A Faculty Union Rigs a Plebiscite

In the ideal world, academic unions stand as guardians of academic freedom. In the real world, too often they cling to the status quo, resisting needed reforms, opposing meritocracy, and working to stifle campus dissent. Then there’s the CUNY faculty union (the Professional Staff Congress), whose leading figures act as if their goal in life is to give all academic unions a bad name.

The PSC’s latest gambit has been to rally opposition to Pathways, the CUNY-wide general education program proposed by just-retired chancellor Matthew Goldstein, designed to ease intra-CUNY transfers and enhance students’ opportunities to take a diverse array of upper-division electives. Given that the current union leadership opposed every attempt by Goldstein to improve quality at CUNY, it came as little surprise that it opposed Pathways as well. But the disingenuousness of the union’s conduct on this issue has been breathtaking nonetheless.

Even though debates over curricular requirements would seem well beyond the purview of a union, the PSC organized a plebiscite to express “no confidence” in Pathways, resulting in a 92 percent triumph for the union’s position. (Perhaps a 99 percent tally was perceived as slightly too propagandistic.) Sadly, the results from this ballot–which amounted to little more than a push poll–were uncritically accepted by some in the media, even those who usually cover CUNY matters with rigor.

The rigging of the ballot procedures began from the start: the original ballots identified the professor’s name, sending a message to untenured faculty that they could face retaliation if they didn’t vote the union’s way. The oppressive atmosphere that the PSC leadership has cultivated extended even to the ranks of the tenured; the most widely circulated critique of the union’s position came from a pseudonymous e-mail penned by a senior faculty member, who concluded that “the union’s leadership is uninterested in constructive dialog about anything,” but declined to give his name for fear of retaliation.

Such arguments appeared nowhere on the ballot, which included language presenting only the union’s arguments against Pathways, with no counter from faculty who supported the initiative. (So much, it seems, for academic dialogue and the importance of robust intellectual exchange.) Lest adjuncts have a chance to vote their self-interest–Pathways will give them a wider array of courses to teach, thus boosting their CV’s and aiding their search for permanent employment–the union excluded adjuncts from voting in the plebiscite. Finally, having narrowed the electorate and presented one-sided ballot language, a PSC “organizer,” John Gergely, contacted professors individually to pressure them to vote against the administration. (Faculty dues pay not only Gergely’s salary but that of other “organizers” and even an “organizing coordinator”–although what they organize is unclear, since all full-time CUNY professors automatically have dues deducted from their paychecks, regardless of whether they join the union.)

Even then, a small minority voted against the union’s position, while almost 40 percent of faculty members simply abstained. So: in a contest rigged in almost every manner, only a bare majority of all professors actually cast ballots in favor of the union’s position. The plebiscite campaign was an embarrassment, even by the current union leadership’s authoritarian standards, and should have received no weight. That it did, from any quarters in the media, is most unfortunate.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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