A Small College Strikes a Big Blow For Good-Faith Bargaining

Let’s say you’re bargaining a contract this spring, and it’s not going well. Maybe the other side is coming to the table with regressive proposals. Or maybe they’re not coming to the table at all. You’re feeling frustrated, exhausted, and angry.

Believe it or not, the process can work.

Take a look at the most recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) orders from a small, private college in Chicago, where a determined NEA-affiliated union of part-time faculty has persevered in the face of some truly awful conditions. It’ll show you that you’re not alone, that you have important allies and legal rights, and that all is not yet lost in the ever-increasing battle between working people and the corporate interests that would silence their voices. There is a lot of reason to be hopeful.

“For those of us who refuse to be rendered a union in name only, the ruling is a significant affirmation of our belief in the right to organize and protect our members from anti-union animas,” said Diana Vallera, president of the Part-time Faculty Association at Columbia College (P-FAC). “For the nation, it is an affirmation of the core elements of any union.”

Specifically, the NLRB rulings order Columbia to immediately engage in good-faith bargaining — or face federal contempt charges. Stop offering proposals that leave union members with fewer rights than if they didn’t have a union at all! Stop changing things, like faculty evaluation systems, without negotiating them first. Because of Columbia’s “egregious failure to bargain,” NLRB also called on “special remedies,” which included forcing Columbia to pay all of P-FAC’s costs, to publish these NLRB rulings in its college newspaper, and to report back to NLRB regularly on the status of bargaining. Meanwhile, Columbia also was ordered to pay thousands of dollars in back wages to the union members who had sustained the college’s retaliatory wage cuts or class reassignments.

Basically, P-FAC won every charge it brought against the college. You can almost hear the federal judges sighing over Columbia’s “continual course of unlawful conduct.”

What happened here? It reads like a handbook for union busting: Since P-FAC’s contract expired in 2010, Vallera’s class assignments were taken away from her, in what amounted to job termination without cause. This is a woman who was runner-up for the college’s own “Excellence in Teaching” award, and yet her photography class was re-assigned to a woman with no teaching experience – because, administrators admitted in court testimony, they considered her a “troublemaker.”

Faculty pay was unilaterally slashed. Union members taught classes that hadn’t changed — but were simply paid less for them. The agreed-upon seniority system for class assignments was trashed. A new evaluation system for faculty was announced. Surprise! A massive, college-wide restructuring program, called “Prioritization,” also was kicked off without faculty input. And, in one particularly frightening incident, Vallera’s nanny called police after discovering a man snapping pictures of the Vallera’s home and child, a man the nanny later identified through photographs as a college attorney.

Meanwhile, as the college willy-nilly ignored the still-binding provisions of the expired faculty contract, tossing aside tentative agreements and choosing to do whatever it liked to increase its profitability, its administrators simply refused to meet with the union’s bargaining team.

You have to wonder: Can they get away with that?

And the answer is no. They can’t.

The union dug in, stayed focused, and with the support and services of the Illinois Education Association/NEA, they have forced the college to respect their standing as a union of educators.

“We were fighting for our survival,” Vallera says now. To allow that kind of retaliation against union leaders to stand, to allow the college to silence the voices of faculty in important matters, like the right to earn a living wage or have a fair system of evaluation or deliver the kind of instruction and course offerings that matter to students, would have been to render the union meaningless.

Is everything perfect now? Not likely. Bargaining has new energy, said Vallera, and the administration’s commitment to settling the contract is clear. But Columbia’s part-time faculty members, like many across the country, are settling in for a fight for access to employer-provided health care, and they continue to jostle for a seat at the table where decisions are made.

“For our members, the ruling represents a preservation of their voice,” said Vallera. “The ruling also represents hope: hope that quality instruction will win over the cheapest course; that dignity and fairness in the workplace will overcome the current effort to standardize the worker in educational institutions.”

Photo: Mary Ellen Flannery