After victims of police brutality, the City University of New York may be Rudy Giuliani’s favorite target. The mayor has played tag team with everyone from Governor Pataki to high-flying think tanks to CUNY’s own board of trustees in trashing the institution, slashing its budget, and, in the name of excellence, closing its doors to many of the city’s poor through tuition hikes and an end to remediation.
“By 1995, we were being clobbered by the legislature and the ideological right,” says labor scholar Stanley Aronowitz, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. “So we looked to our union, and they were asleep at the switch.”
In December of that year, a who’s who of left intellectuals met to create the New Caucus, a labor insurgency within CUNY’s 10,000-member Professional Staff Congress (PSC), whose supporters now include Aronowitz, Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook, welfare expert Frances Fox Piven, and gay historian Martin Duberman. For 24 of its 28 years, the PSC, which represents CUNY’s professors, adjuncts, and technical staff in collective bargaining, has had one leader, Irwin Polishook, a man who took his lead from Stanley Hill, the disgraced former head of DC 37.
Ballots for the 2000 election were mailed out last week, and once they’re counted on April 24, the insurgents may well have taken over the union.
The race pits Richard Boris, 57, a journeyman political science professor (and former union veep for five years) from York College, against Barbara Bowen, 44, a Yale-educated Shakespearean scholar at Queens College and former farmworker organizer who says she wants to “revitalize the union as a political force.”
It’s a classic battle between business unionism and the new labor movement of John Sweeney. Public policy analyst Frederick Lane of Baruch, a Boris supporter, compares the incumbent (handpicked by Polishook, who retired last month) to Hubert Humphrey: “He’s been a loyal, hardworking vice president who also is caught in the trap of defending his predecessor.” Boris’s Unity Caucus literature touts hard-won pension plans and health insurance and sells his ability to broker compromises under adverse conditions. One pamphlet, under the heading “Beware! The New Caucus Agenda,” quotes a reference Bowen made to Marx in a ’98 article about the reform effort. “We don’t believe the union is a movement,” says Boris, “and we don’t believe we should inject our private politics into the running of the union. The union will be marginalized if we get involved in issues that aren’t the core concern of our members: wages, benefits, and pensions.”
Bowen calls his tactics “red-baiting” and says that it’s not enough to defend members when the university is being dismantled out from under them, brick by brick. The New Caucus points to a drop of 68 percent in state funding and 87 percent in city funding, in constant dollars, in the ’90s, and a loss of courses, entire departments, and over 1000 full-time faculty during that same period. Adjuncts now comprise more than 60 percent of the teaching staff, making them an election flashpoint. While Unity leadership has taken steps to keep them out of the union, the New Caucus seeks to pull them in. It has fought for timely pay for adjuncts, organized an activist conference to challenge restructuring proposals, and set up a labor school for its members. “The climate is changing for higher education nationally,” says Bowen, “and our salaries and working conditions have really deteriorated. It’s not enough to say that times were hard. We need a union that draws on the membership to put pressure on contract negotiations, and a union that’s a vehicle for the struggles many of us were already waging, to save this institution.”
Sandra Barros, 29, a Hunter College student and an organizer with CUNY’s Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM!), says New Caucus supporters “reached out to us”: Hunter faculty Joan Tronto and Peter Kwong invited SLAM! to “come into their classes and let students know what’s going down”; Bill Crain, a psychology professor at City College, “literally got arrested with us,” she says. The two groups worked in close partnership to defend open admissions with SLAM! leading the street demonstrations and the New Caucus coordinating testimony before the Board of Trustees. The current PSC leadership, Barros says, “has done nothing in defense of the university” and has even tried to stifle student criticism of the mayor.
The New Caucus won one third of the union vote in its first time at bat in 1997, and in 1999, they captured the leadership of six of CUNY’s 18 campus chapters, including Boris’s home base, New York. Now, with 400 active members energizing the 2000 campaign, other labor reformers have pricked up their ears. “The former leadership of the PSC was an integral part of the trade union movement that played dead for the last 25 years,” says Ray Markey, president of the librarians’ local and a prominent reformer in DC 37. When corruption rocked DC 37 last year, neither Boris nor Polishook spoke out in support of the reformers, says Markey, but the entire leadership of the New Caucus did. “Bowen’s slate is against the trade union politics of the past, which have been a disaster,” he says.
“We’re very, very close,” says Aronowitz, who’s running as a delegate. “We could be the first insurgency to take over a substantial union in New York City and the first academic union to be led by activist intellectuals. We’ve decided it’s time, through winning leadership of the union, to take responsibility for the survival of the university.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 11, 2000