Universities have long been a battleground for debates over Israel, but academics at the City University of New York are leveraging a new tool to make their voices heard: resigning from their union. Dozens of CUNY faculty and staff have moved to withdraw from the Professional Staff Congress after it passed a resolution last month condemning Israel.
Faculty outraged over the union’s statement, which referred to an Israeli “massacre” of Palestinians in May and called for consideration of a boycott against the country, reasoning that leaving the union will pressure its leadership to stop what they see as one-sided attacks on Israel.
“Their assertions sound as if they were taken from Hamas propaganda,” Eugene Chudnovsky, a physics professor at CUNY Graduate School, wrote in an email to union president James Davis after the resolution passed. “Do the Union leaders understand that the discussion of whether to demand the boycott of Israel and the withdrawal of U.S. military help … is equivalent to the discussion whether another Holocaust is justified?”
While the question of what criticism of Israel is legitimate and what crosses the line into an unfair attack on the Jewish state is nothing new in higher education, some CUNY professors now believe that threatening to leave the union — and making good on that threat — may prove to be an effective new tactic against a union with a penchant for weighing in on events from Colombia to Greece and India.
“Until now their approach was, ‘We control this entity and we can use it to endorse any kind of ideological crusade we want,’” KC Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College and longtime foe of the union, said of Davis and other union officials. “It will be much harder for them to do that if there’s a substantial withdrawal.”
So says the court
The ability for members to withdraw from the union, which represents roughly 30,000 faculty and staff, to leave the union and stop paying 1% of their salary in dues is relatively new. It’s the result of a 2018 Supreme Court decision known as Janus, that said government employees like the faculty and staff of CUNY can’t be forced to join and pay dues to the union that negotiates on their behalf.
That change transformed leaving the union from a purely symbolic statement — while you would no longer be a member, you still had to pay dues — to one that had the potential to hit the organization’s bottom line: a CUNY professor earning $100,000 currently pays about $1,000 to the union each year.
James Davis, the PSC’s president, said the movement to encourage members to leave the union over its position on Israel was exploiting “principled opposition to the resolution and sincere expressions of distress and disappointment from some of our members” to push a broader agenda.
“They want to defund the PSC and discourage other unions from taking positions of political import,” Davis said.
The organized effort to encourage members to withdraw could have an impact beyond the CUNY system, as a teachers union in San Francisco and Seattle voted to boycott Israel earlier this spring and educators in Los Angeles will consider a similar measure in September. And across the Hudson from CUNY, the Rutgers staff union released a statement last month that stopped short of calling for a full boycott of Israel but asked the American Federation of Teachers — the parent union that it shares with CUNY members — to divest from Israeli bonds and for an end to U.S. financial support to Israel.
While there has been internal debate at the other unions considering measures related to Israel, the campaign against the CUNY union — known as “PSCexit” — appears to be the most formal. It has a website with a dues calculator and a page highlighting other political resolutions passed by the union, and describing the process of withdrawing from the union. The creators of PSCexit appear to be anonymous and there was no response to an inquiry from the Forward sent through a form on its website.
The PSC declined to say exactly how many members have withdrawn since the “Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People” was approved on June in an 84-34 vote by the Delegate Assembly — the union’s legislative body made up of elected leadership from every campus. The resolution was a compromise between the international committee, which wanted to fully endorsed BDS — the movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians — and top union leaders who called for a more moderate approach.
But Davis confirmed that “dozens” had taken steps to begin the process. He said union leaders were following up with everyone who was considering resigning to hear their concerns and encourage them to remain members with a voice in union operations.
(The human resources departments of several CUNY campuses, which withdraw union fees from staff paychecks, told the Forward that they could not say how many people had stopped paying dues until early August.)
The role of a union
Marc Edelman, a law professor at Baruch College, left the union in early July. Edelman said he understood the value of the union and had mixed feelings about the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which made his withdrawal possible. But he called the CUNY union’s Israel resolution “bizarre” and far beyond what he saw as the role of a union.
“It is nearly impossible from my perspective to come up with any nexus between the union’s resolution and any bonafide union function,” Edelman said. “This creates the extreme example that would support Janus and support leaving the union.”
The resolution itself referred to Israel as a “settler colonial state” and resolved to “condemn the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state.” It also called for the union’s local chapters to “consider PSC support” for the BDS movement and report back on those discussions this winter. To date, the union has not endorsed BDS, and in 2007 it came out in opposition to an academic boycott of Israel.
Davis, the union president, said he understands concerns from members that weighing in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — regardless of the side it takes — is a distraction from the union’s core functions. But he pointed to two decades of political activity by the organization, spanning local New York City and state politics to expressions of support for workers and other populations around the world.
“We’ve always been the kind of union that tries to build solidarity with all kinds of coalitions and groups and communities,” Davis said, noting CUNY’s diverse faculty and student body. “It’s never been an: either you get better working conditions and raises for our members or you become a political union. We’ve always done both and been successful at that.”
Impact remains uncertain
While the Janus decision means that members who disagree with the PSC’s positions on Israel and other contentious political issues can withdraw their financial support while continuing to receive union benefits, organized labor experts say that won’t necessarily make the CUNY union — or any other — less likely to speak out about politics.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell, said that she had not seen evidence that public unions were shying away from political battles out of fear that a minority of their membership might stop paying dues.
“If they do that then the right has won,” Bronfenbrenner said, referring to conservative opponents of organized labor. “Just like any campaign, if you let the other side determine your campaign then the other side has won.”
CUNY faculty like Edelman, who has represented unions in private practice, said his decision to resign came from a belief that the union had inappropriately singled out Israel for condemnation and questions over whether the action was even legal, given an executive order by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo barred state institutions like CUNY from doing business with entities that backed the BDS movement.
“I always have been very pro-union and had always happily paid the dues without focusing on the minutiae,” Edelman said. “But the union should have recognized that if they were going to move in the direction of something so controversial as supporting BDS, certain members were going to leave.”