Conor Tomás Reed
A crisis is brewing at the CUNY Television headquarters at the Graduate Center. After a series of scandals were uncovered by its workers over the last few years — improper paychecks for hours worked, racist and sexist discrimination in hiring and promotions, and the creeping privatization of the 32-year old educational access station — a sudden blowback was the illegal firing this summer of the long-time CUNY and NYC organizer Marisa Holmes from her CUNY TV job. As a result, the new city-wide campaign Resist CUNY TV, an ad-hoc group of District Council (DC) 37 and Professional Staff Congress (PSC) members, community organizers, and independent media advocates, has been launched to reclaim not only Holmes’ job, but the soul of independent media at CUNY TV and beyond.
Resistance and Retaliation
Holmes began working at CUNY TV in Fall 2013 as a Broadcast Associate with a regular 32 hours/week shift. Holmes co-produced Canapé, a French-speaking cultural show with an anti-colonial lens. The Emmy-nominated show featured wide-ranging short documentaries, from Tunisian rappers standing up to dictatorship, and refugees searching for better lives in Europe, to a segment on J’Ouvert, the Brooklyn street carnival celebrating anti-slavery and anti-colonial uprisings. Holmes produced, shot, and edited video content for the show’s television and web distribution.
While working on Canapé, Holmes was faced with the realities of her own labor situation at CUNY TV. In summer 2015, then-CUNY TV Director Bob Isaacson informed the station that sweeping budget cuts and layoffs were forthcoming, in violation of the workers’ union collective bargaining rights. Holmes and co-workers agreed that they couldn’t create political content and not address the structure of CUNY TV, so they began to speak out and organize. A rapid rank-and-file pressure campaign urged DC 37 to file a cease-and-desist letter within 24 hours, thus halting the layoffs.
In response to the cease-and-desist, Isaacson cut all of the PSC lines, which negatively affected 57 people (about half the CUNY TV staff), resulting in a 30-40% pay reduction for some. This prompted union members to look into how they were getting paid. Holmes explains, “we discovered that most people had been getting paid on separate lines for the same work. This effectively meant that people on part-time lines were doing full-time work, but not being compensated properly or having the full benefits accorded to a full-time employee, while those on full-time lines were being paid extra for extra hours worked, but at regular hourly rates instead of overtime. Basically, CUNY TV was getting around paying out benefits and overtime, by offering some staff additional PSC lines.”
CUNY TV workers urgently held meetings to restore these hours, sending petitions and letters to Human Resources and CUNY TV management. DC 37 filed an improper practice suit, and in summer 2016, they won. Holmes recalls, “we stopped the layoffs and cuts to hours by building a cross-union strategy between DC 37 and the PSC that exposed the mismanagement and bad labor practices at the station.” Through these organizing efforts, dozens of CUNY TV workers received increases to their base pay, changes of title, expansion of benefits, and support for pay equity. DC 37 was so impressed by these efforts that they featured Holmes on the cover of their newspaper, the Public Employee Press.
The CUNY TV settlement victory was short-lived. Holmes was suddenly informed that Canapé, was to be canceled, and she was effectively demoted from senior producer/editor to associate producer. Meanwhile, as DC 37 and the PSC simultaneously negotiated contract demands with a CUNY administration that insisted there was no money for adjunct faculty pay equity (while raising tuition fees and their own salaries), City College of New York was rocked with a financial corruption scandal and federal investigation involving a $600,000 City College Foundation fund that had been diverted to the college president’s personal expenses. CUNY’s former Vice President and behind-the-scenes chief operator, Jay Hershenson, and CUNY TV’s former Director, Isaacson (who Hershenson had appointed to run CUNY TV), were suddenly implicated. The CUNY TV Foundation, which they treated as a slush fund for pet projects and personal favors, also came under scrutiny. By the end of 2016, Hershenson quietly stepped down as CUNY VP and was relocated to the Queens College administration. Shortly thereafter, Isaacson announced his retirement and his close CUNY TV affiliates also relocated elsewhere.
