Riding Down a River on a Wobbly Log

Helena Worthen is the author of What Did You Learn at Work Today? published by Hardball Press.

Helena has been instrumental in organizing faculty off the tenure track for several decades. Her piece below gives us insights to the battle contingent faculty have faced fighting for a voice in already existing faculty unions. Unfortunately many FT, T/TT faculty have not seen adjunct faculty as colleagues with an equal stake in their respective schools. Folks new to the labor movement, both those organizing and those watching their colleagues organize, often interpret adjunct only unions as divisive. Helena’s story is an example of how the current adjunct union movement is a response to -not cause of – divisiveness that our colleagues with job security, benefits, and higher pay created in earlier union efforts.

As faculty and unions fight the Yeshiva ruling and begin to organize bargaining units in private and religious colleges that include both adjunct and tenured faculty, the history Helena writes about is extremely important to know. We need to ensure our union chapters are representing the most disenfranchised faculty in the system. Helena and others have fought to lay the path for this to happen. Let’s learn from our movement elders and ensure we don’t give up any of the power we have fought so hard to have.

For more of Helena’s wisdom, follow her blog.


Back in the 1940s, my grandfather taught the honors Shakespeare seminar at Swarthmore to a class of 9 or 10 students. They met in the living room of his on-campus home. My grandmother served the class cookies and tea from her silver tea set. Then my father taught history at a boy’s private school for nearly 30 years. For him, your students were people you would know for the rest of your life. So my idea of teaching meant stability, permanency, and autonomy; support for creativity, being free to do my best; being deeply embedded in the lives of my students; staying in touch years past graduation, knowing them and their careers and their children.

Imagine my surprise.

On the other hand, I loved teaching in the Bay Area community colleges where I started to get part-time temporary jobs in the 1980s. I had just published a novel and a friend said to

Graphic from Capital & Main

me, “You can write, so you can teach writing.” This is not true, but never mind. So I got hired (over the phone) to teach English: all kinds of English, technical writing, basic, English 1-A and B, creative writing, and pretty soon some of the tangentially related courses like medieval drama, Intro to English Lit, improvisational script writing. At one point I was commuting to San Francisco to teach “long form” novel-writing in the MA program at University of San Francisco, Sonoma to teach generic creative writing at Sonoma State, San Rafael to teach theater lit at Dominican College, San Pablo to teach English 1-A and Oakland to teach Basic and 1-B at Laney, part of the Peralta District.

Among all of these, the only one with a decent union was Peralta. One day my Department Chair called me up the night before my fall semester started and told me that a full-timer had “eaten” my class – she liked the schedule, which was Tuesday-Thursday 10-12. I flipped. One fourth of my next three months’ income had just disappeared. My chair more or less whispered, “You might talk to the union.” The union? Luckily, I had checked the “Yes” box on my hiring papers, so I was a member, but no one had ever contacted me or invited me to an orientation, much less told me I was covered by a contract. I also had no idea what a teachers union might do. My knowledge of unions was pretty much limited to songs from the Depression.

The staffer at AFT Local 1603 was, at that time, a Burt Russell-looking type (that dates me; it means he had a mustache) who was himself a part-timer. When I walked into the union office and opened with a furious: “You people do nothing at all for people like me!!!” he just fingered his mustache and waited until I calmed down. Then he empathized, intelligently, and ended with inviting me to an E-Board meeting. The connection he had made was enough to make me show up. What I saw was a table of about 13 people, almost all men, going down a reasonably well organized agenda and discussing things point by point. It was the most collegial, informed discussion I had ever seen take place among faculty at any of the places I taught. They were really figuring out how to deal with important problems – for example, the fact that the applicant for the currently empty position of chancellor had been involved in a financial scandal at his previous job in Detroit. The E-Board agreed to pay to send one of their number to Detroit to do an independent interview with this guy. The discussion, I remember, included discussing what the emissary was going to wear (the suit he had worn at his mother’s funeral).

