CUNY Professors Decry Their Union
CUNY Professors Decry Their Union's Anti-Israel, Anti-American Activities
By: Elliot Resnick, Jewish Press Staff Reporter
“Not in our name!” some City University of New York (CUNY) professors are proclaiming.
The Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union that represents 20,000 faculty members and other professional staff at CUNY, supports and promotes various far-left and anti-Israel causes, these professors claim.
For example, a mere 16 days after September 11, 2001, PSC President Barbara Bowen was one of thirteen principal officers to sign a statement denouncing “George Bush’s war” in Afghanistan.
This statement, issued by New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW), claims the United States has already “inflicted widespread suffering on innocent people in such places as Iraq, Sudan, Israel, the Occupied Territories…” and warns that war “will play into the hands of religious fanatics from Osama bin Laden to Jerry Falwell.”
The statement proposes that “an independent international tribunal [should] impartially investigate, apprehend and try those responsible for the September 11 attack.”
Justifying its occasional venture into the political realm, the PSC told The Jewish Press that it cannot “defend the interests of our members without participating in the life of the city, state and nation that defines the social and political context in which we work and teach.”
However, KC Johnson, professor of history at Brooklyn College, said this is only an excuse. Referring to PSC leadership as the “far left fringe,” Johnson said “they’re far more interested in international affairs than they are in the working conditions of most people at CUNY.”
Bronx Community College professor of history David Gordon agreed: “They pay far too much attention to radical causes that are dear to the far left but much less attention to the economic needs of the membership.”
Among other groups the PSC supports directly or by proxy, Johnson said, is Labor for Palestine, which NYCLAW co-founded with the pro-Palestinian group Al-Awda. In a letter to fellow trade unionists and workers, Labor for Palestine calls attention to Israel’s “brutal military occupation of Palestine,” and its “murder and collective punishment” of Palestinians.
The letter concludes by asking all labor bodies to “demand an end to U.S. military and economic support for Israeli Apartheid,” which it estimates at five billion dollars annually.
The PSC averred that it “has no affiliation with Labor for Palestine.”
However, while English professor emerita at Bronx Community College Nahma Sandrow said, this is “technically true,” she pointed to the PSC’s association with NYCLAW co-convener Michael Letwin, who is “explicitly against Israel,” and who also helped draft Labor for Palestine’s founding document in 2004.
Letwin was president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys in New York City for 13 years until he lost re-election in 2002, in part because of his opposition to the war in Afghanistan. In a Socialist Action article in 2002 concerning AFL-CIO’s ownership of millions of dollars-worth of Israeli bonds, Letwin was quoted as saying, “It’s bad enough that our tax dollars are going to fund Israel, but our union dues – that’s intolerable.”
Letwin co-chaired an anti-war meeting with PSC president Barbara Bowen in 2004 and received a “Friend of CUNY” award from the PSC on behalf of NYCLAW that same year.
“These people are exploiting being in a position of power in a labor union to make a political statement against Israel. They have enormous power here and it’s scary,” Sandrow said.
Further indication of PSC’s anti-Israel sentiment lies in the signature of PSC International Committee chairman Renate Bridenthal on “An Open Letter/Petition from American Jews to Our Government.” The petition declares: “Our country has an extraordinary leverage on Israeli policy, if only our government would dare to use it…. [W]e call on our government to make continued aid conditional on Israeli acceptance of an internationally agreed two-state settlement.”
More locally, the PSC recently praised New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to grant illegal immigrants driver licenses. The PSC’s Solidarity Committee had fought for the change, which, according to the PSC, “makes the city safer for all of us.”
Professor of mathematics at Queens College Michael Maller remembers a time when the PSC was less political. The PSC used to be led, he said, by “liberal Democrats akin to Mario Cuomo.” However, “they were getting older and losing energy.” Then, in 2000, Barbara Bowen led a group called the New Caucus, which won control of PSC’s executive council. “And now we’re being led by an alliance of leftists and deconstructionists.”
Following The Money
Many professors and students at CUNY are unaware of the PSC’s ideological positions and activism, according to Brooklyn College’s Professor Johnson. “[PSC president Barbara] Bowen is careful that people do not know,” he said.
For example, said Johnson, very few people know that the PSC distributes union money to political causes. Individual sums are sometimes small but nevertheless shed light on whom the PSC feels worthy of its money.
For example, in late 2001 the University of South Florida moved to dismiss Professor Sami Al-Arian amid allegations that he supported Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The PSC’s Delegate Assembly reacted by proclaiming a “threat to academic freedom and the First Amendment.”
It adopted a resolution on April 25, 2002 to donate $100 to faculty at the University of South Florida defending Al-Arian. In a plea agreement in April 2006, Al-Arian admitted to aiding Palestinian Islamic Jihad and agreed to be deported.
“The PSC did not contribute any funds to Al Arian,” the PSC wrote to The Jewish Press. “[W]e did contribute $100.00 to support the academic freedom campaign of a faculty union in Florida.”
The PSC does admit donating $5,000 to Lori Berenson, an American woman accused of aiding a Marxist terrorist organization in Peru. However, it claims the contribution was humanitarian and made to Lori’s parents, not to her. (Her father was a professor at Baruch College and a member of the PSC.)
