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The Murphy Institute Survives Bloomberg Era; Pursuing Autonomy within CUNY

July 22, 2015
By Marc Bussinch

Greg Manstsios

New York, NY—As former Mayor Michael Bloomberg started his controversial third-term the Murphy Institute suddenly saw its budget slashed from $400,000 to zero. The institute’s labor advisory board painfully realized that its budget couldn’t be left to the political whims of a standing administration. After three decades of being a sub-unit of a sub-unit of the City University of New York, the Murphy Institute now hopes to be a freestanding unit within CUNY.

In a recent interview with Greg Mantsios, the Institute’s director, he explained how the political battle around Bloomberg’s third-term candidacy compelled the Institute to lobby the City Council, Albany and CUNY’s chancellor to be in charge of its own funding and degree programs.

“This [push to be a freestanding school within CUNY] all grew out of a terrible experience when our funding was dramatically cut by the state, city and university when the chair of the advisory board took on Bloomberg on term limits. Suddenly our budget was zeroed out from the $400,000 we received in previous years. The board said this is crazy; we can’t leave the education of our members to the political winds. This is no way to run an educational program; the program can’t be this vulnerable,” Mantsios said.

The board’s chair that took on Bloomberg is Arthur Cheliotes, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 1180. He is responsible for submitting the Institute’s budget yearly to the City. Mantsios noted that although there’s no hard evidence to prove that the Institute’s budget was zeroed out because Mr. Cheliotes took on Bloomberg, there is an extensive public record. 

“We don’t have the evidence, but what we do know is that Arthur, who submits our budget request, took on the mayor—that’s public knowledge with paid ads blasting 3-terms for Bloomberg. Also we were the only unit in the University to have its budget be zeroed out,” Mantsios.

The Murphy Institute was formed in 1984 as an collaboration between CUNY and the city’s municipal unions to do academic research, educate and provide academic programs for union members’ to advance within their organizations and/or within their industry sector.

“We offer undergrad and graduate certificate and degree programs in labor studies, including a collaboration with Cornell University to offer a certificate program in Labor Relations. We also offer degree and certificate programs in urban studies, and we provide educational opportunities to workers in whatever field they’re interested in and we do that by working with other units in the university to set up certificate or degree programs that serve as career ladders for union members,” said Mantsios.  

We asked Mantsios what kinds of skills can union members hope to attain after they complete the Institute’s degree programs. 

“If they enter our labor studies program then students are coming to us because they are likely to want to be more active in their union, get a staff job or run for office. If they’re interested in career advancement within their industry then we can either set up a program for entire sets of workers who want to pursue a certain career path, or we serve individual students by placing them at different colleges in the CUNY system,” he said.

Indeed, the Institute collaborates with the United Federation of Teachers to help train over 400 paraprofessionals become teachers each year.

“The UFT approached us because  they have a lot of paraprofessionals in schools that wanted to become teachers. We don’t  offer teacher education programs ourselves, but we do know how to set up programs with other colleges. We approached Lehman College, Brooklyn College, Queens College and College of Staten Island and said we have all these paraprofessional, mostly single moms and women of color, who want to become teachers. The colleges established the programs and we provided the paras with academic support they needed such as test prep, counseling and tutoring to get them through the process. The program has been a huge success. The retention rate, the graduation rate and the placement rate outstrips the norm thanks to the colleges, faculty, union, and most of all the tenacity of the students,” said Mantsios.

Some of the unions the Institute collaborates with and sit on its advisory board include District Council 37, Writers Guild of America East and UAW Region 9A.

Only one building trades union, the Operating Engineers Local 94, currently works with the Institute but the program the Institute established to help Local 94 members attain a college degree has also been successful, according to Mantsios.

“The program with the Operating Engineers is a very special program that we established and want to replicate with other building trade unions. Kuba Brown [Local 94’s president] came to us and said my members were losing jobs to guys with degrees. We don’t know anything about HVAC, but there are units within CUNY that do – and teach it. I approached the president of City Tech and asked him if there’s something for these workers. He put us in touch with the Department of Buildings and Facilities Management where the department’s chair remarked that the description of Local 94’s apprenticeship program is nearly identical to what his faculty teaches. After a review process, the department decided to award 15 credits to anybody who passed Local 94’s apprenticeship program. This is a great opportunity for Local 94 members to go to college, and get 15 credits the moment they walk into the college. The Union was so happy with the outcome, the officers worked with employers to establish, for the very first time, an educational fund that would provide tuition for the next 30 credits of college education”

Asked how he foresees Murphy evolving over the next five years, Mantsios said he hopes that the Murphy Institute will be able to manage its own budget and hire its own faculty.

“What’s critical here to know is that the board has been pressing for the Institute to evolve into its own school of labor and urban studies. A resolution passed at the New York State AFL-CIO convention calls on the university and public officials to reconstitute the Murphy into its own school and there’s been a major push to do that. Close to two dozen labor leaders have written letters to public officials and the CUNY Chancellor urging them to do this. The Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, has been pushing hard, as has been Senator Dianne Savino. The legislature allocated $1.5 M in this year’s budget to establish a new school for labor. Hopefully, two or three years from now we’ll be our own school with our own degree programs and hiring our own faculty and controlling our own budget, policy and procedures,” said Mantsios.

Given the recent defeats organized labor has sustained in the country, we asked Mantsios what role can the Institute play in reversing the trend.

I think we can play a number of roles. For example, our faculty is engaged in research. We want to start a research rewards program that extends beyond our faculty and offers financial awards to scholars and practitioners outside of our own orbit who are engaged in strategic thinking about the future of the labor movement. In addition, we issue an annual report on union density that looks at national, state and New York City figures and breaks down union density by geography, occupation, race, gender, profession, which unions find very useful for organizing drives. And I think we can play an important role in attracting social justice activists to the labor movement. There are some things we can’t control—like Supreme Court decisions or the economy—but we can control how well we organize ourselves. So we’re trying to provide activists with the skills they need to better fight the good fight whether at the workplace or in the public policy arena,” he said.

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