I was not only impressed by the quality of the information and manner of discussion and debate at this meeting. I also felt that these people on the union E-Board were the most energetic and activist people I had met anywhere in the college. They understood how the district functioned and could criticize it. I was also single, and among them were some attractive men. When one of them asked me if I’d consider running for the empty position set aside for part-time representative, I said yes.

That was the first step in a journey that is still going on. At first, they gave me wide leeway to organize. They let me use the office for an open meeting for part-timers, and over 20 showed up. They let me use the printer to print a 4-page newsletter about part-timer issues. Pretty soon there was a core group of about 8 or 12 people like me who would put it in faculty mailboxes around the district. I got sent to meetings of the statewide union, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), part of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and met people like me from all over the state. The current president of our local and the past president mentored me, told me who to talk with, where to go and why. We began to prepare to bargain for seniority rights for part-timers, which meant that we needed a list of part-timers by hire date, which meant that the HR office had to create such a list (a list? what a concept!) and it had to be accurate. Getting the list right meant contacting everyone on it, which was a great organizing activity.  My copy of the Local 1603 contract got dog-eared and marked up and I learned what a “grievance” was. I installed an extra phone line at home to handle the calls from people who had just learned there was someone to call.

From the state-level union, I started to get an education. They sent me to a four day leadership school at UC Santa Cruz where I began to pick up some basic concepts that you don’t get from Robert Frost. I realized how little I knew, so I bought a big volume of Hobbes and Locke but I didn’t get very far with it. Pretty soon, someone put me onto Freire, which was better. Through the network of leaders in the CFT, a committee of part-timers from up and down California emerged. The CFT had about 40 community college locals in California at that time, and bit by bit people stepped forward to be the part-time representatives on their campuses.

We formed an organizing committee and did a statewide, not just a local newsletter. I volunteered to be the editor, a job apparently so routine that no one else wanted it.

CFT demonstration, 2016

But through supportive staff at the CFT we were able to produce 30,000 glossy two-color copies focusing on part-timer issues. The last page included contacts, with name and
phone numbers of whoever was willing to deal with part-timer issues on their campus. At first there were only four or five such names; within a couple of years, the list grew to take up half a page and we had someone – at least one person – on every CFT/AFT campus. This list was the emergency go-to contact list for part timers in trouble. The newsletter got distributed to all the CFT campuses, with enough for every faculty member, full-time or part-time. Distribution – another boring job that no one wanted, except Joe Berry, who understood how it was really organizing – required actually going to the campus and finding out where part-timers worked. Through this process he discovered part-timers working at locations that even the union didn’t know about. The administration certainly wasn’t going to tell them. It took an innocent-looking guy with a bundle of newspapers to show up at the counter in HR and ask where to go.

We began holding annual state-wide conferences, one in Northern and one in Southern California. Full-timers often attended, but the focus was on part-timer issues. At one of them, participants had to write a report of how much they donated to their college per semester in terms of free work and materials. The answers went from $10,000 up. We got some publicity on this. At this time there was some state level legislation – AB 1725 – that included issues such as evaluation for tenure and affirmative action in hiring, all of which affected part-timers directly. This was also the period of the Cervisi decision that declared that all part-timers were eligible for unemployment benefits between semesters (not just over the summer) because their employment was “contingent” upon funding and enrollment. Their eligibility was not lessened because of solemn promises by administrators, years of always getting the same assignments, or even written “letters of hire” which were in fact not real letters of hire even though it looked like it. Another reason to hold these conferences was the progress that was being made at City College of San Francisco, where negotiations had moved part-timer pay up toward pro-rata pay (a per cent of full-timer hourly pay) and a court decision had established “first consideration” for full-time hires.

Every meeting brought in people whose understanding of what was going on ranged from people with an informed strategic vision and experience in making things happen to people whose primary reason for coming was some horrible personal disappointment they had experienced in their work as a teacher. Outrage ignited by moral injury is an essential motivator, but it has to be harnessed into constructive collective effort in order to get anything useful done. That was a lot of the work in those early days; it was basic labor education.

