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Home » Clarion » 2020 » May 2020 » Organizing locally in the crisis

Organizing locally in the crisis

(Image Credit: Jud Guitteau)

Members pressure CUNY

PSC members of all titles across CUNY engaged in individual acts of resistance and solidarity in March as the COVID-19 crisis continued to impact the university and the entire country in unprecedented ways. The PSC leadership applied persistent pressure on management to ensure the health and safety of all workers, while simultaneously negotiating changes to normal work schedules and conditions. Key among the terms was a commitment that the university had no plans to interrupt pay for employees during the public health crisis. As in-classroom teaching transitioned to “distance learning,” professional staff and nonteaching faculty advocated to ensure that all PSC-represented workers be able to work safely and remotely.

“This is not a normal time, and it will not be a normal semester. Both classroom and non-classroom work will have to be performed in new ways. Neither faculty nor staff should be evaluated in the traditional ways during this semester, and there must be no repercussions for those whose work cannot be performed or supervised normally,” wrote PSC President Barbara Bowen in a March 14 letter to CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez.


Chapter leaders and staff in the PSC’s contract administration and organizing departments (who themselves are working remotely) have heard from hundreds of union members who are concerned about their work, their pay, and their safety and health. In response, the PSC has issued guidance to members on what actions to take during this difficult time.

“Members may feel they are acting as individuals in seeking reassurance or asking questions about the advisability of coming to campus, but really members all over CUNY are doing the same thing. They’re standing together,” said PSC Organizing Director Deirdre Brill. “Their health, the health of their families are important. It’s not going to be easy, but the union is standing up for that.”

As early as mid-February – after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health emergency – PSC officials reached out to CUNY management regarding employment protocols, pay for hourly workers and proper handwashing facilities.

Within days of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approval of widespread coronavirus testing, Bowen was demanding that Chancellor Matos Rodríguez address the university’s procedures for maintaining a safe and healthy workplace, as well as potential changes to normal work schedules.

From early March onward, PSC leadership continued to press CUNY management on a near-daily basis. And in the absence of clear direction from CUNY management, the PSC issued its own guidance on the rights of its 30,000 PSC members working across CUNY, promising that the union would fight for them.

On March 17 the PSC bargaining team presented to CUNY management a series of new demands to safeguard the health and working rights of its membership during the COVID-19 crisis.

Even after President Donald Trump’s March 13 declaration of national emergency and the CDC’s urging against gatherings of 50 people or more, thousands of CUNY professional, administrative and classified employees were still being required to go to work. During the week of March 16, when NYC public schools were closed for students, numerous CUNY campus libraries and computing centers remained open. Even after a John Jay College of Criminal Justice student tested positive for COVID-19, the college’s computing center remained open, with around 85 students coming in one day. CLTs continued to work in labs, art studios and computing centers. Bursar’s offices and registrar’s offices remained open. PSC officers protested this injustice around the clock.


To ensure that CUNY employees continue to be paid, the Office of the NYS Comptroller took over the payroll for senior colleges. As Clarion went to press, employees in most bursar’s offices at both CUNY community and senior colleges were reporting to work on-site at least, with some reporting to work as often as once a week.

Library faculty members were particularly incensed at CUNY’s misguided decision to keep libraries open.

“We understand better than anyone the critical role that libraries play in teaching and learning at CUNY, from providing broadband internet access to desktop computers, laptop loans and circulating library collections. However, in a public health crisis that relies on all New Yorkers to practice social distancing in order to quell the spread of COVID-19, libraries must play a different role,” wrote Maura Smale, chair of the CUNY Council of Chief Librarians, and Polly Thistlethwaite, interim university dean for library services, in a message to CUNY officials.


Library faculty researched and organized. They put together documents and spreadsheets that tracked CUNY library openings, closings and infections. The PSC Library Faculty Committee organized a petition that was signed by 400 people in one night. They pressured their campus presidents to enable nonteaching instructional staff – including nonteaching faculty, HEOs and nonteaching adjuncts – in the libraries to work remotely. There were organizing successes around the CUNY system and PSC members sent thousands of emails to the chancellor demanding protection for essential employees.

“CUNY administrators were fixated on the idea that the physical computing spaces of the campuses needed to remain open, not understanding the health risks they posed,” said Robert Farrell, PSC chapter chair at Lehman College and an associate professor in Lehman’s library department. “As one colleague said, it made sense to keep the campuses and libraries open after Hurricane Sandy as places for people to gather and get information. [But] in a global pandemic, the goal is to keep people apart.”

For adjunct faculty, finally, nonteaching adjuncts and adjunct CLTs – whose health insurance depends on the number of hours worked – finding ways to work remotely was especially crucial. With no clear initial direction from management, there was a lot of anxiety and stress.

“There has been a strong effort to keep nonteaching adjuncts, including adjunct CLTs, on the payroll by developing creative ways to support all initiatives in the transition to remote teaching, student learning and staff telecommuting,” Amy Jeu, acting CLT chapter chair, told Clarion. “Most lab courses have been able to transition to e-labs, and CLTs worked aggressively with the administration to develop the IT infrastructure and protocols to support remote operations and monitor systems around the clock.”

People working in these titles can continue to submit time sheets and get paid.

Some adjuncts and continuing education teachers reported that they did not have adequate internet access or the equipment needed to work from home. Members were advised to contact their hr office, and chapters raised these issues with colleges.

On several campuses, continuing education teachers whose classes were scheduled to begin later in the semester found their classes canceled. At Brooklyn College, the American Language Academy, which was scheduled to begin April 6, has been suspended for the semester, leaving nearly a dozen ESL Continuing Education Teachers without work and a paycheck.

The PSC Brooklyn College Chapter asked program officials to work on offering an online program, indicating that instructors are ready to teach online and the chapter had a deep concern that instructors will lose their health insurance. Program administrators responded, saying they canceled classes due to low enrollment.

Scott Cally, PSC chapter chair at Kingsborough Community College, reported that at least seven language immersion instructors in the KELI (ESL) program were not reappointed for classes scheduled to begin in April, leaving them unemployed, without a paycheck or health insurance. The union successfully fought for three of those instructors to teach classes starting May 4 and will continue to fight for the other four members.


On March 20 Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his guidance for essential services in the state, which included childcare centers and food pantries at CUNY campuses. By the end of the following week, the childcare centers at BMCC and Lehman College were designated as regional enrichment centers for children of essential workers, while other CUNY childcare centers were closed but remain on standby. As Clarion went to press, the childcare center at Lehman College was receiving about two to three children a day. Employees who work at the center, who are hired by a private contractor, have some protective equipment and supplies, but due to shortages they do not have everything they need, including gowns.

As this crisis unfolds, members are encouraged to contact the union to report any unjust or unreasonable labor practices or demands. Members can contact their chapter leadership, chapter grievance counselors or PSC organizing and contract administration staff. Contact information can be found on the PSC website.

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