An activist reflects on decades of resistance
Arthur Chitty, sometimes known as Ben Chitty, a higher education associate in the Queens College Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library, is known as the go-to person when it comes to health and safety activism on campus. In 2011 he was awarded an “Unsung Hero” award from the PSC’s statewide affiliate, the New York State United Teachers for “his work in creating and maintaining an ongoing Quality of Work Life group at Queens with representatives from all unions on the campus.”
While officially a member of the union’s HEO chapter, he is the ad hoc representative for health and safety at Queens, known for championing the concerns of everyone from PSC faculty members to custodial assistants in DC37.
But that is far from his whole story. He served in the US Navy during the Vietnam War, and returned an anti-war activist. Chitty is also a medieval literature scholar but turned his focus elsewhere and became the coauthor of an influential book about the American labor movement.
In part of an ongoing series of interviews with PSC activists, Clarion spoke to Chitty about his life and advocacy work.
Clarion: Tell us about your journey from studying medieval literature to writing about the American labor movement.
Chitty: The path was torturous. I went into medieval studies in college, mostly from dismay with how events were going in the US and in the world; I thought I might learn how this happened if I went far enough back in history to study pre-capitalist society. But I ended up abandoning medieval literature for two reasons: the prospects for academic employment in the mid-1970s were pretty grim, and I thought that studying medieval texts was pretty close to impossible without access to the documents themselves.
Writing about the American labor movement was not really my choice: my wife studied labor history in graduate school and had just published her dissertation; the general history of labor in the US had been published in the late 1960s. Her dissertation director was invited to write a new general history; he suggested that she write it, and she asked me to help her. The result was From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend, cowritten with Priscilla Murolo and with illustrations by Joe Sacco.
You served in Vietnam. How did you end up serving, and what motivated you to later oppose the war?
Like every boy my age, I expected to be drafted. I enlisted instead in the Navy, which was something of a family tradition. I did not expect to go to Vietnam, but by the time I finished advanced training (in electronics), pretty much everyone went. We were sent off to defend democracy and fight communism, and in my first deployment (1966-7), I thought we were winning.
By my second deployment in 1968, it was a different war. The Tet Offensive had pretty much proved that the US was not going to win, and the assassinations first of Dr. King and then of Robert Kennedy showed that whatever was wrong with the war was also wrong with the country.
While I was home on terminal leave awaiting discharge in August 1969, I went to check out the local American Legion Hall. I recognized the guy behind the bar – an older Navy vet – and asked for a beer. He didn’t recognize me but said, “I can’t serve you, you’re not a veteran.” I replied, “Well, actually I am.” He half-smiled and said, “Yeah, what war?” “Vietnam,” I replied. “Well,” he said, “you lost your war, didn’t you, boy?” And he was a patriot. In fact the only contemporary photographic evidence known to me of someone actually spitting on a Vietnam veteran is from the 1970 Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) march to Valley Forge. The spitter wore a VFW garrison cap. He must have been a patriot, too.
I became active in the anti-war movement as soon as I enrolled in college, right after I was discharged. I joined VVAW and counseled young men about getting out of the draft. I thought that while this might not shorten the war, it would certainly at least keep some people from going into it.
When you came to CUNY, what inspired you to become active in the PSC?
I was first hired at Queens College in 1984 as an assistant professor in the library. Because I had come from a job where I had been president of an AFSCME local, the PSC chapter recruited me to start training as a grievance counselor. But, after a year or so, I moved to an HEO line, and, since there wasn’t much local union activity among HEOs, I stopped working with the union. The next time I paid much attention to the union was when I went to a HEO chapter meeting for the first time, after CUNY’s declaration of fiscal exigency in 1994-5.
Then PSC President Irwin Polishook came to the meeting to tell us that he would not oppose HEO layoffs because the union had to focus on defending tenured professors, its core constituency. That squelched any interest I had in the union. I later looked for ways to get involved again. I volunteered to go onto the Welfare Fund Advisory Council and to work on health and safety issues as a PSC watchdog.
What are some of the health and safety issues you have worked on at Queens?
The first big issue for the joint committee was mold remediation, and, because of frequent leaks, mold remains a perennial problem. Asbestos abatement, toxic chemical releases, Legionella in cooling tower water, inadequate lighting, buckled sidewalks – a nearly endless list of problems common to most large institutions of a certain age. Many health and safety problems can be traced back to inadequate maintenance and to poor or corrupt supervision of construction and renovation projects. Perhaps the most common and difficult issues have to do with ventilation.
With all that in mind, what do you see as a path forward for organized labor in the age of Trump and Janus?
Public employee unions have to assert themselves as proponents of the common good. Organized labor has to cultivate grassroots activism and practice militant solidarity.