Friday, April 25, 2014

Chicago @LaborNotes Conference


@MMStrikesBack reflects on the #ContingentFaculty Session

Late at night on April 3rd, I found out through a conversation with a friend that the 2014 Labor Notes Conference was starting the following day, April 4-6 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, near Chicago O’Hare. Joe Berry would be leading a session for contingent faculty and labor organizers from 2:00-5:00 pm. My friend said we could go for free as long as we emailed Mr. Berry. As I had just finished reading his book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education, I felt it was fate itself that had given me the opportunity to hear him speak, and I emailed him to ask if I could attend. Berry wrote back right away and said that he would be expecting me tomorrow at the session.


I arrived late because I was parked in a lot that was very far from the hotel, and another late arriver and I could not figure out how to get over to the actual meeting.

It was quite funny, really, both of us trying to climb over a wall of sorts, with a steep incline, but he was very friendly and cheered me up.

At one point, the man said, “Well, you're a very pessimistic type of person, aren't you?”

And I said, “Well, I'm an adjunct. I've been through a lot recently.”

Anyway, when we got there I couldn't find the workshop, and the people who ran it were not happy I hadn't registered, but one woman in a maroon sweater showed me where the room was. Because I didn't have a program, though, I didn't even know the title of the session. But I knew I was looking for Joe Berry who had changed my life with his book. I told her about it, and that was enough information for her to help me find the room.


Being an instructor at a city state university, I had recently become involved with efforts of adjuncts reading Joe Berry’s book over the radio. Through that experience, I had reached out to another instructor at a union meeting who had spoken about being frustrated by the union lack of support: they did not stand behind raises for instructors in the new contract. When I finally got up my nerve to email him, he wanted my phone number and called me back right away. I told him about the book.  He explained that he was a math instructor and had figured out there were exactly 365 instructors at our university. So he came up with the slogan, “We are the 365.That means we are exactly 70% of the faculty at the university.” I sent him what I thought were a thousand links to articles about organizing efforts of non-tenured full and part time faculty. He emailed me back in a flash.

The math instructor then just asked me point blank. What did I think Joe Berry would say we should do to help instructors get better working conditions and get the union to listen to us? I told him that we needed to organize; we needed to get together as a group to find out what our needs were. And then what we most needed was to find a way to change the culture and working conditions at the university. So we organized a flier, which we printed in color —and paid for ourselves— and we’ve been going around in person talking to other instructors door-to-door ever since.

This is why I came to this conference. I wanted to find out more. I wanted to make a difference.

During the first part of the session, I was trying to get internet access and missed writing down any notes while messing with technology. Being a 55 year-old professor, I am not that savvy with technology but I do my best. What were my overall impressions from the first part of the meeting?

Joe Berry was very welcoming. He wanted folks to introduce themselves, letting us know what they were doing for contingent faculty. I guess what I found most remarkable about this was the sheer vastness of the geographical area represented in a very small room. California, Washington, Oregon, Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Texas, Michigan, New Jersey: the list just kept getting longer and longer. And it was a mixed group. Some were contingent faculty, like me, who were trying to learn more about organizing; many were union organizers; some were adjuncts turned into full time organizers; and there were even a few tenured faculty who had helped with organizational efforts to unionize adjuncts at their universities.

I was also struck by the diversity of age and race. There were some very young organizers who obviously had just started working for unions right out of college, and some people much older than me who had taught, organized, retired, and then gone back to adjuncting and organizing.  It made me realize that my path from teacher to organizer was really not that unusual. What seemed unusual to me was how much they knew and how hard they had been working. The energy in the room was intense.  A representative from Rutgers was full of excellent news about winning three year contracts for contingent faculty in their last contract, while there were others from smaller schools who spoke about how their adjuncts had recently voted to become unionized, and one in particular who was announcing a strike that was set in the coming week; he was asking for solidarity.

I was finally home. A couple of times I spoke up, mostly with questions, and not one person dismissed me or moved on quickly, as if my queries were incomprehensible or just plain moronic. Here were people willing to make eye contact. Every meeting I had ever been to at my university —as a member of the Faculty Senate and University Advisory Council Working Group— I had felt invisible. Not here! I was completely mesmerized by what every individual had to say. It was almost as if I were inside my own body for once. It was hard to explain, but I felt more alive in that room than I had in decades. The meeting was three hours long but it felt as if only five minutes had passed.

