Always an organizer, sometimes a staffer, often a pain in the ass to someone

This week’s post is from the inimitable Joe Berry, who literally wrote the book on adjunct organizing—  Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education.

Joe was instrumental in getting the 1989 Cervisi decision passed, the California code that states contingent faculty have no reasonable assurance of employment, regardless of promised contracts, and are therefore eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. I absolutely benefited from this 20 years later and many more are still benefitting from it almost 30 years later.

Joe’s story spans decades of historically significant organizing and activism. Important for our current movement, Joe writes about the challenges faced by adjunct faculty when they are in “mixed units” of TT/T and NTT faculty. There has been excitement about starting to organize all faculty together. We owe it to ourselves to understand why this may not always be the best way forward.

On a personal note, when I was at the end of my rope in my final teaching job, serving as an adjunct rep to the faculty senate where we literally fought for two years just to have “adjunct business” a recurring agenda item, I contacted Joe for support. He graciously replied, encouraged me to believe change can happen, and told me finding just one other colleague who wants to take action is a success. As you read on you’ll see that his advice was genuine, that it came from his experience.

If you haven’t yet read his book, you can order it from the link above. You can also download an audio version of the book, the brainchild of Adam Overton and read by many of us who have been adjunct activists for a few years now. It’s good listening material on your commute between jobs!


I am among those contingent faculty activists and organizers who were not organized by others, but who stepped forward because we were already part of the broader movement. In my case the “movement” meant the civil rights movement, then the anti-war movement and the socialist movement. A turning point for me was when a group of us at my high school in Des Moines, Iowa in 1965 wore black armbands to protest the Viet Nam war. We got suspended. This sparked the 1969 US Supreme Court case which set the still-cited precedent that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

After high school and in college I was active in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Afer being at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago where police attacked demonstrators I became a SDS regional organizer for Iowa. It was through SDS that I was introduced explicitly to ideas of socialism and communism. I was part of the Worker Student Alliance caucus in SDS. From 1968-1970 first at Grinnell College and then The University of Iowa I served on student strike committees against a tuition increase and the Kent State and Jackson State University killings [where the Ohio National Guard and Local Police opened gunfire student demonstrators]. After we demonstrated in support of the national GE strike, I was suspended from college.

I moved to California with my then-wife, Jackie, where I finished my degree in US history and eventually got my MA in History from SF State. I also earned a teaching credential at San Francisco State while continuing to be active in the student movement and in labor support actions. I worked as a public school paraprofessional, then teacher until 1980 when Prop 13 resulted in my being laid off along with 400 other school workers.

I looked for work teaching in community colleges because I had heard that you could get hired part-time. In California in the community colleges, all part-timers are contingent, and all full-timers are non-contingent tenure track with the exception of some sabbatical replacements. This is by statute and not true in other places outside California.

The term “part-timers,” in the California community colleges, is short for “part-time temporary.” Given that many people work in this job status for five, ten or fifteen years, often at multiple colleges totaling more than a full-time load, is a bit of a joke. This story and Helena Worthen’s story take place in the context of public sector units. where there are adjunct-only units, full-time only units and joint part-time/full time units. Working side by side, doing basically the same work, despite vast differences in pay, privilege and status, with full-time faculty establishes an emotional baseline for both part-timers and full-timers that is usually problematic, aggravated and hostile. The administration, of course, uses this situation to undermine the unity of the faculty as much as possible.

This is a situation that won’t be as major a theme in adjunct-only organizing, but once an adjunct unit is organized at a college where there are also full-time tenured faculty, I predict this element will come into play and should be anticipated by faculty of both types in order to sustain solidarity when it comes to facing the administration.

Back to my story… With the help of friends from the movement who were teaching part-time at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), I was hired by a department head who had himself been a public school teacher and figured if I had taught 10 years in the public schools, I could teach and wouldn’t cause him any problems. He was half-right. The problems that I caused him were not because of my teaching — I actually won a teaching award by a student vote – but because I immediately got involved in the union, AFT Local 2121.

In 1980 at CCSF part-timers were already a majority of the faculty, the union had won representation rights a few years earlier. Yet the part-timers committee had all but completely died. With the help of Rodger Scott, a radical veteran of the very first California contingent faculty organization (the California Association of Part Time instructors, CAPI) who was a newly upgraded full-timer and had recently won a tenure suit, Cita Cook, David Wakefield— two other radical colleagues— and myself began re-organizing the committee. We all shared the conviction as Socialists that if we were teaching we should do some organizing to contribute to the overall movement.

