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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Unions are about more than money

When people think of a labor union, they think of an organization that fights for more money and rights for its members. This is true.
For example, in 2011, union members were paid on average 29 percent more than their non-union counterparts, and are more likely to have health benefits and better working conditions than workers who are not unionized.
But unions are about more than that. Unions are about human rights and human dignity.
At Allan Hancock College, I once observed a dean publicly humiliating and degrading a group of part-time instructors. As I saw this verbal abuse taking place, I realized these people were confronted with three equally bad choices — they could take it and say nothing; they could protest it and get fired; or they could quit their jobs and endure the financial hardship that would follow. They had no other recourse.
They had no place to go to register a complaint. They had no one to speak up for them. It was after witnessing this that I decided to get involved in the nascent union organizing movement on campus.
In 1999, the part-time instructors, counselors and librarians at Hancock College voted with an 87-percent majority to form a union. This came as a shock to the administration, which seemed to have convinced itself the part-time faculty were content with their status as being one of the lowest paid in the state, having no offices or paid office hours, being expected to prepare their classes and grade their students’ work on their own time, and having no rights or appreciation for their efforts. A part-time instructor could serve loyally for 20 years and do an outstanding job, but if the dean decided not to rehire her or him for the next semester, she or he did not get rehired, and that was the end of the story.
Our first task was to negotiate a collective-bargaining agreement, which we completed in 2001. Along with a 14-percent increase in pay, we also negotiated a right to a grievance process, a modicum of job security, paid office hours and, most importantly, recognition by the district that part-time academic employees on campus play an important and essential role in the educational process. Until then, we had been invisible as far as the administration was concerned — simply names plugged into a time slot, one no different from the other. Part-time teachers were simply used to fill a need, then discarded if needed no longer.
In the years since, we have continued to improve the circumstances of part-time academic employees. Pay for our bargaining unit has increased by more than 50 percent. We now have job security and seniority rights. Representatives of part-time faculty participate in the shared governance process, with seats on the College Council and Budget Council, among others. For the first time, the voices and concerns of part-time instructors are being heard, and their influence felt in the college’s governing bodies, making them feel they are part of the campus community, and their efforts are being recognized and appreciated.
Recognizing the worth and dignity of every person and the work they perform is essential. People need to be appreciated, and their work needs to be honored. Unfortunately employers, whether public entities or private enterprise, often fail to do that. Unions provide a mechanism through which working people can have their worth recognized. Unions are about human rights and human dignity.

Mark James Miller is president of the Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, California Federation of Teachers Local 6187. He can be reached at

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