I got hired part-time by my local union to do part-timer organizing.  I also got elected (uncontested) as secretary of the statewide union council, for which I got a stipend, and wrote for the statewide union newspapers, also for pay. I was still running all over the Bay Area teaching at different colleges. But by now, my enthusiasm for union work was beginning to burn hotter than my love of teaching. They seemed similar in all the ways that mattered.

However, I was beginning to see the handwriting on the wall. As part-timer rep at Vista – now Berkeley City College, in the Peralta District – I was carrying grievances for my part-timer colleagues which put me in intense confrontational meetings with the very Assistant Deans who could hire – or not hire – me. I also had to fight the President of Vista who was trying to destroy a transfer program called the PACE program, where many part-timers taught, which was getting big and successful and too independent. Her name was Barbara Beno and she is now President of the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) and locked in a battle with City College of San Francisco (CCSF) trying to crush it into a narrow transfer and vocational institution.  I was not making friends among the people who might hire me. With my union work on my CV, any application I submitted for a teaching job would hit the wastebasket in a matter of seconds.

So I did what many Californians did back in the days of relatively low tuition at excellent higher ed institutions: I went back to school. I got into the PhD program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education and went for a Language and Literacy degree. Ed schools train administrators and researchers, it turns out; they either know nothing or want to know nothing about unions. When I talked about unions, my fellow students would look at me as if I had brought a tiger into the classroom. But that’s another story.

This was about the time we started getting push-back from full-timers. Some of it was from union leaders at our sister community colleges, people who noticed that there were a whole lot of us and in some places, we actually had votes. Some locals excluded part-timers, some had separate locals for part-timers, some were combined units but hadn’t done any organizing at all and therefore had no active part-time members. The voices of part-timers at places like these were shrieks of despair in the wilderness and our early state-wide meetings included a lot of venting, complaints about disrespect, humiliation, chasing the gold ring of a full-time job year after year without success, the stress of continuous auditioning and retaliation. My local was unusual in that they let me be active. But that did not mean that all the faculty leadership was excited about part-timer activism. 

The union president who had been my supporter termed out, and the man who ran to be president the next time around campaigned partly on “No more part-timer organizing.” While enough part-timers ran for the E-Board to win nearly half the seats, we were unprepared, disorganized and unable to wield the power that had fallen into our hands. (We needed labor education!  – the voice of hindsight). The full-timers blocked all our efforts, sometimes by simply leaving our issues off the agenda. Many of our initiatives stalled. I remember a general union meeting prior to upcoming negotiations that was completely about getting the District to pay for prosthetics for retirees. In the meantime, one of our organizing committee died of AIDS on the living room rug of his mother’s house. He had had no health insurance. The administration just sat back and enjoyed the spectacle.

Under the new president, I lost my part-time staff job, of course. Curiously, I also found myself cut back to one class. That class has stuck in my mind as an example of curriculum that should have been still-born. It was called Basic Reading, a non-transfer class that assumed that students could skill-and-drill their way up from 6th grade level. Forty students enrolled in it. It was scheduled for 8 am four days a week and ran for 50 minutes, which would have given each student 1 minute and 15 seconds to participate if I had, for example, wanted them to read out loud. It was a required class for the auto mechanics program but also enrolled ESL students, displaced home makers, parolees and people with head injuries (skateboarders, in other words).  Since I was taking a class in Reading Instruction at UC at the time, this made a great research paper.  But I was clearly being encouraged to quit.

I don’t mean that I was disliked – the gratitude that a union rep earns by simply doing the job is a love like no other. But I was a pain in the neck. I was well known, had my picture out there, and had edited several years’ worth of newsletters that went everywPrinthere CFT had part –timers.  Nor was it just administration that would have been quick to reject my application. The surge of activism among part-timers was a real threat to the status of full-timers who were being told, in no uncertain terms, that they were standing on a shrinking island of questionable prestige, surrounded and often managing, because they did the hiring, by a majority of people who did the same work they did, did it just as well if not better (because they were motivated by fear as well as by pride, and because instead of just getting hired once, and going off for a 30-year nap, they had to get themselves hired over and over again, semester after semester) but did it for about one-fifth the pay. “You command an army of ghosts,” one part-timer said. We also noted that for a part-timer to get voted “Best Teacher” was a kiss of death: over and over again, that person would find herself (or himself) de-scheduled the next semester.

