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Planning for the Worst: The Story of Robin Meade

By Robin Meade

I was sitting in my deposition with the John Murphey, the college attorney sternly questioning me about my claim for damages. I didn’t go to a doctor to be diagnosed for depression because I didn’t have the money. He asked why I didn’t go see a doctor after I found a full time job and had insurance. He insinuated that once I had a better position, I just decided that I was over it. I have to say that this time was the lowest time of my life. I really could not have gotten through it without my faith in God. I would submit that the full weight of difficulty is felt not by those who let go or who break down but by those who continue to hold everything together. This does not mean that feeling the weight makes you better than those who cannot but rather that you are blessed with the strength to continue.

I think it is important to make that distinction. People go about thinking that their circumstance is solely their own doing. This is not true. No one grows up in a vacuum, no one lives in a vacuum. As individualistic as our culture has grown, we are still all together working through life. Some presume that their success has to do only with their own ability and likewise some presume that their lack of success has to do only with their own errors. In the case of the majority of the Moraine Valley Community College (MVCC) administrative executives and board (and sadly in many other administrations and boards of higher education), this illustration explains the perception of adjuncts.  This is why adjuncts are viewed as a separate, lower class of people and easily disposable. The story is that adjuncts are the misfits who cannot find employment anywhere else.

This is, of course, ridiculous, because if it were actually believed, these people wouldn’t be fit for teaching the next generation. It’s a lie these people tell themselves to justify the flippant treatment of other people. This discussion of success should continue with an examination of how success is defined, or should be defined and then measured. No one will have this conversation though, because if the definition can be defined and measured, the picture of success would evoke change. Change is not desired.

Being a business major, I had always had an inherent distrust of unions. I had no real experience with them until I was asked to join the Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization (MVAFO). Things at Moraine Valley did not appear to be improving for the adjuncts. A few questions and no answers later, I was running for office as secretary of the MVAFO. I won the election and off I went. To begin with, I had no interest in the politics with the Local. During our board meetings, discussions increased about how to change our position with the administration. There were different points of view. I started writing a newsletter to regularly communicate with the membership. The only point which was clear to me at the time was that change appeared to be an uphill battle. There was a lack of respect for adjuncts on campus and a lack of respect for the MVAFO board. We were not included the way the other campus unions were. Our sister unions made headway on issues with each negotiation while our contract remained some eight pages long. When asked, the full time board offered ideas but no actual substantive assistance in making progress with the administration.  Our grievance chair was not offered classes to return for the spring semester. The Local wouldn’t fight for him.

In my naivete, I presumed that the reason for lack of progress was more related to how communications were being presented and by whom. So, I ran for president and won. I started by sending personal, hand written notes to fair share members to ask them to join the bargaining unit. About half joined. This increased our voice at the Local. I kept up the newsletter and started a website for the MVAFO. The administration began to invite me to attend events and meetings. I began to try and build relationships that I hoped would aid us during negotiations.

An adjunct who taught with no issues for 16 years was assigned a new department chair. Suddenly there were no classes for him and the department chair took it upon himself to torpedo any other chance the adjunct had at employment. An adjunct who had won the Adjunct of the Year award was told there were no classes for her just two weeks before the semester started. She had been assigned four. An adjunct who had taught for over 20 years and had five student endorsement letters was told there were no classes for him less than two weeks before the semester began. He had been assigned four. Two weeks before her full ukulele class was to start, an adjunct was told there were no classes for her. She was the only one able to teach this course.  Six of her students came to a board meeting to protest. They had already purchased their books and instruments.

These were not situations of bumping. These were situations where adjuncts were deliberately left in a financial lurch. Why? Whim. Whose him? Who knows? This is what can happen when there is no progressive discipline or evaluation system in writing in a contract. The administration started to insinuate ‘student complaints’ and then refused to show proof of any signed complaint citing FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). But when questioned as to why the other unions could see complaints, the answer was “it’s in their contract.” If it’s in any contract then either you’re violating FERPA by putting language in the contract or it’s not a FERPA issue.

The bottom line was facts didn’t matter.

