At CCV, Something’s Boiling in the Sugar House

by P.D. Lesko

Polly Ellerbe, Julie Waters, Heather Luden and Catherine O’Callaghan all teach at the Community College of Vermont. They are not employed in the same department, and prior to 2003 had never met. Today, these four women lead the effort to unionize the over 700 part-time faculty who teach on a dozen campuses of the Community College of Vermont, as well as in the college’s distance education program. Their reasons for involving themselves in the effort to organize the adjuncts are as varied as their backgrounds and the disciplines they teach.

According to budget information supplied by the college, during fiscal 2002-2003, the institution spent $5.6 million dollars on salaries and benefits for about 150 full- and part-time staff. During the same year, the institution spent approximately $4.4 million dollars on salaries and benefits for its 700 instructors. During 2002-2003, those 700 instructors generated $9.8 million dollars in tuition revenue, or 66 percent of the college’s total $14.9 million budget.

The Community College of Vermont was founded in 1970, and accredited in 1975 by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The institution serves nearly 8,000 students annually. What makes the Community College of Vermont stand out from among other two-year institutions is that the college employes a faculty comprised entirely of part-time instructors. These part-timers are hired and supervised by full- or part-time site coordinators, who oversee instruction at the institution’s 12 campuses. Perhaps even before John Sperling had dreamed of a University of Phoenix, and an employment model based on the almost exclusive use of part-time faculty, there was the Community College of Vermont.

Luden, Waters, Ellerbe and O’Callaghan hope a union will bring CCV’s part-timers higher wages and health insurance. Without aiming to, however, they may also undo a 30-year tradition at CCV of relying solely on temporary faculty.

How long have you been teaching at CCV, and what do you teach? Which degrees do you hold (B.A., M.A., etc…) and which disciplines are they in?

Ellerbe: I have been teaching at CCV for about four years. At present , I teach introductory and organic chemistry. I have a B.S. in chemistry from Brandeis, a master’s in chemistry from UCSD, a master’s in German from Middlebury, and a Ph.D. in chemistry from NYU.

Waters: I’ve taught at CCV since Spring of 2001. I teach a whole range of courses: psychology & computing primarily. I’ve taught several communications courses and occasionally teach history, sociology and music courses.

O’Callaghan: I have been teaching at CCV for five years. I teach Comp. Religion, Mythology, Folklore, Dimensions of Learning, Seminar in Educational Inquiry, and English Comp. My BA is in religion and literature from Fordham University, I also have a Master’s of Theological Studies from Weston Jesuit School of Theology and have done work on my Ph.D. at the Graduate Theologicial Union in Berkeley, CA.

Luden: My first semester with CCV was January-May, 2003. I teach writing classes – Basic Writing, English Composition, Creative Writing, and Creative Nonfiction. I have a B.A. in English from Bryn Mawr College, an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College, and a certificate in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from the School for International Training.

Do you teach at any other colleges, as well? Do you hold a job outside of teaching? If so, what do you do?

Ellerbe: I teach at Norwich University, Champlain College, and Woodbury College, as well as at CCV.

Waters: I don’t teach at other colleges. I do Web design and professional trainings and I’m a musician as well.

O’Callaghan: I only teach at CCV.

Luden: No, I don’t teach at any other colleges. I usually do hold a part-time job outside of teaching; I’ve held a variety since moving to Brattleboro: in retail, as an administrative assistant, as a recreation/activities coordinator at a boarding school, as an outreach worker for a social services agency, as a substitute in the public schools.

My decision to prioritize my teaching has created certain challenges. My teaching schedule – both the time of day and the day of the week – changes with every semester, and I do not have any input into what I am offered. As an English teacher, it has been difficult to find a part-time job willing to accommodate my schedule’s changes every 3-4 months.

We would like to see CCV adopt a model that balances the benefits of both part- and full-time faculty. I’ve met accountants and massage therapists at CCV for whom the adjunct format works well for both them and for their students. I consider myself a professional teacher, however, and would like to be recognized as such.

Do you have any experience in labor organizing? Do you wish you had?

Ellerbe: I have no experience in labor organizing.

Waters: I have experience with activism, but not specific to labor organizing. My activism experience, however, has helped me considerably with respect to how to present a controversial idea for public consumption.

O’Callaghan: No experience in labor organizing.

Luden: No, I had none prior to this past year. I wish I had. I belonged to a union when I taught at the Community College of Philadelphia a few years ago but I was not active at all. I was attracted to CCP by such things as access to affordable health care, prep pay for every teaching hour, paid vacations, a clear and transparent seniority policy and evaluation policy, etc. I was vaguely aware then that these things were being promoted and protected by the union, and I wish I had paid more attention.

How did you initially become involved in the unionizing efforts at the college?

