Pushing CUNY on health and safety
Editor’s note: Jean Grassman, one of the union’s Environmental Health and Safety Watchdog coordinators since 2009, was honored as a 2022 NYSUT Higher Education Member of the Year for her health and safety work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (NYSUT is the PSC’s state-level affiliate.) A version of this reflection was set to a video honoring Grassman’s work. Below is an edited version of her statement as this year’s honoree.
I grew up in Wisconsin. I’m a farm kid, so I know how to milk a cow. I know how to drive a tractor. During the 1960s, there were milk strikes, where farmers would be asked to dump their milk. We had a herd of about 60 Holsteins. And my father did it. It was interesting, because while my father did it, none of the other farmers in the area did it. So it just fell flat. It was at that point I realized that if you want to make change, it has to be collective action.
I think the PSC is outstanding. It has been historically outstanding in supporting health and safety in the workplace. A few of our members were deemed essential members, so in the height of the pandemic, they were being asked to go back in. And it was really, truly frightening.
We were on the phone all the time. We were doing Zooms all the time, trying to establish what CUNY was doing. We wanted to know as union members, whether we would be protected and what changes would be needed in order for us to come back.
We really pushed to have a safe return. I remember the one Watchdog meeting, where I had to deliver the message, “Hey, folks, [COVID-19] is in the air. It’s really not being spread by hands and surfaces. It’s in the air, and that means we have to look at the ventilation. We have to find out from CUNY whether they’ve evaluated the ventilation.”
In some ways, that was a success because CUNY did look at the ventilation. The difference is that people won’t be getting sick. People won’t be feeling sleepy in class because the carbon dioxide levels are so high. It makes for a better workplace.
I do see a connection between my work as a unionist and being an environmental health scientist and an industrial hygienist. I really want to promote social justice and an end to racism and ableism, with a greater emphasis on having a society that’s oriented toward people’s needs rather than capital. I think really good unions tie themselves to the broader societal effort.
What we saw with the PSC is that members were really engaged.