We prepped for a year for contract negotiations. We studied other contracts and made the bargaining list, complete with solid proposals for language. We did the math for our wage increase request. We were met with hostility and accusations of bad faith at the outset. The chief negotiators made it clear that all the adjuncts in the bargaining unit could be replaced at any time and that the union had nothing to bargain with. That was, except for the unfair labor practice the MVAFO had managed to get the Local to file.  The administration went to negotiate with the president of the Local instead. All the time and effort to try and get our union a seat at the table was for nothing.

During the summer in the middle of negotiations, the retiring president received almost $400,000 as a severance. This amount would have been more than enough to cover what the adjuncts were requesting in changes to better our working conditions and further student success. The college blatantly lied on three successive AQIP reports (at the time AQIP was part of the Higher Learning Commission and reports were given to AQIP answering assessment questions about the campus) about adjuncts evaluation at the college. The college blatantly lied about shared governance with the adjunct union.

But none of the facts mattered. None of the data mattered. And in the end the president of the local sent out a letter that I did not have an opportunity to see beforehand, with my electronic signature to my membership asking for a yes vote on yet another ineffective contract.

After contract negotiations, we were asked to write a letter of support for the college’s reaffirmation to the League for Innovation in the Community Colleges. We refused but began to consider writing a letter not supporting the reaffirmation. We surveyed the membership on how innovative the college was towards adjuncts. The current college president, Sylvia Jenkins, was responsible for creating the center for teaching and learning on campus. She and the other administrative executives talk about this thing like it was the key to a 100% graduation rate. I will agree that the center is a great resource but having one is fairly standard at community colleges in this area. Having one is more like ‘keeping up with the Jone’s’ rather than a spectacular innovation. Few adjuncts use it because there is no incentive and many adjuncts don’t have the time because they are coming from or going to other jobs. Plus, this center will only accept its own courses as legitimate so if an adjunct has gone through similar training at another school where they teach, they are expected to do it all over again at Moraine.

The ACA and it’s ramifications on adjuncts was also a hot topic at this time. I worked with the IEA/NEA adjunct groups to speak to the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, (ICCTA), the (Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) and the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) to plead the case of arbitrary cutting of adjunct hours. The MVCC board of trustee election was held in the spring of 2013. Our union created and distributed elections flyers which called for fiscal responsibility, comparing the severance package of the outgoing retiring president with the tuitions hikes. The flyers that were posted on the union boards across campus were removed by the campus police. I sent two FOIA requests, which were met with derision and denial, but I did finally get the contracts for the administrative executives. Then, right at the end of finals in the spring semester, the college made a unilateral decision to not allow adjuncts to teach and work hourly. This decision had an immediate impact on about 15% of the bargaining unit. I was also working with the IEA/NEA, and with their help, drafted and sent a request to bargain over the issue. The letter not supporting the reaffirmation to the League for Innovation in the Community Colleges was also drafted this spring.

At the delegate meeting of the Local in July, I proposed the filing of two unfair labor practices, and both were approved. One of them was for the termination of yet another adjunct after classes had been assigned to him and one for the refusal of the college to bargain over not allowing adjuncts to teach and work hourly. Kurt Hale, the attorney for the law firm that represents the Local, advised me to send one more request to bargain before the ULP would be filed. I did so and discussed with my board members, delaying sending the letter to the League for Innovation until we received a response.

The classes for fall semester began. I received the second denial to bargain. I then sent the letter to the League board members and president. I did not include the president of MVCC, also a board member of the League, because months earlier I had sent the data from the innovation survey to the vice president of academic affairs and that effort produced no willingness on the part of the college to address any of the issues raised by the data. This was a Tuesday.

The only response I remember receiving from the letter to the League for Innovation was one stating something along the lines that the League was not going to become involved in a union issue. Right, because we all know that teacher working conditions have nothing to do with student success. How ridiculous. Terry O’Banion, former president of the League, came to speak for the Spring 2012 faculty in service at MVCC. He shared the points at which students are commonly lost in the semester and what could be done by faculty to help increase graduation rates for the big push toward meeting the Obama 2025 college graduation goals. The presentation was sound but academic in value, similar to the underwear gnomes in South Park going from step 1 to step 3 to make a million dollars; there were no substantial in-between steps or illustrations of how each area of the school contributes to the substantial in-between steps. Something really needs to be done about dismantling groups like the League and other snake oil vendors peddling ineffective student success concoctions.

