posted 2011-10-05 13:00:38

Adjuncts Fight to Save Their Health Insurance

Photo by John Bolger
Photo by John Bolger
Goldstein makes unexpected commitment to seek state funding.

John Bolger

News and Features Editor

More than 500 adjuncts, full-time faculty and students gathered outside of a board of trustees meeting at Baruch's Vertical Campus late last month to protest the state of adjunct healthcare benefits, which are set to terminate by next August if additional funding is not secured. This would leave some 1,700 adjuncts currently receiving benefits without health insurance.

Much to the surprise of the crowds outside the meeting, chancellor Goldstein said that he would seek the necessary funding from the state. This was the first time CUNY has addressed the demand for adjunct health coverage in all of the Professional Staff Congress's 11-year campaign.

Barbara Bowen, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) president, broke the news to cheering crowds in a brief address shortly after the board meeting.  Bowen thanked the demonstrators for their support and commitment to the struggle and congratulated them on their victory, but she cautioned that the fight is far from over.

“The first step was to get CUNY to prioritize funding for adjunct health insurance,” she said.  “But that's only the first step. The next step is to hold them to that priority, to insist that it's funded by the state.”

The PSC's primary complaint against CUNY has been that despite the quickly growing number of adjunct employees, CUNY has not increased the amount of money it gives to support adjunct healthcare since 2003.  In the time since then, CUNY has become increasingly reliant on adjunct labor – adjuncts now teach more than half of all courses offered at CUNY – but has failed to increase funding to meet the raising demand.  According to a PSC newsletter, the cost of the adjunct health benefit has increased by 400% since 2002, but CUNY's contribution has not and only accounts for 20% of the total cost.

“CUNY has not adequately funded it [adjunct healthcare] as they have increased the number of adjuncts,” said Steven London, first vice president of the PSC.  “The costs have become so great that the health insurance will end if we can not fund it.”

London has been active in been active in the campaign since early in its inception and was satisfied with the chancellor's statement, but acknowledged that the next step in the process would be to ensure that the state actually delivers upon the chancellor's request.

“There is still a lot to do,” he said.  “As always, nothing happens in Albany without political pressure, and we'll be calling out to everyone here.”  London said that the PSC is taking its campaign to the individual campuses to educate professors and teachers on the healthcare issues and to build a movement for the campaign.

The atmosphere of the protest was peaceful yet assertive.  Demonstrators marched up and down the campus side walks holding red picket signs.  Other organizers went around the crowds and surrounding areas collecting signatures for the PSC's petition.  Protesters chanted “adjunct healthcare is a right, fight fight fight,” while some beat pots and pans.

Flannery Amdahl, a Ph.D. Student in Political Science, said he currently receives healthcare through his fellowship at the CUNY Graduate Center.  Amdahl said he had wanted to work as an adjunct when his fellowship ends in August, but that he will be unable to if CUNY does not offer him health insurance.  “There is absolutely no way that I will be able to afford health care while surviving on the adjunct pay,” he said.

“I've been without healthcare before because I couldn't afford it, and it's terrifying,” Amdahl said.  “I love teaching, but I refuse to be exploited that way.  CUNY's adjunct pay is already much lower than what other schools in the area offer – for example, Rutgers, NYU, Columbia and the New School all offer at least $1,000 more per class – and without health care I simply won't be able to work at CUNY.”

James Bradley, and adjunct in the Film and Media Studies department since 2001, has been on CUNY's health insurance for four years.  Bradley, like many adjuncts, said he was not happy with the apparent lack of parity between the full-time, part-time and adjunct faculties.  “I think adjuncts feel vulnerability across the board,” he said.  “There is no job security, except on a semester-to-semester basis, and even that is based on [student] enrolment.”

Bradley said he pays roughly $9,000 a year for his family health coverage and that he expects that amount to double if he loses coverage next August.

With the deadline for funding a little less than a year from now, it was clear that adjuncts will need to strengthen their campaign in order to hold Goldstein to his commitment.

“What we learned today is that CUNY moves only when we pressure them,” Bowen said.  “We will be back and we will continue to fight and we will fight until we win health insurance.”