Each year, more than a thousand students enroll at the Bronx Educational Opportunity Center (EOC), a CUNY center that provides job training, college preparation, college placement and more at no cost to low-income New Yorkers. But in recent years, Bronx EOC students, faculty and staff have studied and worked in severely deteriorating conditions.
A sinkhole grew in the parking lot for three years. The main entrance door and two emergency exit doors were difficult or impossible to open and shut. Offices and classrooms were sometimes so cold that occupants wore coats, hats and gloves all day. Black dust everywhere, broken and missing ceiling tiles, filthy walls in need of fresh paint, soiled carpets in need of cleaning, and occasional vermin sightings all contributed to a demoralizing atmosphere.
“You have to understand the students’ perspective,” said Frank Muñoz, the Bronx EOC’s PSC chapter chair. “This is a free program. Things are so dilapidated, it makes you say to yourself, ‘Since it’s free, why should I ask for anything more?’”
The PSC represents 14 faculty and professional staff at the Bronx EOC, which is housed in leased space in the Bathgate Industrial Park. Facilities upkeep has been a longtime problem and it has progressively worsened. With the EOC lease set to expire in two years and repeated individual complaints making no impact, Muñoz and many others were convinced that nothing would change until the EOC moved to a new location.
But he was inspired to try a collective approach after he saw a presentation at a union meeting last fall about another PSC chapter’s successful campaign to secure $30 million in capital funding to address chronic facilities issues. Bronx Community College Chapter Chair Sharon Persinger and health and safety activist Leslie deGiere described a joint student-faculty effort to document shameful and dangerous conditions at BCC. The campaign included writing postcards and lobbying City Council members in person to draw attention to the problems, including an enormous sinkhole on the BCC campus (see “Repairs Put Bronx CC ‘On the Right Track,’ ” Clarion, November 2013).
Following BCC’s example, Muñoz organized Bronx EOC members and worked together with members of AFSCME District Council 37, who also work at the EOC, to systematically document every critical maintenance need. Members of both unions contributed by documenting the issues within their respective departments. The two union chapters then jointly wrote to management last October 18, in a memo that described conditions. The memo reads as a catalog of neglect, detailing conditions such as the following:
The male bathroom by the main entrance has had a water leak since October 3, 2013, and no repairs have been made. The stalls in all of the bathrooms have no locks. They are disgustingly filthy, rusted and have been broken for years. The urinals and toilets are leaky and when flushed water sprays from the pipes. Several sinks are out of order with no running water, and the ones that do work spray water when the faucets are opened. The ceilings are missing tiles exposing the catwalks and fiberglass insulation. The floors have a constant smell of urine.
The joint union memo called the learning and working conditions of students, faculty and staff “unacceptable” and gave EOC management two weeks to respond.
Persinger and the Executive Committee of the BCC chapter then invited Muñoz to a labor-management meeting with the Bronx Community College administration on November 12. BCC has administrative responsibility for the Bronx EOC.
“It was really positive to work with another chapter and share resources,” Persinger said, “particularly because we’re dealing with the same management and facing the same kinds of issues.”
Repair work finally began later that week. Today, many of the long-neglected facilities issues have been corrected. All eight bathrooms have been completely renovated. The parking lot has been entirely regraded, although a final paving has been delayed by the winter weather. Indoor air quality has improved after the HVAC system was rebalanced and vent filters were replaced. Two additional custodians have been added to the staff to help with routine cleaning. More work remains to be done, but Muñoz says that PSC members at the Bronx EOC are proud of what has already been accomplished.
Power Of Unity
“It’s still a work in progress,” said David Smith, a CLT at the Bronx EOC. “But it’s like you can see a light at the end of the tunnel. It makes you feel like they heard our voices and things are going to keep getting better.”
“This just shows the power of unity,” Muñoz said. “With the two unions coming together, we voiced the opinion of the staff, students, visitors and the larger community. And we made an amazing difference.”
Jean Grassman, co-chair of the PSC Environmental Health & Safety Watchdogs, advised the Bronx EOC chapter throughout the process and visited the EOC facility on November 25 for a site inspection.
“There are nearly 300 buildings across the CUNY campuses, and many are in need of extensive repairs,” Grassman told Clarion, “The Bronx EOC chapter has shown again that it is possible to change the physical conditions at CUNY by working together and using the leverage of the union.”
If you have unsafe conditions on your campus, contact the Watchdogs at 212-354-1252 or firstname.lastname@example.org