A Message from WCCFT President Jim Werner

Jim Werner

Show Us the Money!

My President’s Reports generally cover a range of updates: from what’s happening on the State and Federal level, to NYSUT’s latest initiatives and actions, to significant concerns across the College. In this issue, I want to focus on one topic that is likely among the uppermost in our concerns: the current state of our contract bargaining with the College.  

Let me begin by providing a brief history of this bargaining round. We’ve been at negotiations for over four years now (since May 2019). If that sounds like a long time, well, it is. One reason it’s taken so long is that we started with a total of 25+ bargaining items on our side, and about a dozen on the College’s. For our part, we saw many issues that needed to be addressed, and we wanted to target concerns that impact each and every constituency represented in our Union: full-timers and adjuncts; teaching faculty, librarians, counselors, and ASC Coordinators. 

I cannot begin to tell you the hard work and dedication that I’ve seen on the part of our negotiating team over this time: dozens of meetings, both with our team to strategize and with the College to bargain; countless email exchanges and Zoom calls; the creation of detailed major documents outlining parameters governing everything from the teaching of online courses to counselor schedules, from the College’s calendar and the Educational Opportunity Center to the compensation of department chairs. Thanks to the leadership of our chief negotiator and steadfast ally, Amanda Velazquez of NYSUT, and the incredible commitment of time and skill by our team, most all of the College’s demands have either been tentatively withdrawn or significantly scaled down, and we have achieved tentative agreements on many of our proposals. 

But we currently find our progress in negotiations stalling out. Several meetings that were supposed to take place over the summer were cancelled, so we only met once in June (6/9) and once in July (7/18). Requests for information and documents from the College have in a number of instances have gone unanswered. Most of those have to do with the College’s financial status—and that appears to be where we are meeting the most resistance.

Our initial proposals for salary increases were 3.5%, 3.5%, 4%, and 4% respectively for each of the current contract’s years. You’ll recall that we were able to negotiate a partial settlement back in 2020, which gave us a 1% retroactive salary increase effective August 2019, and 1% effective August 2020. It was clear to both sides that this agreement was to be viewed as only a partial settlement of our current bargaining round, and that negotiations for additional increases would continue. However, the College’s position has been that it would not negotiate further economic terms until all other bargaining items had been resolved. And now that we are nearing the end of negotiations, the College is claiming that it is not in a financial position to meet our proposals on salary. They are currently proposing a counteroffer of NO additional retroactive pay for those first two years, and 1.25% for years 3 and 4.

This is an offer we find to be absolutely unacceptable, both in its amount and its rationale. 

As the College has been slow to answer our questions about its financial status, we raised questions about these matters with members of the County Board of Legislators, in hopes they would be able to get a clearer picture.  At the College’s most recent budget presentation to the County, we were gratified to see a number of legislators asking questions about our negotiations, faculty compensation and the College’s Reserve Fund balance. 

(In case you don’t know, most meetings of the Board are open to public and available online. The Budget and Appropriations Committee meeting on August 4 is viewable at https://westchestercountyny.granicus.com/player/clip/2135?view_id=1&redirect=true&h=61acfc501ef505acfea460e5c6bb9afe . ) 

It’s illuminating to see how the College describes its current status to the County, particularly with regard to the faculty.  When asked about the College’s budgeting for increases in faculty compensation, the President referred to negotiations she characterized as proceeding “in good faith”—but it was not at all clear how faculty salary increases were reflected in the proposed budget.

Dr. Miles did have the following to say about our salaries:

“Overall, the trend has been very favorable for faculty at our institution.”
“Our faculty have traditionally fared very well.”
“Pay scales have been competitive.”
“It’s been a generous package.”

I don’t know about you, but that picture doesn’t match the present reality in my eyes.  While at one point in history, WCC was among the highest paying community colleges nationwide, lately our salaries are not even close to keeping up with typical inflation rates of 2.5-3%, let alone the runaway inflation we saw after COVID, and certainly not the cost of living in a county as expensive as Westchester. 

