Organizing for safety inspections
It took a rally, a no-confidence vote, a media campaign, a lawsuit, labor-management meetings and finally a strike authorization vote to ensure a safe reopening this fall at Hunter College Campus Schools. Even after all that, the work is not finished. After several students and faculty members at HCCS tested positive for COVID-19 in October, PSC HCCS chapter chair Tina Moore told reporters October 17 that teachers were “scared” and that her members believe “that the safety protocols that the school has put in place did not work and did not keep our students safe.”
The possibility of work stoppage was not off the table.
PSC’S K-12 UNIT
HCCS is a unique place. It is the only place where the PSC represents members in K-12 education. And even though the school is a public school in New York City, it is administered by Hunter College under the education department of the state, not the city. Over the summer, members scrambled as the administration made plans, without any consultation with the PSC chapter leadership, for in-person education to begin in the fall.
While HCCS is a small PSC chapter, with fewer than 200 members, CUNY management’s fierce opposition to allowing independent safety inspections and willingness to mislead about air filtration devices suggests that there may be even bigger battles ahead if more worksites are reopened.
Even before the pandemic, PSC members at HCCS had worried about ventilation problems in the school’s main Upper East Side Manhattan building. A walk-through inspection by the union’s health and safety experts in February, before the pandemic hit New York, revealed severe air-safety issues. Moore explained that over the summer the administration had refused input from the union about COVID-related building safety. Some older members, worried about being forced to work in a potentially unsafe building, were beginning to consider retirement.
The chapter, working closely with PSC President Barbara Bowen and union staff, mobilized over the summer as the Fall semester approached. The HCCS PSC members had a simple demand: in-person teaching should occur only in spaces where proper ventilation had been ensured through an independent inspection.
PROGRESS, BUT NOT ENOUGH
HCCS and Hunter College administrations budged, but only slightly. They offered to move some classes out of the school’s main building and into unused spaces at Hunter College. But management would not allow access for independent safety inspections. The union stood firm. As one of the PSC’s chief health-and-safety coordinators, Jean Grassman, said during a press conference, “We demand verification.”
Members at HCCS contacted parents to explain why changes were needed to keep their children safe. Members also rallied in Manhattan, demanding independent inspection. Lawmakers pressed the administration, as did former students. But the CUNY bosses stood their ground: no independent inspection.
On September 22, the HCCS PSC members voted “no confidence” in Hunter College President Jennifer Raab (by 96%) and HCCS Director Lisa Siegmann (73%). The leaders of PSC’s state and national affiliates, New York State United Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, also pressured Hunter College and HCCS to agree to independent inspections. AFT president Randi Weingarten intervened directly, and sent staff to add support.
The next day, PSC attorneys argued before a New York Supreme Court judge that no in-person teaching could take place at HCCS without the installation of the HEPA filters that were required under Hunter College’s own reopening plan. (Hunter had instead installed non-HEPA air purifiers based on a technology not certified as effective for preventing coronavirus, according to union sources.) The judge issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) requiring that HEPA filters be installed in each instructional space before any in-person instruction could take place in that room. But it was not within the court’s purview to order an independent inspection. In court, CUNY’s lawyer, Steven Campbell, resisted inspection, saying, “Well, I think we would be more than happy to show [the PSC] pictures of the [HEPA filter] installation and give them comfort that this has occurred, but inspection is – I don’t know what that would mean. That could be a very difficult thing to implement.”
TIME TO STRIKE?
In short: the PSC achieved a clear legal victory on the air filters, but the issue of an inspection remained. That weekend, with the school set to reopen the following Tuesday, the members voted by a margin of 85% to authorize the PSC leadership to call a strike, with 92% of eligible voters casting ballots. With the threat of a major labor confrontation, HCCS and Hunter College finally agreed to do the right thing and allow an independent inspection on Yom Kippur, just in time to avert a strike.
“The inspectors presented a report that indicates that the ventilation system is acceptable and that it delivers ‘the maximum amount of fresh air with little to no return air,’” PSC President Barbara Bowen wrote in an email to members just after midnight on September 29, the day school was set to open. “In a meeting tonight, the HCCS teachers affirmed the recommendation of the chapter leadership not to strike tomorrow, but they added that they must have a structure of continuing labor/management meetings to address safety problems as they arise. And they have required a commitment that a certain classroom that is not certified for use not be used. The faculty and staff of the Hunter College Campus Schools took a brave stand for the safety of students, teachers and the community.”
The outcome is a victory for HCCS members, parents and teachers, and it is a testament to the power of rank-and-file organizing. Members used every possible tool to push for a safe reopening. But troubling questions remain. Why did the administration resist independent testing? Why didn’t the administration work with the PSC chapter to discuss reopening? Why did it take legal action, a no-confidence vote and even a strike authorization vote to win independent testing?
One concern for the union coming out of this fight is that CUNY will resist independent testing on other campuses, and that other campus chapters can expect similar battles in the months ahead. The chapter’s no-confidence letter states that the Hunter president “refused to allow an airflow check of the Silberman building until it became clear that the faculty/union inspector would be doing one (or we would go on strike)” and that she “delayed the opening of that building for the 9th and 10th graders while CUNY workers did an airflow check in the 11th hour (on 9/29, 9/30 and 10/2), and then instructed [HCCS] Director Siegmann to blame the faculty for the delay (which Siegmann did, falsely).”
The chapter’s militancy and grassroots organizing in the face of an administration that failed to protect about student and teacher safety is an important model for other PSC members. But the fight is far from over, as the union continues to push for proper COVID-19 safety at HCCS, and to prepare for the reopening of other CUNY campuses. The concerns remain at HCCS over lack of COVID-19 testing, proper distancing and the general safety of the school buildings. On November 2 the PSC amended its legal documents because of the failure of HCCS administration to ensure the integrity of the kindergarten cohorts, the union’s legal office said, as the PSC seeks to require HCCS to act to protect the safety of students and staff by maintaining separation of kindergarten cohorts.
“We may have to take some kind of action... including job action,” Bowen said.
Editor's note: This article was edited for clarity.