So it turned out, for me, I wasn’t going to ever get a full-time faculty job. But in fact I liked organizing better  anyway. Maybe I could have tried to do more writing and reporting for the CFT, but I didn’t. I was happy with what I was already doing for them. By then Joe Berry – who had been a teacher union activist deeply involved in part-timer issues for years, maybe decades – and I were partners. He had a staff position at San Mateo Community College and taught at CCSF. Between us, one night at his apartment in San Francisco, we counted the number of electronic communication devices that were in operation at that moment. It was midnight. Messages were coming in and going out on every wavelength we had. We also counted our jobs: between us, 9 jobs. Only Joe had a full-time job. We agreed: this had to stop. We decided to look for jobs all over the country (the kids were off at college by now) and as soon as one of us got a full-time job, we’d take it.

Joe got a full-time job at the University of Iowa in the Labor Center. I said, “Didn’t we say India?” But he took it. I commuted, doing my dissertation for the Ed School. Once that was done, I applied for jobs and got one in Philadelphia working for UNITE (this is before it became UNITE-HERE, and before those split up). Joe joined me and worked for the nurses (HPAE) and taught at Community College of Philadelphia. For me, the year that I worked for UNITE was the fastest, most eye-opening education I ever had. First of all, it was private sector and all my experience had been public sector. Second, it was an industry (garments and apparel) that had been among the first to be ravaged by globalization. They made the most beautiful clothes – cashmere overcoats, for example – I have ever seen. But from 30,000 members we were down to 1,200. We lost a shop a week during the year I worked there – tragedies for the workers, scary to see what a union does when its investment portfolio is worth more than its dues revenue. But I learned and learned, and people were willing to teach me. The day my students did a work stoppage at a shop that made men’s pants, and forced the owner to give them their vacation pay remains a high point in my life. By this time I had had enough union experience —  labor education experience, specifically – plus my Berkeley degree and a prize for my dissertation, to get a tenure-track job  at the University of Illinois doing labor education. So Joe and I moved to Chicago.

Which is another story. I’ve already written three times as much as what Jessica asked for. But she asked for how I went “from being an adjunct prof to being an organizer in the higher ed movement, both as an activist and then as a paid labor organizer. ” Maybe it will do the trick.

The mental image I have of this whole long, unlikely story is of someone riding down a river on a wobbly log, looking ahead at the upcoming rapids, making choices about where to jump and when. The river is the movement, the contingent faculty movement, which is running high and fast right now. It’s collective; lots of people, good and bad, are involved. But the choice of where and when you jump is individual, very dependent on personal situation and resources. For example: Joe and I had to get away from working 9 jobs, period. We were going to burn out. Luckily, we were able to move away. We stayed on the river, in the movement, though – especially Joe, who did his own PhD once we were in Chicago, wrote his book, and was involved in organizing the part-timers at Chicago City Colleges. When they won that election (another one where the full-timers were on the wrong side of history), I said, “This is why we came to Illinois.”

That year a labor board newsletter writing about public sector workers noted that the percent of part-time workers in Illinois who were in unions went up 1%. I said, “That’s us.”

From NEA Today

In 2010 we retired back to California where we got to know Jessica. Last year we spent 6 months in Viet Nam teaching labor education at a union-sponsored university in Ho Chi Minh City. Labor in Viet Nam is facing a huge turnaround, from being part of the government of a socialist society where everyone is working together for the good of all and a union president can be the HR manager, to being real representatives of working people in the new capitalist economy where the most sharklike employers from Taiwan, Japan, Australia, China and the US are taking advantage of Viet Nam’s need for foreign capital. Next chapter.

Next week: Joe Berry

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