When we presented our idea to the all-full-time union executive board they were reluctant to endorse the formation of our committee. It was clear to us that we were going to go ahead anyway. If the union didn’t give us official committee status they were just going to be on the outside looking in on whatever activity we could generate.

Partly unconsciously, we were taking the first steps of the inside-outside strategy, I write about in Chapter 2 of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower .When the leadership discovered that we were going to go ahead anyway with our organizing, though it was a major debate, they decided that their fear of having us not under the union tent was greater than their fear of having us organized and active inside the union.

Teaching jobs were evaporating as we watched. Our core group of radicals were less scared than others to do something in a situation of no job security, no benefits and a scarcity of other teaching jobs if you lost this one. Or maybe we were just as scared, but as radical activists we were used to being scared. We all felt our activity was for more than just getting gains for part-time faculty; it was part of a larger struggle to change labor movement and create one more step toward a socialist society. Having that larger vision helped us to get over many rough spots together and recruit many others.

The part-timers committee had regular meetings in the union office and socials with free beer and pizza at bars. We distributed an open letter the first day of school to the full-time faculty, describing our situation and appealing to their solidarity while making clear we were organizing ourselves with or without their support. These actions got us a position on the Executive Board – myself as the Chief Labor Council delegate and Cita Cook was appointed to the negotiating team. These were lonely jobs as the sole part-timers in these bodies. Without a regularly meeting and growing committee behind us we would have succumbed to demoralization and made errors we couldn’t recover from. However, both Cita and I were very, very tired most of the time.

Describing this same situation in the California State University system, our colleague John Hess who was building a contingent lecturer’s committee in the CA State University System and at SF State University, said “No lecturer is ever more than 15 seconds away from total humiliation.”  However, in our local, a structural factor that created strong solidarity was that a major section of the union were in the adult education division, teaching non-credit classes, and the full-timers among them were generally less elitist and more egalitarian in their attitudes toward part-timers.

Another structural factor in our favor, which we didn’t fully recognize at the time, was that SF was the only community college district in the state to organize a union of department chairs. With department chairs out of the faculty union as voting or governing members a part-timer would not be going to their boss to get help. They might have to go to an unsympathetic full-timer as their union rep, but at least not their boss. By having the Department chairs organized in an adversarial position to the administration and therefore strategically needing sometimes to ally with the faculty union – which had much more power – part-timers were placed in a uniquely better position compared to almost any other institution in the US. Therefore our ability to overcome our colleagues’ fear as contingents was greatly enhanced.

It wasn’t difficult, though, to find the hostility. For example, there was always the attitude that part-timers weren’t real faculty; if we were any good, we would have a “real” job as a full timer. Therefore we weren’t allowed to serve on the Academic Senates, where “academic” matters were decided.

At the bargaining table, we succeeded in getting health benefits, first for people at 40% and then at 50%, including dental benefits, on an equal basis with full-timers. Most important was an upgrading clause that said that part-timers had first consideration when tenure track jobs opened up in their field. We had no idea how important this would be. We thought “first consideration” would mean only a mandatory interview. However, a case of egregious discrimination against a part-timer soon dropped in our lap. We convinced the union to take this to arbitration. In this arbitration, we got a decision that first consideration should be interpreted to mean that the internal candidate should always get the job unless the administration could prove that the outside candidate was not just equal but superior. This has  meant, over the years, that upwards of 70% of all full-time jobs filled by the CCSF have been filled by people who were formerly part-timers, many of whom were activists. That in turn has changed the political composition of the full-time faculty, the culture of the college, and the culture of the union such that the majority of the union presidents since then have been former part-timer activists.

The other big project I was involved in at City College in the union was what became the Cervisi Unemployment Insurance case that paved the way for determining all CA temporary faculty were by definition eligible for unemployment benefits  because  they were without “reasonable assurance of re-employment.” The case happened because our mentor, Rodger Scott, had made it his personal organizing focus to help people who were applying for unemployment benefits. As a result, we had a large base of data from denials and then successful individual appeals. We also had a good relationship with our union lawyer, Bob Bezemek, who came to be willing to consider a group appeal and later a class suit in court on this issue. The depth of our organizing is what made the union leadership willing to take this on, the leadership of the state union support an application to the national AFT for funding. At the local level, Rodger Scott did most of the actual research and in fact went back and got a paralegal certificate, to gain the skills necessary to assist in this case. Overall, the whole span of the case covered 5 years, but some of it drew on data that Rodger had gathered during 10 years of doing unemployment appeals.

One reason that I am describing Rodger Scott’s activities in such detail is because he was a model. He encouraged us in our work, taught us to think more broadly about our work, to think about the consequences of it, and to write about it. He remains active today in 2016 on his 80th birthday. You can be sure to see him at every important demonstration in San Francisco. He is often the guy in the white hat and the video camera.

I gradually migrated from teaching history to teaching in the Labor Studies Program. I taught at a number of other Bay Area colleges commuting largely on public transit, but focused my organizing work at CCSF because I usually got three classes there. I was also applying for jobs constantly, but never successfully.

In1988 while still a part-timer at City College, I applied for the sole professional staff job in my local when it opened up. I was not hired, largely because it was felt that I was too divisive a figure politically in the union, having brought up resolutions not just on part-timer matters, but also against the invasion of Grenada and other national/international issues. When a staff job soon thereafter opened up in a neighboring local, San Mateo Community College District Local 1493, they called up the City College union and asked for names of good candidates. As I was the top of that list, I was hired. I began a new chapter as a local staff rep at San Mateo, statewide staff support for the new part-timers committee we achieved in the CFT, and also teaching labor studies at San Francisco State. In addition, I was writing a regular column for the CCC newspaper, titled “Part Timers’ Progress,” a title with an ironic triple meaning that only some people noticed. This period was incredibly rich but also exhausting. It was rich because I came into contact with many really good people all over the state, including Helena Worthen (with whom I became not only a colleague and partner but also spouse). And I was finally  making enough money.

The contradictions of being union staff versus a member were now very apparent. So apparent that staff in other locals statewide tried to get together and talk occasionally. Many of us were former or present part-timers, since few full-time faculty saw the job of union staff as attractive (more work, less pay, less security) compared to their tenured position. At first it was a great pleasure because I was being paid to do much of the work I had been doing for years as a volunteer. That began to wear a bit thin after a time. Like teaching, one can work on union staff 24 hours a day if one lets it happen. Also, the politics of representing the elected governing body, in my case the local executive board, limited what I could say and do to militate for part-timers, though I certainly pushed the envelope. I was the only full-time staff member at the time so the job was secure as long as I kept the majority of the EB happy. But I had no local real colleagues. Everyone else I worked with directly was either a volunteer or a partial-released time elected officer. The organizing was internal organizing, signing up non-members in the bargaining unit. I might have stayed indefinitely, but as a part-timer I never fully recovered from the feelings of inferiority that our status instills in us. That made me scared and nervous more than was reasonable sometimes. Some of my conclusions from this experience are recorded in Reclaiming the Ivory Tower, in the chapter where I talk about becoming a staffer and relations to union staff generally.

By 1990 Helena and I realized we had 9 jobs between us, so when the opportunity arose to apply for a labor education job at my old university, the University of Iowa, I did. Amazingly, Helena agreed to leave Berkeley for Iowa City, where she could finish her dissertation research and writing. With her kids, Jacob and Gabi, graduating from high school and college, we felt free to move.

Those 4 years as a full-time labor educator taught me a lot about the rest of the labor movement, especially about the private sector, in a right-to-work state. It taught me a lot about the positives and negatives of labor education in an institution of higher education. It also taught me that sometimes “you can’t go home again”.

When Helena couldn’t get a job in Iowa City we both looked for work and she got hired at UNITE in Philadelphia. I followed, worked as an organizer for an AFT nurse’s union, until being laid off  (“You don’t fit with our kind of organizing.”) and then got work teaching part-time at Philadelphia City College (another good AFT union for contingents, where they had actually struck to gain us bargaining rights). We would have stayed if either of us had been offered good full-time jobs there but when Helena was fired from her education director job (“for doing her job.” as the head of the local occupational safety and health group put it), we both went back on the job market.

We moved to Illinois where Helena was offered a job as a full time labor educator, tenure track, at the U of Illinois in Chicago. I taught part-time at a number of community colleges and private universities and discovered that an organizing drive was going on among contingent faculty led by a very unusual organizer Tom Suhrbur, with the IL Education Association (IEA/NEA) who had managed to convince IEA that he should not only organize community college contingents but also in the private sector, a heresy that required changes in the IEA constitution.

