Decades of experience in politics and labor
Throughout her four-decade career, Kate Pfordresher, PSC director of research and public policy, developed and advocated for structural change in New York City. For Pfordresher, who grew up in suburban Illinois and Ohio, and graduated from Smith College with a studio art degree, her career has been a path motivated by improving material conditions for workers – at CUNY and beyond. Pfordresher said farewell to her CUNY post at the end of February.
“Kate has been one of the very precious resources of the PSC. Her skill sets made a significant difference in the development of precise, persuasive arguments which advanced the interests of PSC members and students,” said PSC Legislative Chair Mike Fabricant, who worked closely with Pfordresher on state and city political work. “Perhaps most important, Kate’s commitment to the work of the PSC inspired others to do more, invest more in assuring a quality and accessible education for students.”
For 12 years at the PSC, Pfordresher built the union’s research and public policy department with the union’s elected leadership. Because the state and the city fund CUNY colleges, the public policy department’s mission is manifold, including legislative and policy work, lobbying, budget analysis of the state, city and CUNY budgets and developing a political program for the union. The department also supports the union’s Legislation Committee, which has the responsibility under the PSC constitution to advise union leadership on electoral endorsements, political action and legislation affecting its membership.
During the budget season, the department helps draft lobbying materials and organizes lobby days where CUNY faculty, staff and students meet with scores of state and city lawmakers. And during electoral season, the Legislative Committee vets, interviews and recommends candidates for endorsement. This political groundwork helps the union advocate and push for policy that meets the needs of CUNY, its faculty, staff and students.
“Demands and movements are extremely important, but policy matters,” Pfordresher told Clarion. “How governments actually implement the structures for providing and doing the work and setting regulations really does matter.”
Pfordresher fell into her work with “twists and turns” and no clear idea of a destination. But a motivating factor through it all was a drive to create social and economic change.
After graduating college, she worked as a welfare rights paralegal, and she went on to research and develop policy in health care, labor rights and public higher education. Policy change meant concrete wins: getting a park in a local neighborhood, securing drivers licenses for the undocumented and passing the New York State DREAM Act.
For more than a decade, she worked for AFSCME District Council 37 and one of its locals as a researcher and as a grievance representative. She cut her teeth with the labor movement while working at the Graduate Center’s American Social History Project (ASHP) in its formative years, where she created film and slideshows about labor history and did administrative tasks.
She went to South Africa in the early 1980s with other ASHP staff, and that trip shaped her politically. “For me, the anti-apartheid movement – especially the emerging black worker union movement – was a turning point and formed my views of democratic unionism, political change and gave me my first opportunity to work with New York City unions.” Pfordresher said.
Early on in her career at the PSC, Pfordresher helped establish a joint faculty, staff and student lobby day, an event that has grown throughout the years. Intimate meetings between union members and lawmakers help those lawmakers understand the common interests of CUNY faculty, staff and students, and the day-to-day struggles of CUNY’s working-class students, she said. In 2018, PSC members, under the Legislative Committee’s direction, aided in the successful effort to flip the New York State Senate to Democratic Party control. PSC members made thousands of phone calls and canvassed door-to-door in key legislative districts.
Justyna Jagielnicka, a mental health counselor in the Student Life/College Discovery Program at Borough of Manhattan Community College, made more than 1,000 phone calls for the campaign. Jagielnicka learned from Pfordresher’s confidence, assertiveness and knowledge of the political landscape. “Her actions really inspired me, especially when phone banking during late hours,” she said. “I will miss Kate dearly.”
Securing a Democratic majority in the State Senate means that key progressive bills that often died in the Senate now have a real chance of going to the governor’s desk to be signed. In its first month, the Democratic-controlled NYS Legislature passed the New York State DREAM Act, which freed up state financial aid for undocumented students if they attended high school in the state.
Pfordresher says the union, despite its size, has political clout, because many of PSC’s members are registered to vote and do vote in national, state and local elections. But she would like more PSC members to see the union as the place to do their political work in order to “reach the union’s full power.”
Lorraine Cohen, PSC vice president for community colleges, has worked with Pfordresher and admires her calm, caring and generous approach to her work.
“She has been indispensable to the legislative work of the union,” Cohen said. “She has organized Albany visits with political leaders and local visits to the offices of city and state leaders. She has done important research on the budget and recruited speakers to appear at City Council hearings. She has put together talking points and other materials that inform activists when they visit the offices of political leaders.”
Newly retired, Pfordresher plans to remain politically active, especially during this significant election year. But she also plans to take some time off for herself and her family. She’ll spend more time with her husband, James Moore, a PSC member and an associate professor in the anthropology department at Queens College, and taking care of her almost-1-year-old granddaughter, who lives in Brooklyn. Another thing that Pfordresher always makes time for, even when she had a hectic schedule at the PSC, is singing in her community chorale group, Brooklyn Conservatory Chorale. On March 15, they will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
“It’s a model of solidarity to be in a group of 50, 60, 100 people making music and being in sync to make it beautiful.”
She found that same solidarity at the PSC where she “put everything [she] knew into use and [was] challenged to grow,” as she worked in concert with PSC leaders members and staff.