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Lookback: The CUNY ideal

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Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a speech delivered to PSC members and staff by London at PSC headquarters on the occasion of his stepping down from the role of PSC first vice president in May, after serving for 15 years in the position.

Steve London
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Thanking others is important – in part because it is a reminder that we do not achieve things of value alone, but as part of a community and a collective. Anything I’ve accomplished has only been possible as part of a collective fabric of love, support, effort and struggle, woven by my family and friends, staff of the PSC and the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund, and the officers and members of our union.

A number of those who’ve contributed to those collective achievements are no longer with us, and now is a good time to remember them. Jane Young, who was chapter chair at BMCC, was an eloquent and fierce advocate for members. Mike Vozik, whose heart was always in the right place, spoke out again and again on the great injustice of the adjunct system of employment. Bill Mulholland, who quietly worked in contract enforcement, kept the grievance operation running smoothly, and was a gentle and peaceful presence in our bustling office. Steve Levine, who died just recently, contributed his passion for politics and justice and his sound advice to our collective political efforts. My friend and mentor Bart Meyers, with his incisive mind, organizational abilities, passion for justice, eloquence, kindness and his famous black book that contained just about every progressive activist in CUNY, was instrumental to the formation and success of the New Caucus leadership.

Big Ideas

The first New Caucus platform statement was largely drawn from a document drawn up by the Reform Caucus of the UUP [United University Professions at SUNY] in the 1980s. Two of its principal authors – my late wife Mary Edwards who taught at Purchase and Francis Mark who taught at Old Westbury – are no longer with us, but they helped give us a vision.

The PSC has become a stronger union because of all their efforts. I owe them my deep gratitude, as do we all.

I am privileged to have served as part of a collective leadership with outstanding principal officers and union administrators, all of whom are thoughtful, progressive and committed to social and political justice. I spent much too much time with all of them in meetings, but you do get to know folks pretty well during all those hours. I’ve benefitted from their commitment to justice and deep appreciation of the possibilities CUNY affords our students, and it was a real honor to have served with them.

When I first ran for chapter chair at Brooklyn College as an insurgent 22 years ago, and won, I had big ideas and a bold vision. We could change the adjunct system of employment, establish a progressive academic union that would advance our profession, bring new resources to CUNY to better serve our students, promote racial and economic justice, help lead the labor movement out of its defensive posture and declining base of power and unleash the power of the membership to achieve these goals.

I am proud that during three major recessions, the aftermath of 9/11, ongoing wars and intensification of the neoliberal austerity regime, this vision has been nurtured and kept alive by the union that we have built. It is obvious that we have not achieved all these goals, nor could we do so alone. But we have scored some significant victories, both in defending rights that were under attack, and in advancing to new ground.

No struggle has defined our leadership more than the 14-year battle to stabilize financing of the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund and maintain and win lasting financial support for adjunct health insurance. We had to help change mayors to get it done! This was a multifaceted and intense campaign of the whole union that saved health insurance for 2,000 of our members. It took persistent struggle, and we achieved a change that we’d often been told was impossible.

The Welfare Fund staff worked hard and served members well throughout these difficult years, making sure members received life-saving medical care and drugs, and I look forward to continuing to work with them as executive officer and a trustee of the Welfare Fund.
In the last 15 years we’ve worked to develop a more strategic approach to contract enforcement. This has led to victories like enforcing the 35-hour workweek and right to compensation for overtime for HEO-series employees. We won a settlement in our grievance on misuse of the substitute title, limiting and controlling the abuse of non-tenure-track appointments.

Contractual Gains

We’ve made other important contractual gains over the last 15 years. We won equity pay increases for adjunct faculty, assistant to HEOs, lecturers, and college lab technicians. Other advances included paid parental leave, the paid adjunct office hour, 80 percent pay for sabbaticals and junior faculty reassigned time. These changes haven’t made CUNY the university that we and our students deserve, but they have made a real difference in the working – and learning – conditions on CUNY campuses.

