Monday, July 9, 2012

A Message from the NEA Contingent Faculty Caucus

by Judy Olson, reposted from the Contingent Academics Mailing List and detailing the process by which the Contingent Faculty Caucus (CFC) brought a concrete action to help contingent faculty across the country gain access to unemployment benefits more easily and that representatives across the entire education spectrum approved by unanimous voice vote. Usually I wish for pictures; this time it would be an audio of the voice vote. Now read the whole thing. It's worth it.  Judy explains,

Thursday was the last day of the National Education Association's Representative Assembly (RA). It was a successful RA for the Contingent Faculty Caucus; we are building power and visibility and have achieved an important victory for contingent faculty.

The NEA is the largest education union in the country, with almost 3 million members, the vast majority in K-12. On one hand, NEA is big and powerful; on the other, higher ed is a tiny minority trying to be heard amid all the noise, and contingent faculty are a weak minority within that minority. Our challenge is that we must constantly educate our K-12 colleagues about our issues; they have no idea what our working conditions are or that we constitute a significant majority of higher ed's teaching workforce.

The RA is a parliamentary body that meets once a year to direct the NEA. It is the most purely democratic way ordinary members can influence the organization. This year there were about 9,000 delegates—voting by voice vote! It is the largest parliamentary body in the world. The people voting are kindergarten teachers, high school science teachers, school custodians, college admissions officers, bus drivers. They come from Kansas, New York, Hawaii, rural Georgia—I could go on and on, but I want you to imagine the diversity and sheer size of the thing.

This is NOT the universe in which most readers of this list operate, where there is often a sense of oppression and powerlessness in relation to those in tenure lines. Moving our issues isn't a question of convincing tenured faculty. It's a question of convincing 4th-grade teachers and custodians and school counselors. There is no monolithic will operating here; what happens at the RA happens because thousands of people, not a handful of people, have been moved. I really believe that those thousands of people do not have cynical agendas. Most of them go because they love democracy, and most vote on the basis of what they think is right. 

I know that the experiences of many people on this list have led them quite understandably to a certain jadedness, but if you were to have lunch with some of the attendees of the pre-RA Joint Conference on Women and Minorities, for instance, and talk to some of the many people attending who are not like us, I believe you too would feel the hope that I feel as I write to you today.

Very few of those 9,000 have any idea what a "contingent faculty" member is. We wear ribbons that say "Contingent Faculty Caucus"; that gives us an opportunity to explain to everyone who asks (and we try to get them to ask).

What people do at the RA is vote. They vote on several kinds of things, including Resolutions (statements of principle or belief), Legislation, and New Business Items (NBIs). NBIs are specific, concrete actions the NEA is being asked to take within a finite amount of time.

This year, the CFC moved an NBI designed to help contingent faculty across the country gain access to unemployment benefits more easily.'

A number of veteran contingent faculty activists who have been part of the struggle for unemployment benefits for a long time participated in crafting a strategy that we are hoping might work. We are hoping that the Department of Labor (DOL) might be persuaded to issue a letter of clarification instructing the States that contingent faculty lack "reasonable assurance" of work and are therefore eligible to collect unemployment benefits. Although such a directive would be non-binding, we are hoping it would be helpful for the struggles that would then need to continue on a state-by-state basis. As many of you know, in California our right to collect benefits is already established by a judicial decision called Cervisi.

The national organization advocating for contingent faculty, New Faculty Majority (NFM), has been indispensable in moving this strategy along. The conversations that kicked off this effort happened under the auspices of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE). Through CFHE and facilitated significantly and materially by NFM (with so much overlap sometimes it's hard to tell which piece is where), a small group including some of the people who nationally have the most expertise in contingent faculty unemployment benefits created our DOL strategy. Joe Berry and Beverly Stewart, two of the co-authors of the pamphlet Access to Unemployment Insurance Benefits for Contingent Faculty, were on the team, as was Jonathan Karpf, Lecturer Vice President of the California Faculty Association.

