Starting Over?

Unhappy with how their leaders are chosen, adjuncts at California community college lead bid to decertify union and start a new one.
May 24, 2011

Adjuncts at a California community college who are frustrated with recent cuts in wages and course loads have launched an effort to decertify their union and start a new chapter.

Santa Rosa Junior College faculty members are voting on whether they want to stick with their current union, All Faculty Association; elect a new representative, United Faculty of Santa Rosa Junior College; or have no union at all. A decertification measure earlier this spring garnered enough votes to trigger the current round of voting on which entity, if any, will represent them. Ballots went out in the mail on Wednesday and will be counted on June 9 in Oakland.

The election and underlying dispute in northern California echo, in some senses, conflicts in other states in which adjuncts and full-time faculty share the same bargaining unit -- and in which, adjuncts say, their interests are too often trumped by their full-time counterparts. In other senses, the conflict at Santa Rosa also parallels a recent episode in Massachusetts, in which part-time faculty, as the majority of the members in the unit, objected that their ability to shape union leadership was unfairly constrained by voting policies (they later prevailed in their quest for a full vote). But in California, adjuncts are trying to craft a whole new structure. The animus also seems less pitched -- with some on both sides sending signals that they will continue to be part of the local union chapter, regardless of who wins.

For the past 20 years, faculty members at Santa Rosa have been represented by All Faculty Association, an independent union with no ties to the three national faculty unions. The challenger, United Faculty, is affiliated with the California Federation of Teachers, which is part of the American Federation of Teachers. Of the 1,350 faculty members on the Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses who are represented by AFA, about three-quarters teach part-time.

The main complaint driving the decertification effort and switch to United Faculty is representation in the leadership, said Terry Ehret, a part-time instructor of English who has taught at Santa Rosa for 20 years and is one of the forces behind United Faculty. Until recently, 6 seats on the executive council were reserved for part-timers and 13 for full-timers (two weeks ago it was changed to 11 full-timers and 8 part-timers). Ehret said the AFA had negotiated contracts in which part-timers have had little voice -- such as a deal last year that had part-time instructors taking a 9.3 percent pay cut, far larger than the one taken by full-timers.

"The terms of the contract were negotiated over the objections of the part-time representatives on the governing council," she wrote in an e-mail, and this friction brought to the fore the larger issue of governance. “When the minority full-time teachers elect a majority of council seats, while the majority part-time teachers struggle to have their voices heard, the result is a climate of distrust and fear on both sides.”

But Warren Ruud, president of the AFA and a full-time professor of mathematics, said more than half, or about 5 percent, of the slash in pay that part-timers took was due to state cuts for programs targeted to specific groups, which are known in California as categorical aid. Another 2 percent was to help pay for adjunct health benefits that had quadrupled in cost over the past decade. The remaining percentage in cuts applied equally to full-time faculty, who, he said, had previously given up sabbaticals in order to help pay for adjunct health care. Full-timers at Santa Rosa, he said, had also seen their pay relative to other California community colleges drop from 10th, the bargaining unit's target, to the mid-20s.

Ruud told Inside Higher Ed that he agreed with one of the chief goals being advanced by the part-timers: that seats on the executive council should be voted on an at-large basis, rather than having seats reserved for those of a certain status. (A committee tasked by the union with studying how other campuses handle their representation recommended such a measure, but it never made it out of the executive committee and to the rank-and-file for a vote.)

"That’s one of our problems: we have people representing a constituency," he said. "If we were open to everybody, we’d have a more open discussion." (When told of Ruud's support for at-large seats, Ehret said it was a "good sign," though she said she'd never heard him articulate it before.)

Ruud said one of the chief strengths of the AFA is its independence, which has enabled it to keep dues low, at 0.55 percent. It is unclear how much dues would be under United Faculty's leadership; Ehret said the average for CFT-affiliation campuses is typically 1 percent, though they run higher at some nearby campuses.

This increase in cost would be worth it, she argued, because affiliation with a larger state and national union would strengthen the local, and maybe stave off cuts in the number of sections part-timers teach. At a minimum, Ehret added, it would give them a greater sense that they have a say in union's choices. "I know we’re in tough times and I know we’re going to be making difficult decisions," she said. "I can live with them if I know that part-timers have had a say."

But autonomy, Ruud said, confers its own virtues. It leads to efficiency because the grievance officer and negotiators are local. "Our organization did grow out of the culture of the college," he said. "This is a referendum on all that. We’ve made it a referendum on the people doing this."

Ruud said the CFT is using the wage disparity between full-time and part-time faculty to drive a wedge between members (part-timers at the college earn 83 percent of what full-timers do). "I think some of this is just the CFT looking for market share," he said.

An organizer with the CFT shot back at Ruud's description of the larger union's motives. "The election is occurring because CFT was asked by Santa Rosa faculty to help them get better representation," Terry Elverum, a CFT field representative, said via e-mail. "The notion of 'market share' is not in CFT's vocabulary. We're a union, not a business."

Ehret said she has long been bothered by Ruud's characterization of the CFT's role, because it suggests an undue outside influence rather than a homegrown effort. While the CFT has been involved in the current balloting, Ehret said the earlier decertification vote was organized by faculty at the college -- which was a deliberate choice. "That was a strategy to help ensure that the faculty felt this was a grassroots movement," she said.

While tensions between part-time and full-time faculty have led, in some quarters, for calls to organize into separate unions, neither side in this case said it wanted to travel down that path. Unions representing both part-time and full-time faculty in the same unit are the norm in California's community colleges, said Elverum of the CFT, which represents 26 bargaining units. "That doesn't mean there aren't problems or tensions between full-time and part-time groups when they are both represented by the same bargaining agent," he said. "But the ability to work them out is far greater when they are in the same union."

Both sides also said they would stay in the same bargaining unit, regardless of the name of the representative. "Everybody thinks we need to stick together because our strength is in numbers," said Ruud. "Otherwise, we become two little dogs."

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