We have strengthened our union’s presence in political action and legislative work, expanding recognition and influence of the PSC in Albany and City Hall. We were the first public employee union to endorse Bill de Blasio for mayor, and The New York Times coverage of our endorsement noted that while our union is not as big as some, the PSC punches above its weight. With this expanded influence, we have won additional resources for CUNY, and have challenged the trend of decades of disinvestment in public higher education.

Progressive Leadership

We have worked closely with faculty governance leaders in the struggle to support faculty control over the curriculum, academic freedom and quality education for our students. While Pathways has been largely implemented around the University, there is still resistance to the administration’s plan. We helped build a clear faculty consensus against this watering down of curriculum, and the struggle has increased the CUNY faculty’s level of unity and organization around these issues. As academic unionists, we will continue to make a clear case that faculty governance is central to quality education.

But I believe that one of the important goals of a progressive leadership in this historical period is to build institutions that can provide a material foundation for advocating that another reality, a more just and equal social order, is possible. Possible and necessary.

The PSC has participated in and helped to build some of the most important movements of the 21st century, from the movement against the Iraq war to Occupy Wall Street. We were part of the pre-history of OWS and an early backer in labor; I remember one Delegate Assembly adjourned with members heading up to Zuccotti Park to convey our support. More recently, we’ve joined in the People’s Climate Change movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Along with our partners in UUP and New York State United Teachers [NYSUT] we have been leaders in the anti-testing revolt, especially as it has manifested itself in the teacher preparation field. We have worked in coalition for any number of progressive causes and joined the Working Families Party.

We have made a real difference in our affiliate organizations. We added a progressive academic union program to the American Federation of Teachers and NYSUT and spearheaded the anti-war positions of both organizations. We have been instrumental in a change in NYSUT’s leadership that has moved it toward becoming a more militant and member-centered union. We also were instrumental in supporting the leadership change in the American Association of University Professors, moving it more in the direction of an organizing union.

Memorable Moments

And we have made the PSC into an exemplary union that serves its members well through a democratically based and professional contract enforcement operation; a largely volunteer legislative organization supported by a professional staff; a democratically based chapter leadership supported by a professional organizing staff; and carrying out other important membership functions like retirement counseling, membership services, and an award-winning newspaper and communications staff.

All of these actions have fostered the conditions for resistance and helped build the power to bring about change.

There have been many memorable moments along the way. Who could forget that car ride coming back from Albany with Barbara Bowen and former pricipal officers John Hyland and Cecelia McCall in the car negotiating, via cell phone, an additional week of annual leave in 2001 with CUNY’s chief negotiator while speeding down the Thruway? Or adjunct leader Diane Menna donning a turkey suit at college presidents’ offices to advocate for a full 15 weeks of pay for adjuncts at all campuses? Or Debbie Bell, at two o’clock in the morning in 2005, propping her chair against the door to block CUNY negotiators from storming into the room where we were caucusing at the end of a difficult negotiation session? Or the parents and kids attending the bargaining sessions on paid parental leave? That was certainly a first in CUNY history.

Through all these years, what has consistently motivated me, and I believe what has held our union together, is our common devotion to the ideal of CUNY.

CUNY as an ideal stands for much more than a pathway to a job. It stands for higher education as a public good. It stands for providing a liberal education to working class students, students of color and immigrants. It stands for the ideal of free higher education. It stands for creating a more equal, just and democratic society. It stands for lively intellectual discourse and debate among a diverse faculty, professional staff and student body. It stands for the creation of new knowledge by an empowered faculty.

Even though CUNY has not always realized these ideals, the ideals are felt in the daily life and the history of the City University – and the union is an important pillar for sustaining this vision. It was this vision that drove me to become a union insurgent and help build a powerful union that would fight for these ideals and thereby serve our profession, our students and our city. I am proud of my service and my work with others for the progress we’ve made. Too often, we have been locked in defensive struggles, but I believe that we have maintained these ideals and vision as we continue the struggle and pass them along to others. For this I am grateful.

Steve London served as First Vice President of the PSC from 2000 until this June. He is now a University-Wide Officer on the union’s Executive Council, and continues to serve as a trustee and Executive Officer of the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund.