Print / View Finding Aid as Single Page

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives logo

Guide to the Professional Staff Congress/City University of New York Records WAG.009

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2596

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Anna Neighbor, Jason Chappell and Gail Malmgreen, 2000-2001; Adam Schafenberg and Craig Savino, 2007; Alexandra Gomer, 2018.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 10, 2022
Description is in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Edited by Rachel Schimke for compliance with DACS and Tamiment Required Elements for Archival Description and to reflect the incorporation of nonprint and unprocessed materials. Edited by Heather Mulliner to include August 2016 accretion Edited by Heather Mulliner to include October 2016 accretion Edited by Alexandra Gomer to include September 2018 accretion. Edited by Nicole Greenhouse to reflect additional administrative information and added archived websites 2013 , October 2016 , November 2016 , September 2018 , May 2022

Historical/Biographical Note

The Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York (American Federation of Teachers, Local 2234) represents faculty and staff (librarians, laboratory technicians and others) in the public higher education system of New York City. The union negotiates a system-wide contract, administers grievance procedures, lobbies aggressively at both the city and state levels, and actively represents the interests of retired members.

The faculty and staff organizations at the City University of New York have had a long history, dating from the 1930s, when there were only four city colleges (Brooklyn, City, Hunter and Queens). Much of the early union work at the city colleges was done by the Legislative Conference (LC), founded in 1939 and led from 1944 by Professor Belle Zeller of Brooklyn College. The LC achieved statutory tenure in 1940 and secured some significant improvements in salaries and pensions; but it remained independent of organized labor and in many respects saw itself as a professional organization rather than a trade union. In the early 1960s, the Legislative Conference was challenged by the United Federation of College Teachers (UFCT), led by president Israel Kugler. The UFCT, originally the college teachers' local of the United Federation of Teachers, became an independent local of the American Federation of Teachers in 1963. Members of the UFCT wanted a union that would be more aggressive in pursuit of collective bargaining rights and that would be part of the AFL-CIO. In 1965-66 the UFCT won much positive publicity for its staunch defense of thirty-one faculty members of St. John's University who were dismissed without charges being brought against them. Although the St. John's "strike" was formally lost, UFCT picket lines made front-page news, and St. John's was censured by the American Association of University Professors.

In response to the challenge posed by its dynamic rival, the LC began to seek recognition as exclusive bargaining agent for CUNY faculty. The 1967 Taylor Law, granting public employees in New York State the right to choose a collective bargaining agent, heightened the competition for faculty allegiance, and paved the way for a referendum on the issue. In general senior faculty were inclined to support the LC, while the UFCT commanded widespread support among lecturers and adjuncts.

After several years of heated negotiations and campaigning which threatened to bankrupt the two organizations, a merger between the Legislative Congress and the United Federation of College Teachers was achieved in 1972. The Professional Staff Congress (PSC), under the leadership of president Belle Zeller and deputy president Israel Kugler, became one of the first unions of college teachers to negotiate a university-wide contract. This set the pattern for college-teacher unionism throughout the country.

The PSC defeated an attempt to impose tenure quotas in 1973, rallied public support for the CUNY system during the New York City fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s and fought off budget-cutting and "restructuring" proposals aimed at limiting the provision of public higher education. After the election of Irwin Polishook as president in 1976, the union won improvements in funding for community colleges, and benefit plans (including health coverage for retirees and adjuncts) were strengthened. Recurring fiscal crises and a political climate increasingly hostile to expenditure on public higher education, have regularly forced the union into dual role, defending the gains of the past while adjusting to a changing environment.

When the PSC was formed the City University was in the midst of a momentous transformation. An open admissions policy had been instituted in 1970 and all New York City high-school graduates now had access to CUNY's four-year colleges. Many CUNY faculty members embraced open admissions as a way for the University to fulfill its mission of educating all New Yorkers. However, the "Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge" (SEEK) Program that was supposed to provide the necessary remediation was never adequately funded, and this made it impossible to fulfill the promise of open admission.

Veteran PSC members saw dramatic changes in the City University during their working lives. Many of them who began their careers in the 1950s and 1960s remembered a university that was highly selective and, with free tuition, educated some of the brightest students in the City of New York. The 1970s, 1980s and 1990s saw an influx of students in need of remedial work, cut-backs resulting from New York's fiscal crisis, salaries that failed to keep up with those at comparable universities, substantial cuts in full-time faculty positions and a sharp increase in adjunct faculty. The years of retrenchment, however, also brought increasing ethnic, racial and religious diversity and pressure toward gender equity. In 1983 Professor Lilia Melani won a major lawsuit that forced the University to address the issues of discrimination against women in appointments, hiring, and tenure. During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s there were also steady increases in the numbers of African-American, Asian-American and Latino faculty members. This helped create role models for students from immigrant and minority backgrounds, who were coming to CUNY in increasing numbers.

In February 2000, Irwin Polishook retired. In the union electionof May 2000, an insurgent group, the New Caucus, defeated the caucus that had led the union since 1973. Barbara Bowen became President.


  • Irwin Yellowitz, Twenty-five Years of Progress: Professional Staff Congress/CUNY (New York: Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, [1997].
  • Grayson, Gerald H., "Professors Unite: A History of the Legislative Conference of City University of New York." Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1973.