April 2011
March 18, 2011

A champion for workplace safety

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue presents Ben Chitty, a member of the Professional Staff Congress, with the union's Unsung Hero award. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

As an official health and safety "watchdog" for the Professional Staff Congress, library systems officer Ben Chitty knows a lot can be accomplished in a pack.

With constant budget cuts to the City University of New York, properties were not being well maintained, and health and safety problems loomed. When Chitty discovered at least 19 other unions were represented at Queens College, he invited them to go on watch together.

That was five years and many projects ago, including the headline-making initiative to have CUNY investigated for not having a state-mandated workplace violence prevention plan.

For his activism, Chitty was honored with the NYSUT "Unsung Hero" award in March. It is presented every two years.

"NYSUT established the Unsung Hero award in 2009 to honor unionists who identify problems; institute green initiatives; help their staff, school and community; and advocate for health and safety," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president, whose office oversees health and safety issues. "Ben Chitty exemplifies all that is good, and necessary, in being just such an advocate."

After a retired professor at SUNY Binghamton was shot and killed on a campus that did not have a state-mandated workplace violence prevention program in place, Chitty was motivated to look into CUNY's practices. He later filed a complaint on his union's behalf with the Public Employees Safety and Health bureau last July.

"During the PESH investigation of my complaint in early September, the college admitted there was no program in place," Chitty said. CUNY argued that since the university was in the process of implementing a program, all was well. But when there was no sign of progress by January, PESH issued violations.

Chitty has come to know that the existence of laws, regulations or mandates does not guarantee enforcement — and that's why activism is necessary. Problems are often ignored, he said. Sometimes administrators do not want to spend the time or money necessary to clean up a problem; sometimes they have a lack of responsibility; or sometimes they choose not to know about a hazard because knowledge can mean liability, he explained.

Watching out for health and safety has become more necessary since CUNY has steadily lost funding from the state and city. In the past three years, the university system has lost $205 million in state support alone. Another $95.1 million would be lost this year under the current executive budget proposal.

Cutting maintenance is a quick fix to save money. "Physical plant management ... becomes what you might call 'management by crisis.' You wait for the drain to stop up, or the compressor to fail, or the wall to fall down, before you even begin to think about repairing or replacing it. You can save lots of money that way for quite some time," said Chitty.

The first job of his Queens College Unions Joint Committee for Quality of Work was to get what Chitty calls "an eruption of mold" on a bathroom wall contained, cleaned and removed. Mold can be extremely hazardous, aggravating respiratory and central nervous systems.

Chitty's group includes unionists from AFSCME District Council 37, Teamsters Local 237, Plumbers Local 1, Painters Local 1969, Steamfitters Local 638, New York City Council of Carpenters, Electrical Workers Local 3 and Stationary Engineers Local 30.

"When you get together with the folks who spend 40 or 50 hours a week on campus, who have to keep the place open and clean, who have to fix whatever breaks, you find out what the problems are," Chitty said. This cross-union communication gets results by "making common cause with each other."