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Vol. 54, No.3 February 28, 2011
PSC Fiddles While Your Seniority Burns
Mitchell Langbert, Ph.D.
In 1960 Sumner Slichter et al. claimed that by rationalizing the workplace unions had improved management. Whereas bribery and caprice characterized the foreman-dominated shape-up system of an earlier age, unions encouraged rules that made personnel decisions predictable and efficient.* Among these were seniority systems and bumping rights. Soon after The Impact of Collective Bargaining on Management's publication, unionism's role in education grew. By 1981, Douglas Mitchell et al. observed that collective bargaining had been one of the three most important developments in education in the preceding 30 years.**
But Slichter and Mitchell never observed President Barbara Bowen and her Merry Prankster-like New Caucus. Had they, they would have given up on unions. Not since the days of the Industrial Workers of the World has there been a leadership so out of touch with the realities of the workplace and American politics. Worse, now that the bureaucratic model of unionism that Slichter et al. recorded is under assault, the PSC is distributing e-mails about proprietary schools, the Egyptian crisis and Puerto Rico.
A Union Leadership Losing Touch
This is what the PSC has accomplished in the past few weeks. First, President Bowen distributed an email protesting charter elementary schools. Then, she distributed one urging the PSC's membership to take action about fraud in proprietary colleges. On February 15 Anthony Gronowicz distributed an email to the PSC-DA email list concerning human rights in Puerto Rico under Governor Luis Fortu. Angel Gonzalez adds that the struggle against Puerto Rican privatization ought to be at the forefront of the PSC's concerns. Then, taking a breather to focus on something related to a faculty union, on February 21 the PSC put forward a resolution condemning the limitations on collective bargaining and the elimination of faculty bargaining in Wisconsin. Quickly, Nancy Romer and Bill Friedheim added a crucial point: that a resolution concerning Egypt should be read at "all our Wisconsin support events."
While the PSC is busy equating the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wisconsin State Senate there has been a simultaneous New York conflagration concerning bumping rights and seniority rules in public schools. This local, and, to the New Caucus, apparently uninteresting debate may eventually affect your own bumping rights and how you are treated during an economic downturn. The New York Post observes that a New York group called Education Reform Now is running advertisements attacking traditional bumping rules in lower education. At the same time, President Obama's education czar, Secretary Arne Duncan, argues against traditional LIFO bumping rights. Mayor Bloomberg openly speaks of repealing the traditional rules.
Speculatively, this could be a harbinger of an assault on not just bumping rights but also tenure in higher education. Yet, President Bowen becomes cross when disturbed from her meditations on Cesar Chavez, Sami al Arian and fraud in proprietary schools.
There are arguments for and against seniority and tenure as management techniques in industry. That is, while those arguing for merit-based employment systems claim that they will reduce costs, their arguments can be refuted. In the private sector the Japanese use less merit pay and place more emphasis on seniority than American firms do, but Japanese firms are more efficient. The Japanese made their greatest gains when they relied on seniority and did not use merit pay. The last time I looked Toyota did not have to be bailed out, but unlike GM its engineers are not subject to employment at will.
Although the Japanese commitment to lifetime employment has waned, their firms are less likely to lay off workers than are failed American firms on Wall Street and in Detroit. At the same time, neither the managements of Japanese firms nor the leaders of the enterprise unions, the company unions that have assisted Japanese firms by representing employees, waste their time debating the Iraqi War and the Unabomber's free speech rights.
CUNY's faculty ought to consider what personnel policies would be best for CUNY and best for the faculty itself. As well, a lobbying strategy aimed to educate the legislature about faculty practice and ways to improve higher education ought to be established. If tenure policy is eventually associated with seniority, wise input from reasonable faculty leaders will become important.
Moreover, in order to achieve a vision of what higher education ought to be, a university-wide dialogue is required. But there has been none. The absence of coherent discussion reflects the New Caucus's inability to coherently frame personnel issues in contemporary terms. Instead, anyone who disagrees with the New Caucus's foreign policy is silenced. Rather than discuss seniority rights, the New Caucus complains of Puerto Rican privatization and complex events in Egypt whose implications specialists do not fully comprehend.
Do Barbara Bowen and the New Caucus offer CUNY's best face? Are you confident that when discussion about CUNY's personnel policies is forced into the public arena the New Caucus will effectively represent you?
* Sumner H. Slichter, James J. Healy, and E. Robert Livernash, The Impact of Collective Bargaining on Management ( Washington , D.C. : The Brookings Institution, 1960
** Douglas E. Mitchell, Charles T. Kerchner, Wayne Erck and Gabrielle Pryor, "The Impact of Collective Bargaining on School Management and Policy." American Journal of Education 89:2 pp. 147-88, 1981.
Sharad Karkhanis, Ph.D.