Union wins health and safety victory
Craig Bernadini (center), PSC chapter chair at Hostos Community College, demanded to speak with the college president about reopening plans after a spirited rally at the Bronx campus.
Following weeks of pressure and organizing by PSC members around the university, CUNY delayed its August 2 on-campus reopening date to August 16 for all higher education officers, college laboratory technicians and other staff who have not already returned to work.
In response to the delay, the PSC’s principal officers issued statement saying, “Now we have two additional weeks to examine workspaces, and colleges have additional time to address issues requiring remediation.” It’s an important victory in the union’s campaign for a safe return to campus this Fall, but the fight continues.
Jean Grassman, a cochair of the PSC’s Environmental Health and Safety Watchdogs, told Clarion that many campuses’ reluctance to have union-led walk-throughs was an indication that those campuses were simply not ready to reopen.
“We had so many campuses where members were asking their administration for information on ventilation, what classrooms would be open and trying to schedule walk-throughs – it communicated to CUNY Central that ‘we’re dealing with a lot,’” said Grassman, an industrial hygienist and associate professor at the CUNY School of Public Health. “I am just amazed at what the campus chapters and locations did. They were active, they put pressure on their administration, they asked questions that pointed out the degree to which CUNY was not prepared.”
Members staged an in-person protest at Hostos Community College July 21, saying that the August 2 reopening date failed to provide enough time for campuses to address safety issues. Craig Bernardini, PSC chapter chair at Hostos, told the crowd that while his chapter was able to conduct walk-throughs, the chapter needed to be able to communicate with members and discuss the chapter’s findings with campus administration. “All of that takes time,” he said, noting that ventilation, elevator maintenance and access to vaccines were other big safety concerns for the chapter.
Kathleen Offenholley, PSC chapter chair at Borough of Manhattan Community College, said that the PSC health and safety team in her chapter has maintained a good working relationship with the BMCC administration about COVID safety. “BMCC is lucky to have such a dedicated PSC team,” she said. “They all have gone to watchdog trainings and know what kinds of questions to ask. Their work has been invaluable.”
PSC health and safety activists have trained over 200 PSC members to conduct walk-throughs, a right granted to the PSC health and safety team under a July agreement negotiated between PSC President James Davis and CUNY.
Lynne Turner, PSC chapter chair at the Graduate Center said, “I believe that this slow-build capacity-building over the past year deserves much credit for positioning us to be knowledgeable, vigilant and effective in pressing CUNY and our campus administrations to respect our rights to a responsible return and a safe workplace. Administration claims that our campuses are safe are not sufficient; we need them to be transparent in sharing data and to provide us with sufficient opportunity to inspect with health and safety walk-throughs.”
While CUNY had pushed for 60% of classes to return in person, only 46% were scheduled to do so as of mid-June, and this proportion will likely shrink in the coming weeks, as CUNY has issued new guidelines allowing for departments, pending “normal approval by deans and provosts,” to assign modalities “attuned to student demand and instructional capacity.”
But Grassman believes the union will need to keep fighting in order to ensure a safe return.“The Delta variant is a different virus, we are now in a different pandemic,” she said. The union has emphasized a layered approach to safety, and with Delta, the more caution, the better. “Social distancing and masking will help…. We’re at point where to control the virus there needs to be lot of different interventions.”
There are also safety concerns beyond the pandemic, Grassman noted. Before the pandemic, the PSC Watchdogs were dealing with ventilation, temperature control, mold and pest issues on campuses throughout CUNY. Those issues haven’t gone away. “There is the return to locations that have been nearly empty for 16 months,” she said. “We have all the infrastructure, the leaks, the HVACs that don’t control temperature very well. These were problems before, and they’re a bigger problem now that time has passed.”
At press time, PSC activists continued walk-throughs to identify and remediate outstanding issues, and the union leadership was deep in negotiations with the University for multiple measures to mitigate the entry and spread of the coronavirus on campuses.