Repost: Take Back NEIU–“What Would Joe Do?”

Although this is a report on an older conference, there are still some useful insights and lessons that bear repeating, especially for folk just joining the fight for improvement in adjunct/contingent working conditions.  And for the record, the author has become a real ass-kicking activist in recent years. That might happen to you, too. Republished by permission from TakeBack NEIU.  

The next Labor Notes Conference takes place in Chicago on April 1-3, 2016. Register now!


By Lydia Field Snow

Notes from Labor Notes Chicago, April, 2014

I felt like I was finally home.

I arrived late because I was parked in a parking lot that was very far from the hotel and another late arriver and I couldn’t figure out how to get over to the hotel. 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 he 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 that I hadn’t registered, but one woman in a maroon sweater showed me where the room was, but because I didn’t have a program I don’t even know the title of the session. But I knew I was looking for [NFMF Board member] Joe Berry who had changed my life with his book, “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education.” That was enough information for her to find it.

Being an instructor at a city state university, I had recently become involved with the efforts of adjuncts reading his book over the radio, and through that experience I had reached out to another instructor at a union meeting who had stood up and spoken about being frustrated by the lack of support from the union to 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 is 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”. I sent him a bunch of links to articles about organizing efforts of non-tenured full and part time faculty and he emailed me back right away.—

He just asked me point blank. “What does Joe Berry say we should do to help instructors get better working conditions and get the union to listen to us?”  I told him, “Well we need to organize the instructors, we need to get together as a group and find out what our needs are. And then we need to find a way to change the culture and working conditions at the university.”  We organized a flier which we printed in color (and paid for ourselves) and we’ve been going around talking to other instructors in person door to door ever since.

I guess what is most remarkable about this is the sheer vastness of the geographical area that is represented in a very small room.

The first part of the session I was trying to get internet access and missed writing down any notes while I was 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 is very welcoming. He wants every person in the room to introduce themselves and let us know what they are doing for contingent faculty. I guess what is most remarkable about this is the sheer vastness of the geographical area that is 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 in 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 was unusual to me was how much they knew and how hard they had been working. The energy in the room was intense.  The representative from Rutgers was full of excellent news about winning longer contracts for contingent faculty in the last contract, then were others from smaller schools that talked about how the adjuncts had recently voted to become unionized, and one who was announcing a strike that was set in the coming week and asking for solidarity.

I felt like 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 it was incomprehensible or just plain moronic. Every meeting I’ve ever been to at my university as a member of the Faculty Senate and University Advisory Council Working Group, I had felt invisible. At the same time I was completely mesmerized by what every person had to say. It was almost like being inside my own body for once. It’s hard to explain, but I felt more alive in that room than I have in decades. It was three hours long and felt like five minutes long.

There was a big concern with evaluation and how adjuncts are at the mercy of their student evaluations and how this effects instruction in the classroom and also raises the stress level of contingent faculty on a day to day basis. One middle aged woman stood up and said: “We model our evaluations of contingent faculty in our department on Tenure Portfolios, and we base it on observations of teaching with proper notice that the professor will be observed, as well as on letters of recommendation from students and other colleagues, and published articles and projects that can be documented in the academic world in the past year.”

Berry responded to everyone’s concerns after letting them talk about varying strategies: “People talk about security as if it is one thing. Per class, previous load, etc. There are so few seniority clauses in contingent contracts, people need to retune it and get away from one definition of seniority.”

‘If you keep your mouth shut now you can have a position where you keep your mouth shut later.’

“The point is adjuncts should be valued by their departments. The point is that all faculty are laboring. The answers are going to come from the base, on the bottom. The tenured faculty aren’t at the base. But we have to be patient and understanding about what’s going on. There is a great potential for misunderstanding.”

“Before you can have a better evaluation for adjuncts we need to create a Non-Tenured Faculty Caucus. Of course we need to revitalize and democratize our unions so that contingent faculty are represented. We have to organize ourselves first.  And the administrators think oftentimes that adjuncts are working for fun. They really need to understand the real life of adjuncts.  All of this is part of the process of improving the evaluation system and promotion of contingent faculty.”

One older man from City Colleges of Chicago stood up and said this. “Adult educators of ESL Literacy are under attack right now. Administrators are now “management”, basically a profit center. If you look at the larger picture there is a concerted push to destroy teacher unions.  If you do not want to do this as an administrator then you are fired, out of the circle of management. The administration is just coming out and saying, “Choose. Either you’re in or your out. Don’t be fooled this is the Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, we are basically talking about the Commodification of Education.”