I would never have known how to do any of this, but the NFM/CFHE team put resources in my hands that allowed me to draft, with considerable input from the team, something called an Unemployment Insurance Program Letter (UIPL), as an example of what we want the DOL to issue.

Now that we know very specifically what we want them to do, we need to get our example UIPL into the DOL's hands and move them to actually issue it. We are hoping the influence of several organizations can be brought to bear on this project: AFT, AAUP, CFHE, NFM—and—the largest, most powerful of the organizations—the NEA.

As Chair of the NEA Contingent Faculty Caucus, it was now my task to direct an effort to get the NEA to ask the DOL to issue our UIPL. (don't you love the alphabet soup? Sorry, never thought I'd live in such a world of acronyms). Although I want to say quickly, I feel I did not so much lead this effort as surf it. This project is being accomplished by many, many talented, passionate, knowledgeable people working together, and I am honored and humbled that these people trusted me with the responsibility to carry out my piece of this work.

I had never written an NBI before, never moved one at the RA, never before spoken to the Assembly (a speech to more than 10,000 people!). I have been to a small number of previous RAs and watched my friends try to pass NBIs and fail more often than succeed. I was daunted by the difficulty. We did not know if this would pass. We would need to communicate with an awful lot of people who had never heard of our issues before.

Theresa Montaño of the California Faculty Association, the CTA Board Member for Higher Education (CTA is the California Teachers' Association, the CA NEA affiliate), guided me through the process. Her help was indispensable in many ways. She helped me word our NBI in a way that would make it more likely to pass while allowing us to accomplish exactly what we were trying to do. Theresa is a full professor (just promoted—congratulations, Theresa, if you see this!) at Cal State Northridge, and stalwart ally.

Once we had submitted our NBI, we had to devise a strategy to get it to pass. We gathered endorsements, lined up speakers, talked to states. Almost all the members of the CFC who attended this RA were from Illinois and California, so we had to reach out to the many, many states whose delegates would have no idea what this issue was about.

I exacerbated the problem by failing to understand in time how to write the NBI and Rationale in such a way as to explain to people who would have only that language to go by. I re-wrote the Rationale after submitting the NBI, hoping to correct the problem, only to learn that the Rationale part of an NBI can't be modified after submission. We had to go with the bad version.

But in the end everything sailed through. We were awash with well-wishers and support. Not one of us ever encountered a single objection, a single argument against, as we worked to garner support. The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) voted overwhelmingly to endorse, with no substantive objection.

Our NBI came up on the day Joe Biden spoke to the Assembly, which disrupted normal activities and prevented State affiliates from going through their normal processes. If the California Caucus had voted for a "Support" position, we would have had the benefit of the State Caucus machine for getting an NBI through (in the language of the RA, CA would have run a floor strategy for us). I would have been able to move the NBI "speaking for the delegation" and I would have had a 3-minute speech. 

But we didn't get a chance to vote. In that situation, the leaders of the delegation decide whether to support—and the California leaders chose a "Support" position, which meant we didn't get their machine and the 3 minutes, but we did get a recommendation that Californians—more than a tenth of the whole, remember—vote for it. And I'd planned to speak for 2 minutes anyway.

Beverly Stewart (outgoing NCHE Executive Committee member), Loretta Ragsdell (incoming NCHE EC member), Frank Brooks (Committee on Membership member) and Vivian Zimmerman (Illinois Higher Ed Council Member), all contingent faculty and CFC members from Illinois, ran around the Assembly floor lining up speakers and support from key people in various states—I was in awe of the work they did that morning. 

Among those who agreed to speak in favor of our NBI were Ron Norton Reel, President of the California Community College Association and a tenured professor at Mt. San Antonio College; Len Paolillo of Massachusetts, former NEA Executive Board member; Katherine Leisek of Florida, NEA Director At-Large; and Roger Davis of Nebraska, formerly of the Committee on Membership. Beverly, Frank and Loretta also stood at the mic's ready to speak. We lined up mic-yielders—people who agree if called on to yield the mic to a designated speaker. Altogether, we had supporters ready to speak at at least 30 mic's, out of about 40 or so total.

