The 42nd Annual NYSUT Community College Conference was held at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs from November 5 – 7. The Conference theme was “Unions: Social Change through Solidarity.” Representing WCCFT were President Jim Werner, Vice President Deirdre Verne, and Secretary Jen Gurahian.
Deirdre and Jen were both first-time attendees at the conference (see photo). Deirdre found it “a great opportunity to meet with members from around the state and to hear from experts in the fields of finance, social justice, and organizing.” For Jen, “This was a great experience, both as a union member and as an educator. I have a much better understanding on a range of issues and appreciate the opportunity to meet colleagues who were both knowledgeable and passionate about higher education.”
WCCFT’s representatives spent much time gathering information on “best practice” policies impacting part-time and contingent faculty. For example, Jim and Jen attended (and Jim moderated) a breakout session titled “Contract Exchange—Adjunct Issues (Job Security and Course Selection).” Presenters from Monroe Community College and Fashion Institute of Technology had examined collective bargaining agreements of community colleges in New York and around the country. Noteworthy protections and benefits included:
- Pay for classes cancelled for low enrollment at the last minute;
- One- and two-year contracts for adjuncts after teaching a minimum number of semesters;
- Limiting full-time faculty bumping to replace only regular load classes cancelled for low enrollment;
- Advance notice if an adjunct is going to be bumped;
- Assigning part-time sections in a timely manner;
- Publishing the names of adjunct faculty in the Schedule of Classes;
- Course assignments based on seniority;
- Improved sick leave benefits;
- Payment for mandatory trainings/office hours;
- Authorship rights and payment for adjuncts who develop a course, along with right of first refusal;
- Adjunct tenure in the form of a Certificate of Continuous Employment (CCE);
- Health/welfare benefits prorated based on teaching contact hours for adjuncts with a CCE.
Jen noted that this session encouraged her “to look at the ‘Vancouver model’ as a potential template” for future contract proposals.
WCCFT officers also found great value in sessions exploring multiple types of data collection, analysis, and management. Jim cited “An overview of NYSUT’s online recruitment and enrollment system, which has substantial potential for helping locals to identify, attract, follow up with, and manage data on new members.” Jen attended the session “Adjunct and Contingent Employee National Trends,” which focused on “a survey [of adjuncts] by the American Federation of Teachers.” She observes that “As a newcomer, both to the WCCFT and NYSUT, I saw how important data and institutional knowledge are for negotiating successful strategies. WCCFT has access to a lot of information but our infrastructure for storing, retrieving, and using necessary data is not robust enough.”
Deirdre participated in the “Finance Data and Dollars – NYS Trends” session in which “Jake Crawford of NYSUT Research and Education Services…. covered a comparison of revenue and expenditure levels of each campus and provided ways to include this information in negotiations.” For Deirdre, “the highlight of the meeting was a review of COVID relief funds and spending levels by campus.” She recommends this “easy to navigate” link, https://covid-relief-data.ed.gov/, “for any member interested in how awarded relief funds are being spent. Information for our college shows that WCC has received $50.9M and has spent approximately $18.7M or 36.8% of the total received as of August 31, 2021.” She adds that “The union will be looking into more detail on the spending since a large portion remains unspent and more than half is designated for institutional spending.”
Other sessions looked to the future–to strategies for strengthening unions in order to extend greater protections and benefits to higher education employees. Jim reports that a session on “Protecting and Preparing Your Members for Teaching in the Post-COVID Classroom” highlighted such “concerns … [as] evaluating faculty who taught remotely, [ensuring] a safe return to campus, mandatory pool testing, and social distancing for in-person class sections.” Other looming issues “include intellectual property, academic freedom, the use of technology including video, the faculty evaluation format, … the value of employee health and safety committees, and the need for social and academic support of students returning to in-person after working remotely, and now experiencing difficulties with social interaction.”
From presentations on “Adjunct Organizing: Getting the Card Signed,” Jen took away these “key points”:
- In person, on campus recruiting is the most effective and going into adjunct office space, especially by union members who are tenured faculty, has a powerful positive impact….
- Strategically placed tables on campus person-ed by union members were also effective.
- We also need to have a strategic plan so there is one clear message that does not get lost amidst the daily noise of campus life.
A session on “The Challenges to Organized Labor Today,” which Jim attended, discussed “some of the major legal challenges and issues NYSUT has been facing recently, many of which involved dues and membership in the aftermath of the Janus decision.” The presentation also described “national trends in unionization efforts, where recent data shows membership in unions is slightly up (0.5%), and New York State ranking high in comparison to other states.” Jim adds that “With more focus on worker rights and less employer-friendly legal decisions, there seems to be a more positive landscape for union activity, and cause for some (guarded) optimism.”
Jim and Jen were both inspired by keynote speaker Barbara Bowen (see photo on cover), the Queens College English Professor who recently stepped down after two decades as President of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress. Jim reports that Bowen “deplored the removal of free community college from President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ proposal, arguing that even providing free tuition at community colleges would not address decades of systematic disinvestment, and calling for community colleges to move beyond austerity budgets.”
“A phrase to remember, from the keynote speech,” according to Jen, was the moment when Bowen quoted the famous words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
“In all,” Jim concluded, “it was a very rich and worthwhile experience, offering many suggestions and strategies for us to consider emulating, as well as opportunities for building solidarity with other locals–and entirely in keeping with my past experiences at such events.”