Professor David Seidemann, who teaches geology at Brooklyn College, decries PSC’s political expenditures. “I don’t think any union leader should be using union money for any political agenda,” he said. “Just do what serves everybody’s interests and forget the politics. That’s my philosophy.”
Individual CUNY faculty members, though, don’t have the option of not paying union dues. CUNY automatically deducts between one and 1.05 percent of their salary and gives it to the PSC. In this manner, the PSC collects roughly nine million dollars yearly in dues.
Communications Director at CUNY Michael Arena, responding on behalf of CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, said the university is not responsible for PSC’s activities. He said that the money it deducts from the faculty’s salaries is employee money.
However, Arena did point out that under New York’s Taylor Law, faculty members can opt to become agency fee payers. Unlike union members, agency fee payers can request a refund from the PSC for money spent on political or ideological causes.
Seidemann did exactly that in 2001 and was refunded $1.60. Seidemann thought the PSC was lying and sued them in court – to some effect, it appears. For the 2007-08 year, the PSC estimates $91.00 of Seidemann’s money will not be chargeable, an increase of 5,588 percent.
Overall, fully 15 percent of PSC’s $10.6 million budget is not chargeable to agency fee payers.
Seidemann, however, thinks the PSC is still misrepresenting the amount they spend on politics. “I know they are. They’re dishonest. That’s proven by my court papers.” His case is currently in the Eastern District Court of New York.
Defending the PSC, attorney Chris Callagy declined to discuss how much money the PSC does or does not owe Seidemann as the matter is pending litigation, he said.
Seidemann recognizes that the PSC has legitimate expenditures. Among them is the money it pays its grievance officers who champion faculty causes before the CUNY administration. However, he and other professors complain that the PSC files grievances for the wrong people.
In 2002, the PSC filed a grievance when CUNY fired Mohamed Yousry from his position as adjunct professor at York College. Yousry had acted as interpreter between blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the mastermind of the ’93 world trade center bombing, and his lawyer, Lynne Stewart. The U.S. government, however, found that in addition to translating, Yousry also helped Rahman transmit a message to fellow terrorists. (In October 2006 he was sentenced to 20 months in prison.)
The PSC took Yousry’s case against the college all the way to arbitration. (They lost.) The PSC’s Academic Freedom Committee at the time warned of a “resurgence of McCarthyism.”
“The PSC objection to the summary dismissal of Mohamed Yousry,” the PSC told The Jewish Press “was that he was fired before he went to trial - when the principle of presumed innocence should have prevailed.”
To Jim Como, however, professor of speech communication at York College, it all boils down to one fact: “These people are Trotskyite wannabees and I don’t know what would offend them most, being called Trotskyites or merely wannabees.” Como, a member of the PSC since its inception, insists that the PSC only turned radical after the New Caucus group took over the union in 2000.
While some CUNY professors dislike the PSC for ideological reasons, others nurse more pragmatic concerns.
More than 60 percent of CUNY’s $2 billion budget comes from state and city funding. And yet, the PSC “has had the habit of antagonizing New York politicians,” said Professor Rohit Parikh who teaches computer science at Brooklyn College.
Kingsborough professor Rina Yarmish accuses the PSC of letting the faculty’s welfare fund go nearly bankrupt in 2006 as well as leaving CUNY faculty without a contract from 2002 to mid 2006. The PSC’s “preoccupation with politics” and their “confrontational tactics in negotiations with CUNY’s administration,” she said, are to blame.
PSC spokesperson Dr. Dorothee Benz counters that “political advocacy and bottom-up mobilization for PSC members’ needs are…. what saved the Welfare Fund and won a good contract in 2006.”
As for its lobbying of state and city officials, Benz said, “The results speak for themselves: The PSC is a presence in Albany as never before, and funding for CUNY has increased rather than decreased in recent years…. [W]e are making allies, not antagonists, in Albany and City Hall.”
Benz stressed that the bulk of PSC’s political work is unglamorous and focuses on CUNY funding, students and faculty.
At The Ballot Box
“The only way to get rid of these guys is to vote them out of office,” says Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a member of the Board of Trustees of CUNY, who has had his own run-ins with the PSC.
Kingsborough’s Professor Yarmish tried to do exactly that in elections for the executive council of the PSC in April 2006. Her group, the CUNY Alliance, lost to the New Caucus by a margin of 54 to 46 percent.
Yarmish blames the loss on her group’s obscurity – the CUNY Alliance only formed several months before the elections. By next election, she is confident of victory.
In the meantime, Brooklyn College’s Professor Johnson worries about the future. “If you had asked me two-and-a-half years ago if it was likely that a British faculty union would have passed a resolution calling for the boycott of two Israeli universities, I would’ve said you’re crazy,” he said referring to the Association of University Teachers’s 2005 vote to boycott of Haifa and Bar-Ilan Universities.
It was smaller radical British unions, he said, that influenced and lobbied the AUT (which, after a merger, is now called the University and College Union). He worries that the PSC, “zealots for their cause,” can have a similar effect on national U.S. labor unions like the AFL-CIO.
“If that happens, it is very troubling. People concerned about U.S.-Israeli relations should be worried.”
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