Tom served as my advisor for my required internship for the PhD program that I had enrolled in soon after we got to Chicago.  I was also hired by IEA as a part time temporary organizer, first to recruit part-timers for a union expansion at Columbia College, the first private sector institution in the Chicago area to be organized, and then to do political organizing in support of a bill to change the state education code to allow community college part-timers to organize under the protection of the Public Sector Employment Relations Act.

My dissertation project was an organizing strategy for contingent faculty using the Chicago area emerging experience as research that would become the book, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: organizing adjuncts to change higher education. For this experience I am grateful to Helena Worthen and my labor education colleague and classmate Charlie Micallef, for urging me to do this, something I would never have done on my own.

This period of teaching and organizing, 1999-2007, was a period of intense learning for me. Its greatest success was the formation of the Chicago City Colleges credit part-time faculty union, City Colleges of Chicago Contingent Labor Organizing Committee (CCCCLOC). It provided the basis for much of what I wrote in my book. I was also involved, as a member, in organizing the second private university in Chicago, Roosevelt University, and became a member of the executive board. The experience of organizing a new union in two places where I myself worked was probably the most important union learning in my life. I think it is possible to be a good staff organizer without having gone through the experience yourself, but it is much easier if one has done it at least once. It is terrifying, exhilarating, all-consuming, and life-changing. At both institutions we won and adjuncts are much better off there now. However, in both places I personally suffered retaliation, as I had at CCSF, by being turned down for a FT job that I was very qualified for. I was not alone. At Roosevelt, one of our new bargaining team was fired during first negotiations and in the City Colleges all four of us on the original organizing committee lost classes.

At this point, my story turns more towards the national contingent faculty movement, which was beginning to cohere. Under the umbrella of the contingent worker network, North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE), we sponsored a campus action group, led by Gary Zabel of University of Massachusetts/Boston, one of the main founders of our national movement.

The NAFFE initiative made it possible for contingent faculty leaders to come together from all over the country and Canada, from all levels of higher education, across disciplinary lines and union lines. This was crucially important to the development of the movement and to the development of my own strategic thinking as reflected in my book and certainly subsequently.

Out of the NAFFE effort came the expanded Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor conference (COCAL). It started in 1996 in DC at the Modern Language Association (MLA). I attended the next one, in 1999, and every one since then.  COCAL really went national with a conference in 2000 in San Jose. Out the San Jose 2000 COCAL came a Chicago COCAL chapter in 2001which was a major factor in organizing virtually all community college part-timers in the Chicago area and most of Illinois in the ensuring years. I will never forget the IFT rep saying at a Chicago COCAL meeting, after IEA had won another bargaining unit, that “Anyone’s victory is everyone’s victory”. I wish the union movement always acted this way.

The development of a national leadership has remained a major focus for me into my official retirement from paid teaching in 2010. These national and international experiences, combined with the invitations to visit and assist people all over North America after the publication of my book, have basically been the basis for my work and experience ever since. Besides continuing on the International COCAL Advisory Committee, I have served on the National Board of the New Faculty Majority, the membership organization that came out of the expressed need at the COCAL conferences for a national faculty organization.

I also continue the project begun in 2001 of doing a news aggregator for the movement, now called COCAL Updates. I served on national committees on contingency for both the AAUP (until recently) and the Organization of American Historians. Also, after moving back to California and re-establishing closer contact with my old colleague and former teacher, John Hess, we embarked on a project to answer how the union in the California State University system, CFA, achieved the best contingent faculty contract in the country. Unfortunately, John died of Parkinson’s disease before that project could be completed, but with many hours of taped interviews with him and good archives going back to the 1970s, Helena and I are now working on a book to try to answer that question.

I am privileged to say I am healthy and optimistic, especially since, as a result of the recent increase in organizing activity among contingent faculty, issues that I have spent my life raising, are now much more mainstream than was the case when I began in higher education in 1980.

Finally, I have to say that my various roles in this movement – as a paid organizer, a rank and file activist, a labor educator, a writer, and an elected leader have put me in contact with hundreds, even thousands of the best people I have ever met. They have sustained me at times when I personally was very depressed, confused and just plain unhappy. The movement, and the people I have met through it, most especially Helena Worthen but many, many others have been the road down which I have travelled to whatever level of maturity and happiness I have achieved at the age of 68. I think that this is not unique to me. It is a reflection of the basic human need for collective social relationships and learning for the kind of life that we all aspire to. We need to take care of each other personally. The labor movement and the left have not always been very good at this. But for me it has saved my life and I say thank you.

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