After I moved the NBI and spoke for it, Tom Auxter, President of United Faculty of Florida, was called on to speak. It was no accident that he was first; a seasoned RA veteran, he knew when to submit his slip requesting to speak so he would be called first. And it was a good thing for us, because he spoke eloquently and passionately, asking members to put themselves in our places. 
"Imagine that more than two-thirds of you could be dismissed without due process. "Imagine that your classes could still be canceled even after they've met." 
(That might not be exactly what he said; I was in a fugue state at the time, but it was something like that.)

At the RA, speakers for and against a motion speak alternately, and if all speakers are on one side, debate is closed. After Tom spoke, we got beautiful news: there were no speakers at all against our NBI. We never encountered a smidgen of opposition. I felt at that point I knew how the vote would go. 9,000 people voting thunderingly for your motion by voice vote—that's a good feeling. I'll admit I started dancing before I even heard the weak opposition vote, before NEA President Dennis Van Roekel declared that the NBI had passed.

This was the fate of precious few NBI's at this RA. Generally there is opposition, amendments, amendments of amendments, and an abuse of "object to consideration" that would make you feel truly dismayed. Most votes have to be done twice at least because they're too close to call the first time. Many of them, maybe most, call for "division," which means people stand and wave their papers. But not ours. The 9,000 delegates at this NEA RA showed their solidarity with their contingent brothers and sisters in higher ed. We were supported by the kindergarten teachers and the custodians, the high school science teachers and the tenured college professors alike.

Only a few states had recommended positions for their members because of the disruption caused by Biden's visit. Only one state took an "Oppose" position: Wisconsin. So I went to Wisconsin to find out why. (I love that about the RA; states sit together so if you want to talk to someone in Florida, you say, "I'm going to Florida.") They said it was because they didn't understand it—my badly written "Rationale" was the culprit—and not the least bit any ill will on their part toward us—quite the contrary. Once they did understand it, they wished us well. So I have learned a few things about writing an NBI.

The bad Rationale won't hurt us, because it isn't really part of the NBI, and we won anyway. So without further ado, here's the text of the NBI:
NEA will collaborate with the NEA Contingent Faculty Caucus to request that the Department of Labor (DOL) issue an Employment and Training Administration Advisory, specifically an Unemployment Insurance Program Letter (UIPL), clarifying that contingent faculty members of colleges and universities lack "Reasonable Assurance" of employment as it is discussed in Section 3304(a)(6)(A) of the Federal Unemployment Tax Act. Recommended language will be provided by the Contingent Faculty Caucus for NEA to ask the Department of Labor to use in the Unemployment Insurance Program Letter.
NEA estimated that the cost of this NBI beyond what's already budgeted would be $2760, a modest amount—but again, the Assembly tends to balk at items with costs attached, so this is still another reason for us all to be proud of the accomplishment of the still-fledgling (but wing-spreading!) CFC and solidarity of the NEA RA delegates, K-12 and higher-ed alike.

NEA leaders are already planning a meeting with the DOL, and I'm talking with staff and leaders involved in planning that meeting, and they have already been given the text of the recommended UIPL that the NFM/CFHE team drafted. I will be kept in the loop, and I'll keep you posted on the progress of this project.
Now we want to get AAUP and AFT on board as well!

I am optimistic about our chances of succeeding with the DOL. If we do, we will be a little bit closer to extending Cervisi to the rest of the country so that people with radically unstable jobs can claim the benefits that rightfully belong to them.
I'm encouraged by this victory, which is an impressive testament to the power of solidarity. I apologize for failing to mention all the people who worked heroically to make this happen; there were so many. I hope many more can learn from this experience so we can move forward to end contingency altogether and restore the promise of universal access to free quality public higher education.

In solidarity,
Judy Olson

Chair, NEA Contingent Faculty Caucus
Chair, CTA Contingent Faculty Caucus
Secretary, New Faculty Majority and New Faculty Majority Foundation Boards
Lecturer Vice President, CFA-LA
Lecturer, English, Cal State LA

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