On March 4, 2011, longtime PSC activist Ben Chitty was given the NY State United Teachers (NYSUT) “Unsung Hero” award for grassroots organizing on health and safety. His work with others at Queens College has affected a range of issues, including prevention of workplace violence (see the February Clarion). The article below is adapted from his acceptance speech.
Health and safety activist Ben Chitty
I’d like to thank NYSUT for this honor. I’d also like to thank my own union, the PSC, which has supported my cross-union organizing project with words of encouragement, hours of work, and especially money for pizza – without which no organizing project has any hope of success.
And I want to thank my wife, who has put up with my crusades and crankiness for too many decades, and who must wonder why a guy who hangs out with custodians, laborers, and plumbers can’t be a little better at vacuuming, taking out the garbage, or at least trying to fix the kitchen faucet which has been leaking for at least one of those too-many decades.
POWER IN NUMBERS
My wife is a labor historian, so it was no accident that one day I went to Human Resources and asked – just out of curiosity – how many unions represent the employees at Queens College? They wouldn’t tell me – maybe they didn’t actually know, maybe they just thought it was none of my business. I work in the library, so naturally I took that as a research challenge. If you count the different locals of AFSCME District Council 37, the total is 19, 20, or 21, depending on which positions are vacant at any moment. Some unions represent only one college employee. My union, the teachers’ union, has over 1,500 members at the college, mostly full- and part-time instructional staff.
HAZARDS OF TRUTH
Once I knew which unions represented my coworkers, I invited their stewards to a meeting. Getting them all to respond was harder than it sounds, but we started meeting five years ago last month, and now meet every month. The business agent for the Teamsters gave us a name, the Queens College Unions Joint Committee for Quality of Work Life. Our first campaign was to get an eruption of mold inside a bathroom wall properly contained, properly cleaned up, and properly removed.
Most of the committee’s work is about safety and health. Now, everyone agrees that workers have a right to a safe and healthy workplace. It’s even in my union’s collective bargaining agreement. And there are laws, and regulations, and standards, and recommended protocols and procedures – all designed to make sure that our workplaces stay safe and healthy.
And everyone knows they don’t. Why is that?
In general, it seems to me, college and university administrators just don’t want to know about hazards to health and safety. Fixing them might cost money, which seems a little short these days. It can take time and attention which could be better spent – though truth to tell, I sometimes wonder what these folks do, aside from going to meetings. There is also the question of liability: if management knows about a hazard, and someone gets hurt, the institution, and for us, the state or local government, and ultimately the taxpayer, can be held liable for the damage. But mainly, I think, it’s a way to duck responsibility.
There is a lot of responsibility to go around. The City University has been systematically underfunded by the state and city for more than three decades, which has ramifications for safety and health. The administrators appointed by successive governors and mayors do not succeed by fostering great institutions of higher learning; they succeed – which means they keep their jobs – by cutting costs. One way is to cut maintenance, to disinvest in infrastructure. Physical plant management, like so many other aspects of educational management, becomes what you might call “management by crisis.” You wait for the drain to stop up, or the compressor to fail, or the wall to fall down, before you even begin to think about repairing or replacing it. You can save lots of money that way for quite some time.
You can mask the problems for a while by just not telling anyone. Most of the people who frequent Queens College are students, on campus only a few hours a week. Most of the employees teach, and come to campus mainly to meet with students in classes or conferences. But when you get together with the folks who spend 35, 40, or 50 hours a week on campus, who have to keep the place open and clean, who have to fix whatever breaks, you find out what the problems are, and why they haven’t been fixed. And just by letting your coworkers know about the problems, you can get the administration to fix them. Well, sometimes anyway – sometimes you have to call in the law. Cross-union communication makes this all possible.
But something else happens. Queens College is a big place – 77 acres, 28 buildings plus a parking garage, and a great view of the Manhattan skyline. It’s also a bureaucracy, with many shops, offices, divisions, departments. You can work there for decades and never meet anyone outside your shop or office. Our joint committee crosses these barriers, and by making common cause with one another, we create a sense of community that is too often missing from our workplaces, too often crushed by the press of work, sometimes suppressed by an administrative establishment that is way too busy making sure that politicians can claim to support education while cutting taxes, to worry overmuch about any quality of work life, which is not really their main concern anyway.
So thanks to the other members of my own union, particularly Jonathan Buchsbaum and Diane Menna, who were key in getting this initiative off the ground. And thanks to the other members of the Queens College Unions Joint Committee on Quality of Work Life, and the shops and crews they bring to the table: AFSCME District Council 37, Teamsters Local 237, Plumbers Local 1, Painters Local 1969, Steamfitters Local 638, New York City Council of Carpenters, Electrical Workers Local 3, Stationary Engineers Local 30, New York Nurses Association. They represent the breadth and depth of the labor movement as it can be, as it must be, if our institutions are to serve our communities, if our communities are to prosper, if our children are to have a future which is better than our past and present.
Public higher education, public education in general, has been cut, and cut, and cut again in New York. And if you think it can’t get worse, look to Wisconsin, where politicians are planning to feed children to the rich. Well, maybe not exactly in those words – maybe they just want to tax our future to promote and protect hereditary plutocracy. They call teachers lazy, greedy, and arrogant – I guess they got a glimpse of their own reflection in some kind of trick mirror.
I don’t know how we make this a better world. I do know that organizing at the workplace makes our lives a little better, our workplaces a little healthier and safer, and us a little stronger, as a union and as a community. Plus we really get to practice what the Wobblies once preached: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”