Building the modern PSC
Stanley Aronowitz – distinguished professor of sociology and urban education at the Graduate Center who was a founding force of the new PSC leadership that came into power in 2000 – died at the age of 88 in August. PSC members reflect on his legacy.
Making today’s union
By NANCY ROMER
After years of a dormant union leadership, Stanley, along with about 75 other progressive activists across CUNY, helped define a social justice union with an expansive view of what the labor movement in general and our own local union could accomplish. After the devastating Reagan-era cuts to the city and state’s public services including CUNY, in the 1990s, PSC members were ready for change.
Stanley Aronowitz inspired students and fellow unionists.
In the several years of run-up to the 2000 PSC election, Stanley served on a range of campaign steering committees, and he served as one of the New Caucus coordinators. There, and then on the Executive Council to which we got elected, Stanley was a constant voice for deep member participation and education, and solidarity with students, the broader labor movement and the community. Stanley was an intellectual, no doubt, with a stunning grasp of so many ideas and social movements. But he was a very practical strategist with a clear-eyed analysis of the power of capital to limit the power of the working class. He fought against capitalism through working-class organization, racial, class and gender unity, and brilliant teaching and writing. I want to focus on the humanity and love that Stanley shared with others.
A MOVEMENT LEADER
One incident that struck me as quintessential Stanley, evidence of his complete comfort with his role as an intellectual and movement leader, took place at the Graduate Center during one of our adjunct recruitment drives. Prior to the leadership change in 2000, the PSC was quite uninterested in having adjuncts be members despite the fact that they were in our bargaining unit. As part of that adjunct membership drive, adjuncts organized a musical night featuring grad student bands.
Stanley was one of the emcees and spontaneously took over the stage, alone, with a hand-held mic and sang a capella several labor songs – songs he cherished from his youth in a lefty family. Stanley had a beautiful voice; but moreover, he was bursting with joy to see so many people, many of whom were his students, engaged in political struggle through culture. Culture, education and politics were the bread of life for Stanley, and it was a joy to witness his total delight in what group struggle could produce!
We held untold numbers of in-person meetings, first at various CUNY campuses, and once we took office, at the union. Stanley would frequently leave by 7:30 pm so he could go home and cook dinner for his beloved daughter Nona and wife Ellen. I have a wonderful memory of him working at his cubbyhole of a home office where he wrote several books and many articles. Stanley didn’t need anything fancy; he was perfectly satisfied to work wherever he could under whatever circumstances. But in that small Greenwich Village apartment, Stanley’s daily joy was so evident. He adored his family and was crushed when Ellen died of cancer, much too young.
Stanley was the Green Party candidate for New York governor in 2002 and used his campaign to educate New Yorkers on the importance of working-class power and taxing the rich. His campaign slogan was “Tax and Spend,” which attempted to upend the hegemony of neoliberalism that seemed completely ubiquitous at that time. Stanley campaigned across the state in delight, educating large and small groups of people on the class struggle.
Stanley leaves a legacy of left-wing intellectual thought, that is always connected to action. To Stanley, ideas without action were sterile, and Stanley was never sterile. He was on the front lines as a brilliant and inspiring teacher, a great public intellectual, a union and movement activist, a devoted family man and a friend. We will miss Stanley Aronowitz.
Nancy Romer is professor emerita of psychology at Brooklyn College.
By PENNY LEWIS
In the best sense, Stanley never let anyone off the hook. Whether he wrote about the limits of labor law or the union contract; or insisted his students read Marx by starting with Spinoza, Hume, Kant and Hegel; or spoke forcefully about the expansive possibility of our radical imagination – at all moments. Stanley asked us to think hard and critically about the conditions we find ourselves in. He challenged us to think, and then act, in a transformative manner. He was a radical in the precise sense of radicalism, getting to the root of things; he performed, as few others did, the Marx’s charge of a “ruthless criticism of all that exists.”
For close to six decades, Stanley shared trenchant critiques and an inspiring vision with generations of labor activists, leaders, students and scholars. In works including False Promises, From the Ashes of the Old, How Class Works, The Death and Life of American Labor, and many more, Stanley wrote about labor’s shortcomings, advances, pitfalls and potential. I’ve assigned his work at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, a program Stanley helped found and lead, and it resonates deeply with my students, nearly all of whom are adult union members or staffers. In classes where I don’t assign him, he is quoted to me. In classes where I do, few authors create such heated debate and discussion.
Stanley wrote deeply, richly, about American labor, bringing rigorous historical and theoretical insight into a world my students inhabit every day. His work was a clarion call that labor education must be central to our labor movements.
As a unionist, he was never shy about looking inward. He is well-known for his critique of trade union bureaucracies, of post-New Deal labor relations, and his embrace of non-reformist reforms, such as shorter hours and guaranteed income. Stanley always pushed for intersectional analyses of gender, race, and sexuality in our work as labor activists and scholars. I sat on committees where he challenged us to understand how housing, cultural production, educational reform and transportation are labor issues that demand being included in a labor studies curricula. Stanley rejected the separation of labor from community, of a worker from their life as lived in all of its 360 degrees.
His provocations and critique further solicit from all of us – practitioners and scholars, leaders and rank-and-file – an honest grappling with the shortcomings as well as strengths of our efforts. For many of us in the labor movement, loyalty is a core value, and for good reason. Stanley encouraged labor activists and students to embrace solidarity, but not shy away from hard questions with and among one another.
And this brings me to the next level as to why Stanley’s work is critical to our movement and finds such ongoing purchase. Early on in the Death and Life of American Labor, Stanley writes that the failure of today’s labor movement to organize and fight does not “reflect a lack of resources, but, a lack of faith.” Stanley’s faith in his students and readers is evident in every page and in every action. He never spoke down to people; Stanley believed everyone can do the work.
Encountering his writing, students usually know that Stanley is “one of us,” that he wrote from within the movement, with our best interests in mind. They don’t always agree with him, but they take him seriously, and their interaction with his ideas changes their own. It is Stanley’s core respect for his fellow workers and his commitment to our collective cause that compels these readers to take up his work with such gusto.
My students have spent their adult lives as union workers, and they join a labor studies program out of a commitment to making the labor movement and its sister movements stronger, more powerful and more effective. Stanley’s own radical imagination encourages us to take up this fight more thoughtfully and rigorously, while continuing to have faith that we can win. We can repair and honor such loss in part through our ongoing collective efforts in education and struggle.
Stanley Aronowitz, rest in power.
Penny Lewis is PSC secretary.