There was much concern with how adjuncts were always at the mercy of student evaluations, how this affected instruction in the classroom, and how it raised the stress level of contingent faculty on a day-to-day basis.

My friend next to me whispered, “Well, my students can always fire me.”

One middle-aged woman from Minnesota stood up and said that they modeled their evaluations of contingent faculty on Tenured Portfolios, where they used peer committees. They realized they could not base an evaluation of adjuncts on student evaluations alone. Instead, they based evaluations on observations of teaching, hoping that professors to be observed should receive proper notice, as well as letters of recommendation from students and other colleagues. Lastly, published articles and projects that could be documented in the academic world in the past year would help them in their review.

Joe Berry, who dominated the room, responded to everyone’s concerns after letting them talk about varying strategies. But it was interesting —one of the things he mentioned about seniority— that people talked about it as if it were just one thing, per class, per previous load, etc. But he mentioned that there were so few seniority clauses in contingent contracts, that people needed to retune themselves to get away from one definition alone.

The point was, he motioned, that all departments should value adjuncts. All faculty was laboring. The answers were going to come from the base, from the bottom. The tenured faculty was not at the base. But we had to be patient and understanding about what was going on. There was great potential for misunderstanding.

Before we could have a better evaluation for adjuncts, we needed to create a Non-Tenured Faculty Caucus, he explained. Of course we needed to revitalize and democratize our unions so that contingent faculty might be represented. We had to organize ourselves first, he stressed.  And the administrators oftentimes thought that adjuncts worked for fun. They really needed to understand the real life of adjuncts.  All of this formed part of the process of improving the evaluation system and promotion of contingent faculty.

As I listened to his words, I knew I was in the right place.

One older man from City Colleges of Chicago stood up and said that Adult ESL Literacy instructors were under attack. Administrators were now “management,” basically profit centers. If people looked at the larger picture, there was a concerted push to destroy teacher unions.  If folks did not want to do this, as administration, they were fired, out of the circle of management. The administration was just making them choose, either in or out. Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind should not fool them; we were basically talking about the commodification of education.

That’s when Joe Berry explained it, “The two most important sayings to keep in mind are this: ‘If you keep your mouth shut now, you can have a position where you keep your mouth shut later.’ The other is, ‘None of us are only 15 seconds away from total humiliation.’”

Berry then introduced Maria Maisto from the New Faculty Majority in Ohio. She was the real reason I was here. The New Faculty Majority sent me buttons and tee shirts, helping me organize Campus Equity Week at my university last fall. Again it was random luck that I found the New Faculty Majority. A tweet on twitter, a click, and the light bulb went on.

Then Margaret Mary Vojtko died and I totally hit the wall. It just made me so angry.

My friends on Facebook kept saying, “Isn’t it pathetic? How could someone degrade herself and live like that?”

And I said in defense of Vojtko, “But I could be her. I could very likely end up like her.”

And then the answers, “Oh I’m sure your family would come and rescue you.”

Like hell they would, I thought to myself. They hadn't yet, and they certainly wouldn't if anything happened.

I snapped back from my reverie to see Maria Maisto standing, talking for a short time. Of course I was interested in what she had to say, that Campus Equity could be held in May as well as in the fall. They were hoping it would evolve next year. She said our movement had become inspired nationally by the fight for a minimum wage in the restaurant and retail world. These workers had faced the same issues that contingent faculty face daily. She did say that before we planned any national mobilization, we needed to be aware that long-term intentional planning was required. We had to be sensitive to what could happen simultaneously and realistically. The Campaign for the Future of Education had treated us with respect. It had been sparked out of California.

That’s when Berry wrote on the board: “Campaign for the Future of Higher Education: CFHE.” I still had no idea what that was, however, because I was contingent faculty, and I teach and prepare to teach every day.

Berry kept speaking, saying that a CFHE meeting would be held in May, in Albany, using this outside strategy.  But then he asked folks not to forget about the COCAL conference in August in NYC. As he explained it, it was the only place where we were the center. We got together and discussed the most committed actions, organizing on our issues. For instance, presently, we could not vote when going into a faculty meeting. This was the culture of the moment. At COCAL, contingent faculty got together with others who were our equals though. This was our professional development. This was the moral structure, the narrative, and the consequences of action. We were hungry for this type of interaction, and it was uplifting to hear it. He again repeated that if we could go to NYC, to please do so.

