Long before Nivedita Majumdar became a professor, she was an activist for workers’ rights. So it should come as no surprise that the recently elected PSC secretary comes to her new role with a focus on engaging the membership, as well as the students and communities served by PSC members.
“Chapter-building is our number one job,” she told Clarion during an interview in her PSC office. “I think having a dynamic relationship between the leadership and the base is crucial to the development and growth of a robust union.”
Having served as chapter chair at John Jay College before winning election to union-wide leadership, Majumdar knows of what she speaks. (She credits colleague John Pittman with functionally sharing the chapter chair position with her.)
In 2014, the PSC chapter at John Jay, where Majumdar is an associate professor of English, won a significant victory on the issue of workload mitigation for full-time faculty. “Starting in 2014,” she tells Clarion, “all post-tenure and CCE faculty members at John Jay, with a few reasonable exceptions, accrue 1.5 credits of reassigned time per year.” It took a three-year campaign to achieve that victory, Majumdar says, but the win alone wasn’t the most important result of the effort.
“By far, the most rewarding aspect of the campaign is that it dramatically increased the level of political awareness and participation among our members,” Majumdar says, “and made John Jay one of the most dynamic PSC chapters.”
Having begun her career as an adjunct at Hunter College, Majumdar is also aware of the differing needs of the various kinds of educators and education professionals represented by the PSC. She is keen to see the union focus on “building cohesion amongst our own constituencies within the union.”
“There are certain areas of tension, and there is some real basis to it,” Majumdar explains. Nonetheless, she takes heart from her own experience. “Full-time members marched for adjunct health insurance,” she says. “Adjuncts show up regularly for full-time concerns.” The struggles and triumphs of HEOs and CLTs are also of critical importance to the CUNY educational experience, she contends.
“It cannot just be a rhetorical unity,” she says. “It has to be something that we work on all the time.”
Her gaze is cast beyond the PSC membership, as well. “We have to work on becoming relevant outside of ourselves,” she adds, especially among students.
In her new position, she says, she takes the literal requirements of the job very seriously, and is studying her copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, a guide to parliamentary procedures. “It’s important to be transparent, democratic and make sure people’s voices are heard.” The official place where that happens, she points out, is in the minutes of meetings.
The CUNY mission of providing a liberal arts education to people of any social class is one that Majumdar, who identifies as a socialist, says requires union activism to maintain. “Not very many politicians or programs even voice that anymore,” she says, noting a shift toward emphasizing technical education for working-class students, especially those from non-white and immigrant communities. “It’s subtle, but it’s there throughout this politics [of austerity],” she says.
Majumdar’s activist life began while she was in college at the University of Delhi in India, and was elected vice-president of her college’s student union, running on a left-wing slate that, she says, displaced a student regime that was “a right-wing bastion.”
She hadn’t intended to study English, or to become an academic. The child of a schoolteacher and a manager in an Indian conglomerate, Majumdar grew up in Delhi with a desire to study political science and become a journalist. But when a friend convinced her that she could execute a wider political critique by becoming a scholar of literature, the trilingual Majumdar was sold. Her 2009 anthology, The Other Side of Terror (Oxford University Press), is a case in point, as are her many writings on topics ranging from nationalism to economics.
After receiving her master’s in English from the same university, Majumdar worked with the Delhi-based People’s Union for Democratic Rights, an organization that defends democratic rights of oppressed and marginalized groups. There, she met her future husband, Vivek Chibber, who went on to become a sociologist and today teaches at New York University. (They live in the West Village with their 12-year-old daughter, Ananya.) It was his path that brought her to the United States and spurred her to pursue her PhD, which she earned at the University of Florida.
Almost immediately upon her arrival in Florida, a so-called “right-to-work” state, Majumdar became active with graduate student organizing. In 2000, she moved to New York with her husband and the following year, started teaching at Hunter. Once there, it was only natural for her to seek out PSC meetings.
“I learned that we have one of the most progressive unions in the country, which was like, boy, did I luck out. What are the chances of that happening?” After finishing her doctoral degree, she was hired as an assistant professor at City Tech in 2004, where she worked until moving to John Jay in 2006. There she became a department representative to the chapter’s executive committee, and then became a member of the PSC Delegate Assembly the following year, before being elected to the chapter chair position in 2011.
While acknowledging that it is a particularly difficult political climate, Majumdar cautions progressives against being too impressed by the success enjoyed by the right and business interests in the recent past. “When the left wants to be populist and seriously organize, there is no one who can beat us,” she says with a laugh.