Local, grassroots PSC chapter organizing
Lynne Turner, the new chapter chair for the PSC Graduate Center chapter, spoke at a May Day rally in 2019.
The stress of remote learning, COVID-related safety protocols and increasing economic austerity for CUNY colleges mean that PSC chapter organizing is more important than ever. The union is strongest when its chapters are organizing resistance at the grassroots level. And some chapters now have new leaders.
Chapter and delegate elections were concluded in the Spring semester. Chapters with new leaders are John Jay College, Bronx Community College, the Graduate Center, Hostos Community College and LaGuardia Community College.
A BRONX STORY
Yasmin Edwards, an associate professor of biological sciences at Bronx Community College, took over as chapter chair from Sharon Utakis. Edwards began as an adjunct instructor. She first learned about the PSC when she was approached by a union rep while teaching at Borough of Manhattan Community College about signing up for retirement benefits.
“Before that encounter, I did not think about the retirement system, but I took their advice, signed up and became drawn to an organization that would mobilize in that way to help its members,” she said. “When I was appointed to a full-time position at BCC, I was invited to attend chapter meetings and became active in the work of the BCC chapter.”
When recently asked to take over for Utakis, she was at first hesitant, but she found her confidence to step up to the challenge.
“Having observed [Utakis’s] amazing work over the years, I did not know if I was up to the task,” Edwards said of her predecessor. “Having no background in union work, I feel that there is a steep learning curve, but I am fortunate to have a supportive executive committee and campus community. I represent a diverse and active membership at BCC, and as a Black woman, who has struggled with the many forms of resistance people of color experience in academia, I hope that my work in the union can advance the cause of greater diversity at CUNY.”
Lynne Turner, a veteran unionist, now serves as the chapter chair at the Graduate Center, replacing Luke Elliott-Negri, who remains on the PSC’s executive council.
Most recently, she advocated for her members at the CUNY Board of Trustees hearing in October, saying, “I am calling upon CUNY to provide equitable, quality health insurance through NYSHIP to tuition-only fellows at the Graduate Center per the historic agreement ratified in the 2019 contract settlement. Graduate employees teach thousands of classes across CUNY each semester. One-third of our doctoral students are tuition-only through a two-tiered funding system in which they receive no guaranteed health insurance and instead cobble together funding and health insurance on a semester-by-semester basis through teaching adjunct, non-teaching adjunct positions and contingent fellowships.”
At LaGuardia Community College, former interim chapter chair Lara Beaty was elected as full-time chair. In the past, she organized against Amazon’s bid to build a headquarters near the campus in Long Island City. That bid failed. She replaces English scholar Sigmund Shen.
“I once believed that research alone would automatically lead to better practices – my research is about education and psychological development – but I quickly learned that thoughtful disagreements were the least of our problems,” she said. “I believe that collectively we can do more to make the world a kinder and more just place and that the PSC is part of a broader collective fight that helps thousands of New Yorkers have better lives.”
Beaty is on prescheduled sabbatical now, so the chapter is being led in the interim by longtime campus activist Laura Tanenbaum, who as a graduate student at New York University was part of the union effort that won graduate worker union recognition by the National Labor Relations Board. “While many parts of graduate school were alienating, organizing made me feel like I was a part of something bigger and more powerful than myself and that’s the feeling that keeps me organizing despite all the challenges,” Tanenbaum told Clarion.
RISING TO CHALLENGES
“I’ve been at LaGuardia since 2007 as part of the huge English department. I love that we aren’t atomized into tiny little fiefdoms but really work together to build a real creative and intellectual home, and union work is my way of expanding this, across all our departments and programs,” said Tanenbaum. “When I agreed to run for vice chair and step in for Lara during her sabbatical, I didn’t know what was coming. While it’s daunting to do this work while figuring out remote learning and with my small kids at home, I feel grateful to have a union at this time and to be able to play whatever useful role I can.”
Two new chapter chairs, Craig Bernardini of Hostos Community College, and John Pittman, of John Jay College, are new to their full-time roles as chapter leaders, but have previous experience leading their chapters. Bernardini and Pittman bring their track records of union leadership to their roles as chapter leaders in a perilous time, and they are working tirelessly to address ongoing issues of class size, campus safety and the threat of budget reductions looming over CUNY.