Carlos Parker, a PSC Environmental Health and Safety coordinator, stands on a restored pedestrian ramp at CCNY, which was fixed after chapter pressure.
Carlos Parker, the assistant director of admissions at City College (CCNY) and one of the PSC Environmental Health and Safety coordinators, grew up on the CCNY campus. His mother worked in the Financial Accounting Office at the college and cut checks for the campus community; his aunt was an accountant in the Bursar’s Office; his stepfather was the assistant registrar. For Parker, a City College graduate, the school has always been a second home. He spent many childhood summers on campus while his mother worked. After eating lunch, he would often take a nap under his mother’s desk.
CCNY administration’s uneven response to the pandemic inspired Parker to become more active in the union. He witnessed firsthand how members’ health and safety were threatened for “money and convenience” and how the CCNY administration dismissed urgent concerns. The last two years have transformed Parker from a “passive” colleague with personal health and safety concerns to a union activist with “laser-like focus.”
He joined the PSC Environmental Health and Safety Committee in June 2021 and quickly rose to a leadership role, becoming a watchdog coordinator by October of that year. In January 2022, he earned an OSHA 10 certification after completing training in common health and safety hazards on the job, and he is continuing his health and safety education to better protect himself and his colleagues.
Parker spoke to Clarion’s Shomial Ahmad about his campus work around health and safety issues.
Why did you decide to become more active in the union, and why did you specifically choose the PSC Environmental Health and Safety Committee?
Like other watershed moments in history, COVID-19 has changed our lives forever. How we treat each other during these times defines us. I’ve seen how people can come together in support of one another, but I’ve also seen the indignity of people’s worth quantified in mere economic terms.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I witnessed in disbelief how some members of my own campus community were being forced to work in person during the height of the pandemic and grieved the death of a close HEO colleague who died from complications from COVID-19 in May 2020. He was required to work in person for some days during that time. I made a conscious decision that from that point on that I would get more involved in union matters in general and health and safety issues, in particular. This naturally led me to the very active and highly successful PSC Environmental Health and Safety Watchdogs.
City College is one of the only CUNY campuses where there is significant room-by-room ventilation data. As Watchdogs have pointed out, members work in rooms and not in entire buildings. While the proper ventilation of a building is very important, knowing that rooms are adequately ventilated is crucial to the return of in-person work. Describe the process of getting that level of detail and how you have made it available for members.
Room-level ventilation data at CCNY is not something that I, or even the union, can take credit for. In this way we were a bit lucky to have some higher-level officials that genuinely wanted to be as helpful and transparent as possible. Of course, we should not have to feel “lucky” to have this information, as it should be standard information provided to all employees at all institutions.
Unfortunately, I have to speak about this helpfulness and transparency in the past tense. Following CUNY’s lead, these same people have now taken an adversarial stance toward our health and safety efforts. CUNY Central feels threatened by the success and militancy of the PSC Health and Safety Watchdogs across the university and now requires us to fight for every bit of information.
The CCNY ventilation data was once available on the college’s website and was forced down [from the site] by CUNY Central. The Watchdogs had to file FOIL requests to get that once-public data and now we, the CCNY chapter of the Health and Safety Watchdogs, make it available online to our campus community. Sadly, it seems like we’ve entered a new phase of PSC-campus administration relations because none of the campus leaders, as far as I can see, have the political will to actually lead and stand up to CUNY.
As CUNY returns to a more in-person presence on campus, what do you think all PSC members should be aware of in relation to health and safety issues on their campuses and what can they do about it?
Everyone, including PSC members, needs to be aware that they have a legal right to work in a safe and healthy environment, enshrined by the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. They also need to be aware that it is the responsibility of the employer to provide that safe and healthy environment. However, this often does not come without a fight. We, as union members, have to be prepared for management pushback.
It starts with being conscious of your work environment and speaking up for yourself or for others, especially if something is making you physically or mentally sick. Not everyone is in a position where they can be assertive about these issues, but members shouldn’t remain silent.
Internalizing workplace problems, or not speaking about them – whether it is health and safety, bullying, workplace violence, sexual harassment, etc. – is not good for your health. Seek out those within the union who are in a position to help. We are all in this fight together and only through constant vigilance and swift collective action can we remain successful against these persistent and pernicious issues.
What have you learned from other PSC chapters and their issues around health and safety?
While all PSC chapters face a common struggle, each campus naturally has unique challenges. There is different architecture, age of infrastructure, level of cooperation from administration and union activism. I’ve learned that change comes from being persistent and remaining steadfast in the face of backlash from the administration.
The Queens College PSC Chapter is a great example of what can be accomplished. They led the way with using FOIL as a means of getting more ventilation information, and the PSC Health and Safety Watchdogs followed suit with FOIL requests for other campuses.
Freya Pritchard, professor of mathematics and computer science at York College (highlighted in the February 2022 issue of Clarion) has shown incredible strength and courage in not backing down, despite being targeted and reprimanded by the York administration. Stories of retaliation abound throughout CUNY. To me, these union-busting attempts are a sign of desperation. Campus administrations have survived and thrived on our fear for far too long, and they are now realizing that we are no longer fearful and will stand up for our rights.
What have you learned about fellowship among colleagues, especially in a time of isolation during a pandemic? Has your increased union involvement taught you some lessons about working for the collective good?
I believe in the general goodness of people and the natural desire to want to help each other. You see it all the time during natural disasters and times of crisis; people rally in support of those in need.
COVID-19 has been no different. Most of us have become closer in making the best of a very difficult situation. In my view, it is the systems under which people operate that corrupt that natural desire.
The “collective good” that the union represents is in constant battle with the “divide-and-conquer” CUNY workplace, a microcosm of the larger socioeconomic system, which dictates a perennial state of fierce competition against one another for what is largely just material “success” and superficial status.
I, like many others, come from a background conditioned by the “rugged individualism” that defines our society. My work with the union and my recent experiences throughout this pandemic have taught me that there is a better way to do things, a way that is democratic and that benefits us all, collectively. That is the goal that we must constantly work toward.