From this moment, CUNY’s Deputy Vice Chancellor for Operations, Burton Sacks, took over Hershenson’s old position and oversaw the transition at CUNY TV. Gail Yancosek, a former DC 37 union member and beneficiary of the workers’ settlement who also runs a consulting firm, was appointed by Sacks to be the new CUNY TV Interim Director. Holmes explains, “they have made sweeping changes in the transition, which include appointing all the people from Gail’s consulting company to management positions.” Yancosek was accompanied by a new team of Human Resources and financial officers who, under the guise of cleaning up financial corruption, targeted Holmes and co-workers who had drawn attention to it. In this new management position, with full knowledge of Holmes’ union activity, Yancosek worked with Sacks and CUNY Central’s Human Resources Director Sonia Pearson to abruptly fire Holmes in June 2017 without notice or cause for termination. Since then, Yancosek has overseen the station’s further privatization and crackdown on workplace dissent, in part by closely surveilling workers, seizing their laptops to inspect data, and threatening the TV shows of those who had spoken out.
Canaries in the Coal Mine
As Holmes is the first to admit, this campaign at CUNY TV is being fought in a broader context that exceeds her specific situation, however precarious it is. Across NYC, several incidents have recently emerged where independent media women workers at Paper Tiger, the A.J. Muste Institute, and StoryCorps are being harassed and fired for labor organizing. With the Village Voice and Daily News also shutting down print editions and being sold to a conglomerate (respectively), we’re seeing that media workers and platforms are generally being targeted right now. Together with the situation at CUNY TV, these attacks on public broadcasting are “canaries in the coal mine” of public sector attacks that may only worsen in a wider assault on unions by government and business interests.
To support Holmes over the summer, the Resist CUNY TV campaign held three solidarity rallies (one in which we marched from the Graduate Center to CUNY’s headquarters), and we launched a petition and phone/email blast actions to Burton Sacks and Sonia Pearson. CUNY management has repeatedly ignored DC 37 and PSC leaders’ requests to meet with them about Holmes’ situation. Holmes has now filed a retaliation claim with the NY State Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to argue the following:
She was doing protected union activity on the job, such as organizing discussions and meetings between unions, signing people up to be members, going to union actions, initiating claims, going to delegate meetings etc. etc. which she would always do in her capacity as a DC 37 member (while wearing the union’s green hat, no less).
Management was aware she was organizing on the job: The current director Yancosek was on all the email threads, and was a beneficiary of the settlement the union won. HR also received petitions and letters from Holmes and co-workers, so CUNY TV and CUNY Central Offices knew of her union-protected efforts.
There was nexus between the organizing and the retaliatory action: i.e. the same summer that they won the hours settlement dispute and got a new DC 37 contract, Canapé was canceled and Holmes was demoted, and then, a year later, fired.
The first of several PERB hearings happened on September 12, despite the reluctance of the CUNY administration. Reflected in the claim are Holmes’ demands:
Bring the show Canapé back on the air
Reinstate Marisa Holmes
Cover retroactive pay for Holmes’ time away from the job
Here at the Graduate Center, students, faculty, and staff regularly voice the need for cross-union solidarity with workplace concerns, and for single grievances to connect to larger struggles. The fight to re-hire Holmes could have wider repercussions for DC37 and PSC members (whose contracts expire this November) against a Graduate Center and CUNY administration whose record on labor relations is already objectionable. If this move is tolerated, it sets a precedent for how CUNY can threaten and fire those who speak out. On a personal note, I’m saddened that the consistent radical presence of my friend and comrade in the building could so easily be disappeared.
With Resist CUNY TV, I urge readers to join the campaign to re-hire Marisa Holmes, as we strive to reclaim the station for critical independent voices. In her words, “CUNY TV has the capacity to be a critical and engaged platform for communities across New York City. We have a choice between the path toward privatization and a media for the people.” This battle is being fought in the courtroom, in our campus building, and in the streets. CUNY is a place for radical discourse, but it must also be a place for action. To challenge the nepotistic political structure of CUNY (and its media apparatus) entails building a militant rank-and-file movement across and beyond our unions as we confront management’s attacks upon them. We need to carry onward the work that Marisa Holmes has always been doing, as we support her in this critical moment.
*What you can do to help*
Contact these administrators to demand that Marisa Holmes be re-hired at CUNY TV:
Burton Sacks, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Operations: 646-664-2853
Sonia Pearson, Executive Director and Labor Designee of Human Resources: 646-664-3264
2. Sign the petition:
3. Follow updates at: