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An Opening for Dissenters

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eye on the news

An Opening for Dissenters

Thanks to the 2018 Janus ruling, professors who disagree with resolutions like the CUNY faculty union’s condemnation of Israel have options. June 22, 2021
Politics and law

Three years ago this month, the Supreme Court protected the First Amendment rights of public employees. In Janus v. AFSCME, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that requiring nonmember workers to help fund government unions violated the employees’ free speech rights “by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.” At its core, Janus recognized the impossibility of distinguishing between clearly political causes—for which even union leaders conceded that they could not charge non-members—and allegedly apolitical workplace matters, for which unions could demand an “agency fee.”

A recent resolution from the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the City University of New York’s faculty union, confirmed the wisdom of Alito’s holding—and also showed how Janus can empower beleaguered dissenters in higher education. By a vote of 84–34, over the objections of a handful of delegates who argued that Middle East security issues weren’t a legitimate concern of the union, the PSC passed a measure described as a “Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People.” The offering approvingly cited groups accusing Israel of “apartheid,” and described the recent conflict in Gaza as “the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state.” To reach this peculiar interpretation, the resolution mentioned neither Hamas’s initiation of hostilities nor the thousands of rockets that Gaza’s leaders targeted at Israeli civilians.

Backers of the effort did not explain why CUNY faculty should condemn the alleged human rights abuses of one and only one foreign country. The PSC hasn’t criticized Iran for its treatment of gay citizens or Morocco for its annexation of Western Sahara. Egyptian persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood has escaped the PSC’s attention. The union not only has remained silent about China’s genocidal policies toward Uighurs but also passed a resolution last month claiming that “incessant China-bashing by the mainstream media” would lead to another “Cold War.” One PSC delegate even downplayed Hamas’s anti-Semitism, explaining that Hamas merely “wants to get Palestine back for the Palestinian people.”

Even within its supposed focus of “solidarity with the Palestinian people,” the union demonstrated a curious obsession with Israel. The PSC has expressed no concern about the fate of the thousands of Palestinian civilians killed in the Syrian civil war, including the hundreds who died in Syrian prisons. Nor has the PSC stood in solidarity with gay and lesbian Gazans or political prisoners executed by Hamas. Some “Palestinian people,” it seems, do not deserve “solidarity” from the CUNY academics.

The PSC’s new president, James Davis, described events in Gaza as a “a union issue, a PSC issue,” a “crisis that we as a union can do something about.” It might seem counterintuitive that complex security issues related to Israel (but no other foreign country) would be a “union issue” for professors in the United States.

A cynical explanation for any claimed connection between condemning Israel and union business might be that the resolution distracted from a tough stretch for the PSC. For nearly two years, New York refused to fund the paltry 2 percent raise that the PSC negotiated for its full-time faculty. During the pandemic, CUNY declined to rehire 3,000 part-time instructors who belonged to the union. The PSC’s longtime leader, Barbara Bowen, stepped down as activists for part-timers championed an illegal strike. In this year’s mayoral primary, amid internal dissension, the PSC backed Scott Stringer and Dianne Morales, only to remain silent as both became mired in scandal. PSC delegates seem far more interested in exercising their anti-Israel passions than doing the hard work to achieve better pay and working conditions for CUNY faculty.

For most in the PSC delegate assembly, however, a more tangible reason existed for why events Gaza constituted a “union issue”: someone, somewhere at CUNY is pro-Israel, and the PSC needed to stand up in opposition. Justifying the union’s action, BMCC professor Boyda Johnstone alleged that CUNY funded “Zionist” groups (she didn’t identify any). A graduate student delegate was even blunter: “CUNY is entangled with Israel in various ways, including investments and hiring teachers.” In this version of events, CUNY’s mere following of the law and fairly considering job applicants from Israel gives the union free rein to issue resolutions condemning Israeli policies.

In perhaps its most troubling passage, the resolution directs each PSC chapter chair to “facilitate discussions” on all CUNY campuses to “consider PSC support” of the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Celebrating the move, Rosa Squillacote, the PSC’s vice president for part-time employees, explained that “we as a union desperately need structured conversations to push ourselves and our members to confront this.” But why would professors—of all people—need “structured conversations” from anyone, much less a union, to guide their perspectives on foreign policy? Given the union’s power within CUNY, such conversations pose a particular threat to academic freedom. Untenured professors subject to one of these discussions might well see self-censorship as their wisest option.

The resolution’s extreme nature has generated some resistance even among CUNY faculty. The union chapter chair at York College stepped down in protest, and senior professors from several other colleges have expressed concern. But the union seems determined to go forward. “Leadership is often ‘ahead’ of membership,” retired professor Nancy Romer reassured her fellow delegates. “It is so important to have a calm discussion about Palestine, Israel and what our government’s and US labor’s response should be,” she added, without explaining how a transparently one-sided resolution from an academic union would facilitate that goal.

Before 2018, the PSC’s blithe dismissal of dissenting voices might have been understandable. After all, before Janus, even CUNY professors repulsed by the union’s anti-Zionism would still have seen a portion of their annual salary siphoned into the union coffers. But now, dissenting professors—at least those with tenure—have a way to send a message to the PSC (and to other academic unions that have approved similar resolutions). Annual dues range from several hundred to more than a thousand dollars. If even 1,000 full-time tenured professors withdrew from the union, the PSC would lose around 5 percent of its total budget. Since the union’s president has made clear that the resolution reflected “a union issue, a PSC issue,” remaining PSC members should harbor no illusions about what cause they’re supporting financially.

Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

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