One adjunct organizer focused on the corporatization of education. She mentioned how important it was to fight the fear, not only focusing on working conditions for contingents. She spoke about the recent MLA Subconference, organized during MLA 2014 in Chicago this past January.  And they planned to organize it again next year in Vancouver. At this point a young Hispanic organizer from California also spoke up and said that it helped to remember the social workers they organized in the non-profits. They had really high caseloads. They felt they might not be good enough for their jobs. They went on strike, though, and now they formally called these high caseloads in the contract “overloads.”

This same strategy could be applied to adjuncts. It was important to feel relations with other contingent workers; when forming bonds, adjuncts might feel less overwhelmed by their jobs and able to make direct changes together to make their jobs more manageable. I remember hearing him say that his dad was an adjunct and he had never gotten to know him because he was always working. His mom was a teacher and she was always working as well. But they made sure to make it possible for him to get educated. In this way, he was giving back to them what he had missed with them growing up. He was here, helping social workers, helping us.

Then a young woman stood up. I remember hearing her repeat these words: At Rutgers University, students, faculty, staff, and alumni revitalized all 28 unions for May Day. Welcome to the Labor Movement! Automotive engineering workers are still contract workers. We need to get everybody together, proletariat and academic alike. Our responsibilities as educators must still be the proletarization of the academic worker. There is tremendous power here because we have common interests. We need to teach that and help everyone understand that adjuncts are the working class. We need to come out of the closet. Once this comes out, there can be tremendous movement and energy from contingent faculty to change our working conditions. The two should be linked.

Joe Berry then spoke again. I loved how, when he spoke, he moved around the front of the room, just like a professor would in front of his students. I stared at the engaging gestures he motioned with his hands. He was absolutely thrilling, filled with the most intense joy.

Berry reminded us that striking retail workers immediately created solidarity with contingent faculty. In Washington DC this had happened at the Low Wage Speak Out.  He told everyone too not to forget Keith Hoeller's Equality for Contingent Faculty:Overcoming the Two-Tier System. There was also this wonderful new project in progress, the Adjunct Underground —through SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and the radio broadcast station KCHUNG, broadcasting on the web as well— which was recording his book, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower. He asked if any of us had read for the recording project, and I stood up with several others in the room. I felt like a superstar.

Berry went on to say that people did things spontaneously from the bottom up. It was the most hopeful thing he had ever come across. He told everyone to look to Bill Lipkin from NJ, who was working with AFT, trying to form a national faculty caucus for non-tenure track workers. There was such strong potential for powerful coalitions. He reminded everyone how Maria Maisto and other non-tenure track faculty had testified to the House Education and Workforce Committee, or how Congressman George Miller and his people had put together a document entitled, The Just-In-Time Professor, acknowledging for the first time the terrible working conditions of contingent faculty on a large scale.

The last thing I remember Joe Berry saying was that he  had been working on this movement for a very long time. I recall his words: “I have the privilege of being the spokesperson for a movement!”

This was a national movement, and I was part of it.

My photo of the plenary session — there we were with labor organizers from all over the world
Joe Berry seems to be the kind of person who knows how to get people to teach each other what they need to do. It was masterful to watch him at work, really. He was leading us to talk about our efforts to organize, telling us what resources were out there, and speaking about all the different ways we could access those resources. So much of it was empowering me as a teacher, helping me to see the world in a different light. The professional development of COCAL, I will never forget.

And in the end as I stumbled back to the parking lot to get lost once again, I was saved by a policeman who drove around with me until I found my car.

I asked the cop, “I bet you think I’m the most disorganized and ridiculous woman you ever met?”

And he said, “Lady, you are the 9th person I’ve helped to find her car today. Don’t feel bad. This is an enormous parking garage. This is my job. I just go around looking for lost people.”

As I snuggled into my car, I leaned back in the seat and felt this glow of love. The whole world is OK because Joe Berry understands that we are not alone, and we can ask for help from each other. The answer is looking at the person in the mirror and being ok with that person who stares right back, and all the other folks around her.

I will never forget the Labor Notes Contingent Faculty Session. It gave me back my voice.

Submitted by @MMStrikesBack, proud to be represented as Norma Rae (inspired by the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, who lived that iconic scene in real life). Edited by +Ana Maria Fores Tamayo 

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