At one point Berry says, “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.’”

At this point Berry introduces Maria Maisto from the New Faculty Majority in Ohio. She is the real reason I’m here because the New Faculty Majority sent me buttons and tee shirts and helped me organize Campus Equity Week at my university in the fall. Again it was random luck that I found the New Faculty Majority. A tweet on twitter, and 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 saying, “Isn’t it pathetic?” “How could someone degrade themselves and live like that?” And I said in defense of her, “But I could be her. I could very likely end up like her.” And then the answers, “Oh I’m sure your family will come and rescue you.” Like hell they will I think to myself. They haven’t yet, and they certainly won’t then.

Maria stands and talks for a short time. Of course I am very interested in what she has to say. “Campus Equity is in May as well. We are hoping it will evolve next year. Our movement has become inspired nationally by the fight for a minimum wage in the restaurant and retail world. They face the same issues that contingent faculty do. Before we plan any national mobilization we need to be aware that we there is a proper long term intentional or long term planning that is required. We have to be sensitive to what can happen simultaneously realistically. The Campaign for the Future of Education treated us with respect. It was sparked out of California.”

Berry writes it on the board: “Campaign for the Future of Higher Education”. I still have no idea what that is because I am contingent faculty and I teach and prepare to teach every day.

Berry again: “This is outside strategy. Their meeting is in May in Albany.  But don’t forget about COCAL conference in August in NYC.   It is the only place we are the center. We get together and the most committed stuff organizing on your issues. When you go into a faculty meeting you can’t vote. This is the culture of the moment. At COCAL contingent faculty contingent faculty get together with others with whom you are equals. This is your professional development. This is the moral structure or narrative and the consequences of action. We are hungry for this stuff and it’s uplifting. If you can come to NYC please do.”

At this point a young Hispanic organizer from California speaks up: “It helps to remember the social workers we organized in the non-profits. They have really high caseloads. You feel you might not be good enough for the job. They went on strike and now it’s called formally in the contract “overload”. This same strategy can be applied to adjuncts. It’s important for them to feel relations with other contingent workers and they feel less overwhelmed by their jobs and able to make direct changes together to make their jobs more manageable. My dad was an adjunct and I never got to know him because he was always working. My mom was a teacher and she was always working. But they made sure to make it possible for me to get educated. In this way I am giving back to them what I missed with them growing up.”

A young woman stands up: “At Rutgers University students, Faculty, Staff, 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. Our responsibilities as educators are still the proletarization of the academic worker. There is tremendous power here because we have common interests. We need to teach that standing up and help them understand that adjuncts are working class. We need to come out of the closet. Once this comes out there is tremendous movement and energy from contingent faculty to change their working conditions. The two should be linked.”

Berry spoke again. I love how when he talks he moves around the front of the room just like a professor does in front of their students. The engaging gestures with his hands. He is absolutely thrilled, filled with the most intense joy.

Berry says,“Retail workers striking immediately created solidarity with the contingent faculty. In Washington DC this happened at the Low Wage Speak Out.  Don’t forget Equality for Contingent Faculty. There is also this wonderful new project: Adjunct Underground through the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). The radio broadcast: KCHUNG broadcast on the web as well as the organization of a recording of my book, “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower.” He asked if any of us had read the book for the recording project and I stood up with several others in the room. I felt like a superstar.

Berry goes on to say: “People do things spontaneously from the bottom. It’s the most hopeful thing I’ve come across. Look at Bill Lipkin who is working with the National Endowment for the Arts. There is the potential for powerful coalitions. Look at what Maria Maisto has been doing on a national level. Maria stands up and explains how she had testified to the House Education and the Workforce Committee and they had put together a document entitled, “The Just-In-Time Professor” A document that is the first time that Congress has acknowledged the terrible working conditions of contingent faculty on a large scale.

The last thing I remember Joe Berry saying is, “I have been working on this for a very long time. I can’t tell how exciting it is to get to be the spokesperson for this movement today. This is a national movement, and movements have momentum. “

Joe Berry is the kind of person who knows how to get people to teach each other what they need to do. It was masterful really. He was leading us to talk about our efforts of organizing, what resources are out there, and all the different ways you can access those resources. So much of it is empowering you as teacher is to see the world in a different light. The professional development statement about COCAL, I will never forget. And in the end as I stumbled back to the parking lot to get lost once again and 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 find their car today. Don’t feel bad. This is an enormous parking garage. This is my job. I just go around looking for lost people.”

I leaned back in the car 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.

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