approved the deal on June 27.

Mike Fabricant, the PSC’s first vice president, told In These Times that the “extraordinary” result will help to validate the agreement.

“(With) 94 percent of your membership voting yes, that speaks to a consensus that you’re going to get,” he said.

Fabricant cited benefits, such as a three-year appointment for adjunct professors, as reasons why members favored the contract. More than 86 percent of adjunct faculty who took part in the vote supported the deal.

Still, some were against it. They stressed the lack of pay parity and adequate salaries for adjunct professors.

Andy Battle, an adjunct professor at Hunter College, told In These Times that he voted against the contract. For him, it widened the gap between full-time faculty and part-time professors.

“Our union has to be an organization that resists this at every junction. It dismays me the leadership makes us accept this,” he said.

Part-time professors make an average of $3,000 per course, with few benefits. Full-time faculty, on the other hand, tend to make much more.

“It shows we have a lot of work to do to reach not just activists, but also the broader rank-and-file (workers),” Battle said about the contract vote.

Fabricant said that achieving pay parity for adjuncts would require more than a contract. Rather, investment is needed from the state. For example, since New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took office in 2011, per-student funding to senior colleges hasdeclined by three percent.

“If you are disappointed in one part of a contract, join us to make it better,” Fabricant said.

Battle agreed on organizing against state-imposed austerity, but questioned the methods taken by the union, such as lobbying.

Over the past year, the union campaigned hard for a contract. In November, some 50 members were arrested at CUNY’s central office while demonstrating for a contract. In May, 92 percent of members voted to authorize a strike.

“We need to be broad, and we need to be militant. The PSC will tell you they will reverse austerity, but the current leadership has been trying to do this for 16 years, and it hasn’t had much of an effect,” Battle said. “The only thing that politicians listen to is people in the streets.”

Fabricant said the union will begin talks with the administration about a new contract before the current one expires next year. But for now, the union is relieved this six-year chapter is over.

“We recognize there is more to do, (but) we need to celebrate victories,” said Fabricant.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on August 5, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist living in Queens, New York. He has written for publications such as The Nation, Shadowproof, Truthout and City Limits. Follow him on Twitter @BrandonJ_R.


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A Message for CUNY Members: Don’t Take the Money

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RobertSchwartzI recently attended a memorial service for James Haughton, an alumnus of the City University of New York (CUNY). As founder of a group called Harlem Fight Back, Haughton was a central figure in the fight against racist hiring in the construction industry. One of the eulogists spoke about the first time he joined a Harlem Fight Back “shaping” crew, walking onto a job site to demand work for people of color from the community. The contractor claimed not to be hiring and quickly offered the delegation a payoff of $35,000, in cash, to go away. Shaken, crew members went asking for guidance from Haughton, who said simply, “Don’t. Take. The Money.”

The 27,000 members of CUNY’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), should consider Haughton’s advice before voting to ratify our first contract in years. (Voting opened last month and is set to end Wednesday.)

We have been working under an expired contract, even as management hiked tuition in five of the last six years. Between 2009—2014, the cost of living in New York City rose 23 percent. As part of this year’s contract campaign, the PSC lobbied and organized protests and civil disobedience, coordinating with students and community groups. An escalation of public actions culminated in a strike authorization vote in May.

Weeks later, the PSC bargaining team accepted a contract offer from management, with retroactive raises adding up to a little more than 10 percent and a tray of one-time “signing bonuses.”

When the agents of the ruling class smile and offer you “X” amount of cash and promises, it’s easy to believe that this is a sign that you’ve won. It’s not. I’ll tell you what it is a sign of though. It’s a sign of how much they want you to go away. It’s a sign of how much they stand to rake in, monetarily, from their ability to make you go away. I guarantee they want nothing more than for us to take the money.

The union bargaining team says they fought hard, and that this contract is the best they could do. Like many of my brothers and sisters, I take their word at face value, without second-guessing. But do you want to know what else I take at face value? The “yes” vote to authorize a strike.

