Editor’s Note: The Professional Staff Congress represents 27,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York who haven’t had a raise in six years. We reported on their struggle in our March issue. The union is currently holding a strike authorization vote that would empower the PSC’s leadership to call a strike if it deemed it necessary to do so. Public sector union strikes are illegal under New York’s Taylor Law and only rarely attempted as striking workers and their union can be slapped with heavy fines and union officers can be jailed for leading such an action.
While others have made the economic argument for why CUNY faculty and staff should refuse to live under perpetual austerity, retired Hostos Community College history professor Gerald Meyer recently articulated another reason to support the union in a letter to his Hostos colleagues, which he also shared with The Indypendent.
I arrived at Hostos in the Fall of 1972. The previous semester, I had been terminated at an institution of higher learning, then called, Newark College of Engineering, where I had a three-year contract to teach European History. At the termination interview, which lasted less than five minutes, the Dean of Liberal Arts presented no criticism of my teaching or conduct of any sort. Instead, he informed me that I was being fired because one student had complained that I graded "politically," that is, I had downgraded his paper because it conflicted with my political views.
I did not know what class or assignment he was referring to. The Dean did not inform me of any specifics that would support this accusation. I was dumbstruck by a situation where one single accusation, which I had no means of refuting, could possibly result in termination from a job that I carried out to my very best abilities. Oddly, as I got up to leave this sickening encounter, the dean said, "And by the way, in one of your comments on the student's paper, you misspelled 'fashion.' " An hour later, as I was cleaning out my desk, my Chair came by and said, "You know, there was nothing political in this decision." I turned to him as replied, "You know, after I participated in the student strike against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, you stopped saying hello." He turned his back and walked away.
I am convinced that my firing was a result of my activities on campus in opposition to the Vietnam War and my support for the Newark Teachers' Union strike, which led to the jailing of almost 200 teachers and their supporters, one of whom was me. However, I had no way of proving that, because there was no union to support me. There was no mechanism in place for a defense: a fair hearing, legal counsel, and whatever else we take for granted at CUNY.
At the time, my wife was pregnant. When I went home, I cried a lot. I knew that I could return to my previous job with the NYC Department of Social Services, where I had been a case worker for three years in the South Bronx. I liked my job as a case worker, but I had wanted to teach History in college since my high school years. History was really the only thing in my life at which I truly excelled. It was also my great passion.
Fortunately, a neighbor of mine, Peter Roman, whom I had helped when he was working as a journalist writing a series of articles on the Newark Teachers' Union strike for the now long-defunct National Guardian, urged me to apply for a position in the Social Science Department at a new college in the South Bronx, called Hostos Community College.
After I was hired, I was much relieved to discover that at Hostos there was a union and soon after to learn that there was a vacancy for the Chapter Chair of the newly formed Professional Staff Congress, which I gladly filled. I am convinced that the PSC enabled me to have a full academic career of more than 30 years, despite my temerity to practice my First Amendment rights.
For sure, unions mean higher pay. In fact, a recent survey established that the pay scales at institutions of high learning that have unions are 25 percent higher than those that do not have unions. But for me, I am voting "Yes" for strike authorization to uphold the Professional Staff Congress's integrity and strength as an act of gratitude for its protecting my academic freedom and my belief that it will continue to do so for others who follow.
Gerald Meyer, Ph.D.