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July 13: Israel Kugler and the Professional Staff Congress

July 13, 2013

baruchpicketline1973Labor leader Israel Kugler (third from left in the photo), who headed a strike of St. John’s University faculty for 18 months beginning in 1966, was born in Brooklyn on this date in 1917. Kugler earned a doctorate in sociology from New York University after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He became president of the United Federation of College Teachers and helped force the American Federation of Teachers to desegregate in the mid-1950s (which cost the union five percent of its membership, mostly in the South). The St. John’s strike was precipitated by the arbitrary firing of thirty-one faculty members, in violation of their academic freedom. Kugler twice challenged the university’s accreditation before the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and unsuccessfully sought an individual audience with Pope Paul VI, who had issued papal statements defending workers’ rights. The strike failed to achieve its goals, but it established the AFT as the preeminent union of higher education -- and Kugler went on to help organize teachers at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the CUNY system. A two-term president of the Workmen’s Circle, he was deeply involved in the Jewish Labor Committee, the Forward Association, and related Jewish socialist and liberal organizations until his death in 2007.

“Iz . . . believed in academic unionism when few others did. He argued that faculty and professional staff should be in one union to maximize their bargaining power. He believed that this union should be affiliated with the labor movement and should not only serve the needs and interests of its members through collective bargaining, but also work to achieve social justice in the nation at large.” —Irwin Yellowitz

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