Hundreds of PSC members brought the contract campaign to their campus by wearing union T-shirts emblazoned with the message, “Five years without a union contract hurts CUNY students. Ask me why.” Designed to spark conversations with students and build solidarity with colleagues, the black tees became a strong campus presence on May 12, when PSC launched a system-wide “Teach in Your T-Shirt Day.” Members tweeted photos of themselves wearing the T-shirts in their own style – one wore a bow tie with his T-shirt, others wore button-down shirts under the black shirts, and one wore a red button, stating, “Do the right thing, CUNY!” Here, several PSC members talk to Clarion’s Shomial Ahmad about the conversations initiated by their sartorial activism. (Comments have been edited for space and clarity.)
Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences Department (Bronx Community College)
I wore the T-shirt to class, and talked to students about the lack of a contract. Once I got the ball rolling, the students began to ask questions and connect our lack of a contract with their own struggles. They saw it in terms of disrespect. It’s very much connected to the same disrespect that students are experiencing with tuition increases, cuts to financial aid and inadequate classrooms. I happen to be teaching in a classroom where the ceiling tiles are missing and wires are hanging down. I told them the money from their tuition increases was supposed to go toward improving the university, like reducing class size [by hiring more professors] and bringing more mentors for students. In fact, their tuition increases are being used to pay the light bill, rent buildings and maintain university infrastructure. There was a lot of nodding and agreement. My students could see that we were on the same side and that we needed to do something about it.
Director, Math & Science Resource Center (John Jay)
I direct the Math and Science Resource Center, and a lot of the students who come in know some CLTs really well. Days that I’ve worn the T-shirt, I’ve had a couple of students immediately ask me what the shirt was about. They’re kind of horrified that their lab techs have not had a cost of living increase in a while. They get mad right away. And without my having to say it, they are like, “My rent goes up, the MTA fare goes up.” They just list all the things that have gotten more expensive since 2009. I didn’t really have to do much to convince them. The challenge for me is convincing the students that what they can do will matter. A lot of students don’t vote. They don’t think it matters because they think they’re just one person. I tell them to call and email all their elected officials: their city council member, the mayor, their state assembly representative, their state senator and the governor’s office. I told them a group of a thousand people is made of a thousand “just one persons.” I think I’ve convinced two students to write to their elected officials, so that’s a good start.
Associate Professor, Finance and Business Management (Brooklyn College)
Students who see me wearing the T-shirt ask me why I’m wearing it. They ask, “What’s this about? What is the contract? How does that affect you?” They really don’t know anything at first, but once I explain, they ask what they can do as students. I’m the faculty advisor to two clubs – Marketing Society and Fashion Marketing Society – and members from both clubs really took to the T-shirts. They started posting pictures on social media. Officers from the club started emailing me, asking me what they can do. They’re looking for new things, a new direction. They’re not just thinking about their careers. They’re thinking about how they can make changes on campus.
Associate Professor, Dental Hygiene (City Tech)
I’ve been wearing my T-shirt every day and students freely ask what it means whenever I wear it. I teach seniors who are graduating and entering the workforce. They know what it’s like to feel good about what they do and be valued for their work performance, so I can speak to them at a very high level. I explain all the responsibilities that I have, and how we’ve been without a contract for more than five years. I tell them if they’ve been working for the same employer for five years, and if while at that job they did not compromise their work performance, they would feel undervalued and unsupported for the lack of recognition and the lack of a raise. Working without a contract is just not fair. It does diminish the sizzle, the energy, the passion and the desire to go the additional mile. I could just give in, and say to students who need more, “I don’t have time” or “We will have to reschedule.” But I don’t do that. I continue to remain positive and supportive when they need me. The students get it. They know that CUNY faculty is fully dedicated to what they do.
Associate Professor, Library (York College)
I’ve been wearing the T-shirt a lot. When I do wear it, I get a lot of interest from CUNY staff who belong to other unions...security officers, administrative assistants, buildings and grounds staff and custodial staff who belong to DC 37 and the Teamsters. When they see me wearing the T-shirt, they start asking questions. Their immediate reaction is asking, “Can I have one?” They’re just excited to see us doing something that’s so visible, so in-your-face. As chapter chair, I keep everyone at York – regardless of which union they belong to – up to date on our contract fight, because it’s in everyone’s interest. What’s different is that I’m usually the one asking questions, trying to spark a conversation. Now they really read the T-shirt and think about the effect of working without a contract. It helps activate them.