Wednesday night was the board meeting. I was surprised that no one pulled me aside to discuss the letter to the League. I remember several students speaking out at that board meeting about not being able to be tutored by their instructors. This was a direct result of the unilateral change of not allowing adjuncts to teach and work hourly.

Thursday morning, I missed a call but I recognized the number as being from the administrative offices. When I called back, I heard the voice of the secretary of the vice president of facilities, Andrew Duren. She asked if I would be able to come in. Thursday wasn’t a teaching day at MVCC for me and I had other things to do. I told her I could make time, and just to check, I asked the purpose of the meeting. She responded that it was a disciplinary hearing. I asked for who and she replied that it was for me. I then informed her that I would have to check with the Local to see if the attorney on staff, Brenda Pryor, was available. The secretary made it clear that whether I had representation or not, I was expected to come down to campus.

The attorney for the Local called to try and schedule a meeting for Monday but the MVCC administration refused. Mr. Duren made it clear to Brenda that he wanted to take care of the issue that day. And so, since I would not come down for a meeting on campus without adequate representation, the campus chief of police came to my house to hand deliver my notice of termination at about 2pm. My email was immediately cut off and that afternoon the locks were changed on the union office at the college.

I spent most of the day on the phone. One of my union colleagues at Wright College knew the business department chair and went to ask if he had any classes. He did. Their classes started the following week. I just had to get there. But that took care of less than half the pay I would lose. I know I don’t have to explain that to anyone who has worked as an adjunct or as a ‘full-time part-time employee’. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand either. I was very grateful to have those classes and I could not have found a more supportive place to teach them than the business department at Wright College. However, when you are struggling to make it, the idea of having savings to cover you in case of whatever is fantasy. I needed a plan and I didn’t have one. I was in shock. I was upset. I was angry.

In his deposition, Mr. Duren avoided answering how much time I was actually given to appear before I was terminated (from about 8am until 2pm). Both he and Ms. Jenkins spun it as me refusing to come in to meet. They didn’t have any answers for why they didn’t speak to me at the board meeting the night before. Since I did not actually speak with Mr. Duren, but his secretary, he could not be charged with denying me union representation.

LESSON: If you’re going to be a union leader, you have to plan for the worst.

The next day my students were texting me to see what was going on because an assignment was due and they wanted to know what to do. I was supposed to receive my first paycheck, but the college reversed the deposit. The bank charged me a fee for their reversal, which overdrew my account. The day consisted of more phone calls and arranging meetings and trying to work out a plan. There was a local meeting of the chapter presidents that evening. I let everyone know that I was fired and that the letter of termination specifically stated it was because of my activities as union president. There was general support for me, but no outrage or huge outpouring of support. The Local was going through issues because of the lack of integrity of its president. Later I would find out that three attorneys had to convince the president of the local to file the ULP for my dismissal. He didn’t like me because I was willing to stand up and speak out.

I went to adjunct orientation at Wright College. I spoke with the president of the adjunct union for the City Colleges and let him know what had happened. He offered to try and speak with someone at the labor board. I emailed him several times but did not hear back from him.

The next week I was still getting texts from students. The college was slow to replace me with other instructors and, it being the beginning of the semester, the students were looking for direction.  They were given little; so much for “student success” being the primary objective of the school. I heard from several of them throughout the semester asking questions about the material, wishing I was still teaching the class and wondering what had happened. My classes started at Wright and went smoothly. I had a hard time adjusting to the forced change, but the people at Wright were amazingly supportive.

Early in the week, I met with Kurt Hale, the attorney from the law firm that represents the Local, to go over the ULP filing and process. I had notes from the day I was fired. I met with the police chief to empty out my locker and then with the MVAFO board on campus in the union office to discuss next steps. My board members were badly shaken and some were worried for their own jobs. We arranged for me to be escorted where I walked on campus so that no false accusations of my purpose there could be made. Andrew Duren called the Local to emphasize that I would be arrested for criminal trespassing if I came on campus again for any reason except for business related to my own termination. The police knew that I couldn’t be arrested unless I had received an official notice. Since the college accepts federal funds, I didn’t think they would do it, so I pushed the envelope on that a bit.

The college pushed back. The League for Innovation had a scheduled visit and they did not want me on campus. I received an official notice from the police chief. The Local filed a grievance for my termination to follow the contract. The grievance chair on staff, Chuck Mustari, and I went to the meeting. The grievance was denied. Sylvia Jenkins testified in her deposition that there was no grievance and if there had been, she would’ve denied it.

