CUNY union

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Wed Apr 26 10:43:10 PDT 2000

Chronicle of Higher Education - web daily - April 26, 2000

Activists Win Control of CUNY Faculty Union, Vow to Challenge Political Establishment By COURTNEY LEATHERMAN

A new activist faction of the City University of New York's faculty union won nearly all of the group's leadership posts in an election Monday -- ousting an old guard that had reigned for two decades. The New Caucus, as the group is called, includes big-name scholars like Stanley Aronowitz and Blanche Wiesen Cook, and campaigned on a platform of invigorating the union and taking on the state's political establishment.

CUNY's union, the Professional Staff Congress, is one of the oldest faculty unions in the country. Irwin H. Polishook served as the union's president for 24 years before retiring in February, and the New Caucus accused him of allowing politicians and administrators to damage the university by cutting its budget, eliminating remedial education, and hiring more part-timers.

"On Irwin Polishook's watch our working conditions have taken a nose dive," the group says on its Web site. New Caucus members credited Mr. Polishook with speaking out individually on issues, but criticized him for failing to mobilize the faculty. "That's not how you organize to win anything," said Cecelia McCall, an associate professor of English at Baruch College who was elected the secretary of the union.

Said Mr. Polishook: "The members elected me nine times and it wasn't because I was bad." But he didn't aim to rehash the campaign battle -- especially, he said, since he had already retired. "I can only wish them good luck if they think they're going to reverse some of the difficulties the university faces," he said. "The problem with their complaints is that they are offering them now as promises and they'll have to deliver."

On Monday, Barbara Bowen, an associate professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate School and University Center, won the presidency, defeating Mr. Polishook's unelected successor, Richard J. Boris, a political-science professor at York College. "Our members wanted change and they're going to get it," said Mr. Boris. He declined to elaborate.

But Ms. Bowen did in a statement announcing the New Caucus's "decisive victory." She said "the victory signals the membership's desire for a democratic and effective union, one that is up to the challenge of reversing the obscene budget cuts to CUNY and the ongoing assault on our professional lives." Ms. Bowen said in her statement that 16 of the 21 candidates the caucus had put forward won spots on the union's executive council.

Among those were Steve London, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, who won the first vice presidency. Mr. London said the New Caucus grew out of two activist camps in the university in the 1990's. One group was active in the union, the other was active on broader social and university issues. About five years ago, the groups came together and the caucus became an official group battling for the leadership of the union.

With the elections over, the next step is negotiating a contract. The current agreement expires July 31. The new union leaders, who plan to make salary increases a key component of the talks, hope their election strengthens their bargaining position. "The New Caucus has been among the administration's chief opponents," said Ms. McCall. "This election sends a strong message to them to watch out, we're going to come on strong."

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