This is especially debilitating to our adjunct faculty, who teach many of our gateway courses. The legislators we spoke with seemed surprised to learn that the College lists approximately 1300 adjuncts as “active,” compared to some 200 full-time faculty— perhaps because those adjuncts are largely invisible in the College’s budget presentation. The College rejected our original proposal to pay adjuncts by the course, and to increase their pay to a level that realizes equal pay for equal work.  (PS: Their current proposal, a 1.25% raise, would amount to only an additional $55.14 per course in their pockets.) 

I’ve heard from Assistant Chairs who tell me they are having difficulty staffing sections because adjunct hiring has become such a challenge. Many part-time faculty opt to teach elsewhere: for instance, at CUNY, where they can earn substantially more and be paid to hold an office hour. I also know about a number of full-time faculty who have left the College in the past few years because they were offered positions with better pay.  We’re deeply concerned at these developments. The College should be, too—and should be doing more to retain and attract the top-flight faculty we’ve always had here.

I don’t have to tell you how great this faculty is, of course, or how many of us regularly go over and above the call of duty. During the COVID pandemic especially, in pivoting to online instruction, we essentially reinvented the way we teach, and kept the College alive through that emergency.  We have heard expressions of gratitude and are often told that the faculty is the “heart” of WCC– we could not agree more. But for all the professed gratitude and appreciation for our hard work, that heart is being starved of its lifeblood: fair compensation for the demanding work of preparing our students for successful entry into the workforce or transfer.

The College had originally asked the County to increase its support by approximately $1.6 million; however, the County ultimately agreed only to a far smaller increase ($350,000), arguing that the College’s financial status did not warrant the larger bump. While we strongly feel that the College should continue to request more substantial increases from the County (tied more explicitly to budgeting for faculty compensation), we agree with the County that even now the College has ample funds at its disposal to do better by its employees—as reflected in its Reserve Fund balance. 

According to College’s own financial reporting, the Reserve Fund Balance in 2020-21 was almost $58 million (which was over 53% of expenditures in that year). That figure is extraordinarily high; best practice according to SUNY guidelines is a fund balance between 5-15% of operating expense. Budget analysis by our friends at NYSUT projects that the current number is much higher– as much as $76 million. We’ve presented the College with this information and requested a meeting to discuss that—a meeting that ultimately yielded few if any concrete answers to our questions.

Furthermore, at many meetings of the Board of Trustees, we hear the College report “savings” realized through “faculty vacancies”: in other words, faculty lines that the College has not filled. The College has maintained that those savings only balanced its revenue losses due to lower enrollments during COVID. But we wonder how much of those “savings” went into that wildly inflated Reserve Fund. And from what we hear at recent Trustees meetings, enrollment numbers appear to be heading in a positive direction. The most recent numbers I’ve heard are that FTEs are up 2.8% over last year at this time, and that headcount is up 1.3%, with full-time students up 6.6%.

This is not the picture of an institution in such dire financial straits that it cannot afford to provide fair and decent wage increases to the people that do the work day in and day out, that have taken more than “one for the team,” that have gone four years with only minimal increases in compensation. We need to let the administration know that NOW is the time to spend down some of that fund balance and pay the people who are the “lifeblood” of this institution what they have earned, and what they deserve.

So, you’re likely asking yourself, what are we going to do about this? The answer lies in a rephrasing of that question: What are YOU willing to do? Your Union leadership will continue to do everything in our power to conclude this round of negotiations successfully. But the time may be coming soon when we need to exert some pressure on the administration, and our Union’s real strength lies in our numbers, our conviction, and our willingness to demonstrate that conviction by participating in collective action. If we are going to speak loudly as a faculty, we have to present ourselves as united and passionate.

I invite you to join with your union leaders in strategizing the most effected ways to make our unity and passion felt in our campaign for a fair and equitable contract.