The vote happened despite the Taylor Law, which covers municipal workers and would criminalize us the moment an actual strike began. Every union member would be docked two days of pay for every day or part thereof that he or she takes part in a collective job action, with union leaders imprisoned and the union itself losing its right to collect “fair share” fees. In the face of this law, 92 percent of voting PSC members still opted to authorize a strike.

Given that law, not to mention the two-tiered system of our full-time and adjunct members, the vote was a remarkable statement of courage and unity. It was also a measure of the immense anger at management, some of which could redirect to the union if we are perceived as too eager to settle.

Am I saying I want to go on strike? Not exactly. But the other side wants that to happen less than we do. Much less.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cashed a campaign donation from libertarians Charles and David Koch. Given the Kochs’ neoliberal, technocratic, pro-privatization agenda, CUNY workers must not ignore the implications of the state’s attack on public higher education. But neither should we underestimate the power we have built to fight back.

It’s the right time for the national labor movement to try a new thing (or ten!) and a strike by us would inspire others. Think of the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on a one-day strike on April 1; the Verizon workers, who faced down a telecommunications giant; the Transport Workers Union, which a decade after taking on the Taylor Law, stood up and endorsed Bernie Sanders on the eve of the big New York primary. For that matter, think of the PSC who pulled off a 92 percent “yes” vote on strike authorization.

We’ve had other victories too. In the last two years of our contract campaign, the state and the university administration have threatened to cut $485 million from our budget, merge us with the State University of New York, raise tuition again and limit peaceful protests by students and staff alike. At the LaGuardia campus where I work, the administration even tried to intimidate students for uniting with faculty. Every single one of these threats was withdrawn in the face of our organizing.

At a meeting with PSC delegates, our president Barbara Bowen assured us that although she recommended passage, if members voted the contract down, she was ready to work on an alternative. I have no doubt that Bowen and the leadership would answer such a call. Despite our flaws and contradictions, there is no other municipal union in NYC I trust more to be able to mount a serious challenge to the Taylor Law by organizing an effective strike.

Do Cuomo and CUNY Chancellor James Milliken really care if we strike? Of course they do! Can we really get more? Of course we can, people!

The trouble is that time is not on our side. Every moment that our 92 percent vote is not being turned into actual strike preparation, the power and solidarity we have built fades.  Like bright Arctic ice melting to dark water that absorbs more sunlight instead of reflecting it, when power and solidarity melt away, cynicism floods in.

After seven years without contractual raises, many hope to ratify this contract and resume the larger struggle another day in another way. Others point out that the settlement’s uniform, across-the-board raises would widen the pay gap between full-time and adjunct faculty, enabling the administration to further expand the pool of vulnerable cheap labor on which the exploitation of all workers and the erosion of academic freedom depend. A settlement would also cut short one of the most militant contract campaign our union has ever waged, leaving students isolated and more vulnerable to another tuition hike.

On March 24, I joined a group of CUNY students and staff at the governor’s office. Demanding a fair contract for the PSC, we lay down on the sidewalk and were promptly arrested. Sitting in jail, I was haunted by the story of CUNY student Kalief Browder, who waited on Rikers Island for three years with no trial and later took his own life. Like he was, my students are being charged some five times the tuition I paid at Queens College in 1989. Like he did, they sit in overcrowded classrooms, with overworked faculty and staff. If we vote this contract down, and prepare to strike in the fall, CUNY will think twice before trying to raise tuition again. So, why take the money and run now?

Let’s keep standing by our students and keep fighting for a contract that, like this university itself, is a product of a historic and unfinished struggle. By voting no on this contract ratification, let’s begin to honor our 92 percent vote of “yes.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on August 2, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Sigmund Shen is an alumnus of Queens College, associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College and current chair of the LaGuardia chapter of the Professional Staff Congress.


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