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Home » Clarion » 2022 » February 2022 » Organizing in her quiet way

Organizing in her quiet way

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Zauderer retires after 14 years

Naomi Zauderer led many initiatives at the PSC, including centralizing the database, creating the Next Generation Leadership Program and overseeing collective bargaining for the Research Foundation units. (Photo Credit: Dave Sanders)
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CUNY’s original mission always spoke to Naomi Zauderer, who served as PSC associate executive director for nearly 14 years. That mission – to educate the children of the whole people at a university to be controlled by the popular will and not just the privileged few – was part of what powered her through her work at the PSC. She retired at the end of January.

“I believe strongly about the importance of public education in a democracy. You cannot have a democracy without providing a quality public education to the citizenry,” said Zauderer, who is also involved in civic engagement initiatives in New York City to increase voter registration and oversee campaign funding. “It’s a question of full citizenship and a functioning democracy.”

KINDNESS AND DILIGENCE

Equally important to her is accountability to others. At the PSC that meant not letting union members and PSC staff down.

“I don’t think I have ever met anybody as conscientious as Naomi…. There was a quality in Naomi of not giving up, never feeling like she could cut a corner,” said Barbara Bowen, who was the PSC president at the time Zauderer was hired. “Naomi never ever let us down, and that’s a huge thing to say in all those years,” said Bowen.

Anais Surkin, the PSC’s new associate executive director, began working at the union in January. (See Surkin profile).

Although she often avoided the spotlight, Zauderer helped steer the union’s work in her own quiet way.

Sometimes her work was behind the scenes, like her leadership in building the PSC’s new database and developing and updating the information clearinghouse that is the PSC website. But there were other times where she was the leading face of a union effort, including her initiative to develop union leaders through the PSC Next Generation Leadership Project or overseeing collective bargaining for the Research Foundation units and a new bargaining unit of Research Professors.

INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY

Naomi Zauderer marshaled union members at a 2016 ‘Don’t Let CUNY Die’ PSC protest held in front of then-Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office. (Photo Credit: Erik McGregor)
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“Naomi is a holder of the institutional memory of the PSC,” said Janet Winter, a HEO who works in enrollment management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a member of the PSC Executive Council. “I will miss being able to contact her and receiving a quick reply, usually including references with the answer I was looking for,” she said.

When the pandemic hit, Zauderer was part of the team that helped transition the union to remote work, which is no small task. Later in the summer of 2020, she filled in as interim PSC executive director after Debbie Bell retired from the role.

For the final six months of 2020, Zauderer had the unenviable task of steering the union through the general difficulties of remote work and the various campaigns the union had against layoffs and budget challenges at CUNY. She persevered with grace and consistency, acting as a go-to person for PSC staff and members when they needed it.

“There’s not a hat – or not a role in the PSC – that [Naomi] could not fill…. I’ve watched her juggle with her hands and her feet,” said Moses Merisier, an assistant for organizing and communications at the PSC who worked directly for Zauderer. At a farewell party for her in December, Merisier talked about the unassuming way Zauderer approached her work, saying, “She makes moves. She just doesn’t talk about it. She walks it. And that’s just real.”

At the party, PSC leaders noted Zauderer’s kindness, patience and innovations. Staff members spoke about her work ethic and her ability to recognize and understand other people’s work, no matter their position in the union.

BUILDING IT BETTER

A common theme throughout Zauderer’s career is building information systems – from newsletters to databases – and teaching and training members and union staff for the challenges they will face in their work.

Before coming to the PSC, Zauderer worked at other progressive organizations and unions in New York. She was executive director of the New York Professional Nurses Union, an organizing and campaign liaison with the National Employment Law Project, and an organizer with the National Writers Union. She did doctoral work in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was involved in graduate student organizing. She grew up in Columbus, Ohio. Her father was a product liability lawyer and her mother was a psychologist who worked with Vietnam War veterans suffering from PTSD.

“[My parents] were solid Democrats and they were very immersed in their own private lives,” recalled Zauderer, who in college realized that she could carve a career path in social and economic change. “I think I actually saw activism as a way to escape that immersion in private life.”

TRAINING LEADERS

At the PSC, she developed the Next Generation Leadership Project, a yearlong program for union activists who want to become union leaders. As part of the program, participants are asked to take part in union and union-affiliated meetings that they would not normally attend, and write “insight reports” to share their reflections. At the monthly meetings, PSC leaders presented on crucial union issues, including contract enforcement, the PSC budget and contract negotiations. Participants also completed a project that they developed through the course of the program.

“I first met Naomi when I participated in the PSC Next Generation Leadership training in 2016. In her thorough preparation and guidance, I transformed myself from an outsider to a believer in unionism,” said Youngmin Seo, an adjunct lecturer in the social science department at LaGuardia Community College and a PSC Executive Council member. “She has been my mentor and a union comrade, but most importantly, my dear friend.”

Her final piece of work for the union will be the completion of a new PSC database, which Zauderer will continue to work on as a PSC consultant. When she began at the PSC in 2008, there was no organizer database and other points of crucial union information were in disparate places, oftentimes in paper files. The latest version of the database will centralize information in one place – membership, organizing, arbitrations, grievances and informal contract enforcement inquiries – so union staff and activists can continue to build a stronger union.

THE LONG STRUGGLE

One of the things that Zauderer has learned through her years of union work is that the struggle is long and that change takes time. Zauderer oversaw the bargaining for Research Foundation contracts. While the units began to organize around 2005, the first contract didn’t come until 2011.

“You have to learn to take pleasure in small, incremental gains and we have to celebrate those victories along the way,” said Zauderer.

In the coming months, Zauderer plans to spend some time in Costa Rica with her husband Stephen Choi, a registered nurse. Their immediate plans are to relax, bike and do some yoga. She will remain a consultant with the PSC.

As far as other work, there are no concrete plans, but Zauderer is interested in organizing a collective of workers and families caring for aging family members. It’s an idea that arises from her experience being the primary caretaker for her mother, Eva Struve, who has dementia. It is work that fits Zauderer’s experience and personality.

“[Naomi’s] kindness and consistency and sense of fairness and deep knowledge of what we do has been so valuable to me and to so many of us,” said PSC President James Davis at Zauderer’s December farewell party. “We are going to miss [her] profoundly.”


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