The president of the local tried to get me to resign. I refused. A precedent had already been set to allow terminated officers to finish out the term they were elected to serve. My board wouldn’t let me return to campus even though I was willing to be arrested.  I couldn’t do anything but wait for the ULP to run its course, and that would take time.

At the local delegate meeting in September, the delegates took a collection for me. It was greatly appreciated but it was noticed that some of the delegates from the sister unions at MIVCC did not contribute. The MVAFO board proposed and wrote a vote of confidence for me to present to the local. All the officers but the treasurer signed it. My treasurer quit because she feared retaliation for being on the board. I presented the resolution at the local meeting of the chapter presidents in October. After the meeting one of the other leaders advised me to pursue a First Amendment case. The president of the MVCC full-time faculty union approached me to try and broker a deal for the administration. I told him to talk to Kurt Hale and wondered whose side he was on. The next week I contacted an attorney, Wayne Giampietro, to pursue the First Amendment Case. The Local would not cover the fees for that case but the Wayne was certain I had a good case.

In November at the Local meeting, I was viciously and verbally attacked with unfounded lies by a delegate. He said that I was spreading rumors accusing the president of the Local of being incompetent and how horrible that was considering the thousands of dollars that had been spent on my defense. At that point, a bill hadn’t been sent to the Local for my defense. I hadn’t spread any rumors about anyone but had answered directly when asked about the situation. Again, I was in shock. I was upset. I was angry. But I was also becoming numb to the attacks. I determined to finish out my time, serving in my office to the best of my ability.

In January of 2014, the federal judge dismissed my First Amendment case against the college. Wayne called me and let me know we were appealing. So the appeal was filed. Wayne and I attended a mandatory settlement meeting for the First Amendment case in April. In August, Kurt and I attended a settlement meeting for the labor board. The courts want to see if the cases can be settled before moving on to appeal.  I heard “don’t you want to move on with your life?” too many times. These cases weren’t preventing me from moving on with my life. I had moved on with my life. Apparently, too many people have settled when they should be fighting for justice. My depression and all the crap I went through wouldn’t be satisfied by me settling, so the next person would have to fight the battle from scratch. When injustice is settled and not challenged, arrogant bullies believe they have done nothing wrong and continue to do whatever they want, unchecked.

I won the appeal in federal court. The American Association of University Professors contacted me about my case. I was surprised to actually have a group reach out to me. The support was so refreshing after everything I had been through. Until that point, I literally felt all alone. I applied for and received an AAUP grant of $10,000 to help with the legal fees for my First Amendment case. Through the AAUP, I have been able to connect with a tremendous support network for adjuncts and academic freedom, including the AAUP Committee A, Hank Reichman, Peter Kirstein, John Wilson, Miranda Merklein, New Faculty Majority, Maria Maisto Lynch, Precaricorps, Bri Bolen, Lee Kottner and others.

Currently, I’ve won my case with the labor board (IELRB), but the college is appealing. The new president at the local, Dave Richmond, is willing to continue supporting this case. For the First Amendment case, which is in federal court, winning the appeal gave me the opportunity to have a hearing, which is in the works. Dave Richmond contacted the AFT and started the ball rolling for the AFT to file an amicus brief on my behalf for this case. I’m not giving up. The appeals will be exhausted with time. I will win, but more importantly, precedent will be set to help those who fight in the struggle after me.

Even now it is difficult for me to write about the feelings and thoughts surrounding the experience.  Going through being fired and having so many doors shut and others open, both unexpected. Trying to find the correct adjective, even trying to nail down the exact emotion, is a struggle. I suppose that means I haven’t reached the stage of acceptance yet. I wonder if I ever will. However, today, while considering how to finish this article, I ran into a former student who has just graduated with her Bachelor’s degree. She was in my class years ago at Moraine Valley and struggled to get through school. She thanked me for my teaching and for inspiring her to persevere to complete her degree.  So, I will call my time as an adjunct at Moraine Valley a success.

Robin Meade has been a professor of business for over 15 years. She currently teaches online at Triton College and is a management consultant specializing in project and change management. She has three children and lives outside Chicago. You can reach her at birgitta025@yahoo.com.

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