What is your occupation? (You don’t need to specify the company if you prefer not to.)
My name is Jamila Hammami, and I am an adjunct professor at Hunter College at the City University of New York (CUNY). I teach Community Organizing, as well as Social Work at Hunter College. I am also a PhD graduate student/fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center in the Social Welfare program, studying Community Organizing. My fellowship is the lowest tiered fellowship through the Graduate Center, called a “Graduate D” (Grad D). My Grad D fellowship partially funds the research I do and the advising I receive. I am both a graduate worker and an adjunct professor at CUNY.
Because neither of these positions pays a living wage, I am a consultant, and work on research, and facilitation with varying non-profits on projects.
Which union are you a member of?
I am a member of the Professional Staff Congress-City University of New York (PSC-CUNY). This union includes full-time, and adjunct professors, as well as graduate workers and administrative staff.
How long have you been a member? How would you characterize your involvement with the union?
I have been a member of PSC-CUNY for a bit over a year, and I am very active within our union. I grew up in Texas, a right-to-work state, and this is my first opportunity to be a union member. I’m ecstatic about it! I engage in chapter meetings through Hunter College and the Graduate Center, Delegate Assembly meetings as a regular member. I am also a steward for Hunter college and an organizer in a “resistance campaign”, called $7K or Strike. In my current situation, I am teaching one course this academic year, each semester, while also doing coursework. Through my Grad D fellowship, I have access to low-cost healthcare, tuition remission, and a roughly $5,000 stipend for the entire academic year--but only for two of the five years that I’m in my PhD program. Even with these benefits, the cost of living in New York City is high, and the total amount of income that I make through CUNY is incredibly low. Thus, I'm bringing my perspective as a struggling adjunct to try to encourage militancy in our union.
What are the major issues your campaign within the union is focused on right now?
The $7K or Strike campaign is demanding that all adjunct professors make $7,000 per three-credit hour course and urges leadership to prepare for a strike authorization vote as a means of pressuring management. Currently, adjuncts all make far below $4,000. I actually make $3,200-- the base rate for adjuncts. For context, if an adjunct teaches a full course load (the maximum) of three courses per semester, that adds up to less than $25,000 per year, far below the cost of living in New York.
Pay disparity is a massive and ongoing issue in our union. Adjuncts, College Laboratory Technicians (CLTs), and Higher Education Officers (HEOs) are paid poorly. Our union has time and again refused to meaningfully fight for a living wage for any of us, and is complicit in the two tier system. The $7K or Strike campaign is demanding a living wage for the rank-and-file adjunct workers at CUNY. CUNY enforces a two-tier system on its faculty, with tenured professors in the top and adjunct faculty at the bottom. 57% of CUNY faculty are Adjuncts, 53% of CUNY undergraduate courses are taught by Adjuncts-- with that number reaching nearly 63% on some campuses.
As someone who was diagnosed with a chronic illness recently, I struggled in the spring with how to manage teaching, with what at the time, was a hidden chronic illness. I bring this point up because adjuncts are not eligible for FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) at CUNY, as they are considered part-time employees (even if they stack courses to the max amount of five courses per semester), and are only allotted two sick days an academic year. This policy hurts the chances of reappointment for those who are ill, have family members that are ill, etc. Termination can occur at the end of a semester for any reason, without explanation. The $7K or Strike Campaign is fighting for not only $7,000 per course, but also job security and full-time conversion.
Lastly, it is imperative that the union focus on eliminating tuition for students. In the spring, the CUNY Board of Trustees instituted a $200 per semester tuition hike, claiming it was in order to ensure raises for adjunct faculty. However, the budget that the CUNY Board of Trustees released does not include any line item that provides an increased wage for CUNY Adjuncts. In a very typical fashion, PSC-CUNY leadership released a statement condemning the tuition hike for students, but has not taken any meaningful steps to organize in solidarity with students fighting for a Free CUNY.
What is/has been the attitude of your employer toward the union?
The situation at CUNY is complicated by the fact that many workers are in the same bargaining unit as their bosses. My supervisor at Hunter is a PSC member and supports the union, and she also has sympathy for the plight of adjuncts, and at times, has seemed to support the $7K or Strike campaign. Full- timers/tenured faculty have been quite a mixed bag in their response to the $7K or Strike campaign. I have been able to engage many long-time tenured faculty in my department to sign-on to the campaign and agree to support $7K or Strike. We also have several tenure track faculty actively involved in organizing in the campaign. However, other tenured track/full-time faculty have been resistant. Some union delegates have even referred to adjuncts as nothing more than “freeloaders.” The union benefits those at the top of the two- tiered system that CUNY has created, not the rank-and-file. And bosses are gonna boss.
I often fear that I will experience backlash from the Dean or the President of Hunter College for my organizing work, as my adjunct appointment (position) is completely separate from my PhD fellowship appointment. However, my material conditions are such that I don’t have much of an option but to organize for higher wages on the campuses to which I belong.
Discuss the ways your union has advocated for the interests of its members.
Honestly, our current leadership has been in place for 20 years, and little has been done to support Adjuncts, CLTs, HEOs, or students. Their reluctance to mobilize the rank-and-file of the union has deprived them of their biggest asset: mass power. This has meant that none of the radical demands, including pay parity for adjuncts and free tuition for students, to which union leadership regularly pays lip service, have been realized. The goal of $7K or Strike campaign is to galvanize rank-and-file members and resuscitate union democracy, which is our only real hope for transformative change.
Are there issues you feel your union should organize around that are not currently being addressed?
While the PSC-CUNY states that there is healthcare available to Adjuncts, this is not necessarily the case. Unlike many adjuncts around the country, CUNY adjuncts have access to health insurance if they teach two courses per semester (or one class per semester for PhD students) thanks for the struggle of adjuncts activists within the union. The insurance that Adjuncts have access to is relatively affordable for individual coverage, but is absolutely not for family coverage.
However, this means very little in the grand scheme. Because adjuncts have no job security, their access to healthcare is equally precarious. For example, if a course is suddenly canceled due to low enrollment, which many have found out as late as a week before a course is supposed to be taught, or due to CUNY’s current issues around budget cuts, we can lose our health insurance, as well as our income.
There is also an issue with PSC-CUNY as a whole in regards to our healthcare, as whenever something goes wrong with our benefits, there doesn't seem to be anyone at the union to help members resolve the situation. I’ve been told by many adjuncts, that they have called the healthcare coordinator through PSC-CUNY seeking assistance multiple times, and it being a pretty regular experience to not receive support to obtain the coverage. Furthermore, as spoken about before, the healthcare coverage is quite expensive, at the family rate of $190 a month, for what they deem to be “basic health insurance”. The base rate for an adjunct, again, is roughly $3,200 a three credit course per semester. How is one to afford $190 a month for health insurance coverage for their family when we make so little monthly?
Please elaborate on any points not covered by this questionnaire that you would like to address:
The quality of education that we are able to provide to students, often typically students of color, is at best, adequate, when students deserve an education that is outstanding. However, our current material conditions do not allow us to do so. Even the struggle to have a paid office hour per semester, which most of us do not even have an office to meet with students, is a challenge. How am I to meet with several students a week (I teach between 40- 80 students a semester, typically), within said one hour? And to grade? And for lesson planning and curriculum labor? Department meetings? CUNY and the PSC-CUNY union have set Adjuncts up for a zero-sum game and everyone in the rank-and-file is losing.