Ellerbe: First, several aspects of the administration’s anti-union letter made me furious: the condescending tone [we know better than you], the misuse of numbers, the so-obvious attempts to spin the facts. Second, Catherine called.

Waters: Catherine called me a short while after we’d first met at a faculty dinner and proposed it to me. When she mentioned it, I felt terrified of it. But that was actually the selling point for me. If I was that terrified of what could happen to me for being part of it, it very much needed to happen.

O’Callaghan: I placed the initial call to the UPV/AFT and gathered the first group of faculty together. I chose UPV/AFT because they represent the VSC part-time faculty. I made this call because I saw a long time, excellent faculty member simply not asked back for no good reason. I thought it was probably only a matter of time until this happened to me.

Luden: During my first semester at CCV, I quickly became aware of certain obstacles to my success and the success of my students: lack of access to the photocopy machine, no office hours, no office facility for faculty, no faculty lounge, no voicemail, no e-mail accounts, overly large classes, an absence of good student advising, high faculty turnover.

Toward the end of that semester, I wrote an e-mail to my academic coordinator, which I copied to a dean of students, offering to make myself available to CCV for three classes per semester. CCV responded by telling me that if I could get a full-time job in the area, I should accept it because CCV wanted to keep a wide pool of available instructors in order to protect itself against teachers turnover. I was particularly struck by how quickly my employer encouraged me to go elsewhere when I had just spent a semester working very hard to become one of their best teachers.

Afterwards, I began to keep a log of changes that I believed would not only improve the situation for teachers, but for the administration and students, as well. I didn’t have any plan for this log, but it helped me to cope with feeling increasingly demoralized. In December, 2003, Catherine O’Callaghan called me to ask if I had any interest in discussing the possibility of a union drive at CCV.

I felt a professional and personal responsibility to the students I had met at CCV in my three semesters, and chose to stay on at CCV to work to change it into the kind of place my students need instead of walking away to a job with fair wages, benefits, and job security. I went to that first meeting with my log and have spent some portion of almost every week since then working on this union drive.

Whom do you turn to for advice in this quest to form a union?

Ellerbe: We mainly turn to each other for advice. We have just this January been assigned help from the United Professions of Vermont, and this has been of great help with the drudgery and with facilities. However, we have had to filter the UPV advice through our own experience to a considerable extent.

O’Callaghan: My colleagues and UPV.

Luden: Primarily, I turn to my fellow faculty organizers: Catherine O’Callaghan, Julie Waters, Polly Ellerbe, Elizabeth McHale, Bill Noble, Kevin Brennan. The staff of the United Professions of Vermont has been invaluable, offering advice, support, and good cheer. The people I’ve worked with at the UPV—Roy Vestrich, Steve Finner, and Dan Justice—have made themselves available to us by phone, e-mail, and meetings throughout this year. Lastly, I try not to reinvent the wheel. I read the Web site of the American Federation of Teachers and Web pages of other union drives, etc….

Did you have any reservations about becoming involved in the organizing efforts? Do you have any reservations about being involved now?

Ellerbe: In the beginning I had considerable reservations about becoming involved; I was afraid I would not be hired again. After the first administration anti-union letter, I said the hell with it, I will not be afraid; damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Waters: I was scared at the time, and I get nervous about it sometimes today, but I think it’s important.

O’Callaghan: My reservations were simply fear that I would not be hired to teach. This has not happened, but it is still a fear.

Luden: Well, I was concerned about losing my job because the process by which teachers are or are not offered teaching positions each semester is utterly arbitrary, and I knew there were no policies in place which would protect my job. I also did not look forward to the discomfort my involvement would introduce into my relations with the “middle management” administrators at my site: those who had not formed these policies I had chosen to confront, but whose job it was to implement them.

By now, I’ve become so much more deeply involved that I’m no longer afraid of losing my job. I’ve gained a level of “safety in numbers” as faculty have joined us in support, and it’s true that there is no safer place to be in a union drive than right out front.

I have also heard enough stories from faculty over this past year to confirm that my experience at CCV is not an isolated one. This has clarified my thinking and strengthened my resolve. It has also buffered me from the tensions that may have existed with administration. Most importantly, though, I’m not afraid to lose my job anymore because I believe that my students deserve more than they are getting.

What has been difficult for you in participating in this organizing effort?

Ellerbe: The most difficult thing for me has been contacting people, face-to-face and by phone, whom I don’t know, even though they are CCV instructors. I’m just not used to this sort of thing.

Waters: Mostly time and organization. We’re a campus with a dozen sites throughout a fairly sizeable geographic region. Most of us don’t know one another. I teach at one site and I teach on-line. I’ve met many of my colleagues, but only in passing. I’m not sure how effective what I’ve been doing really is.

Luden: Working for the union has been like finally getting that full-time job CCV encouraged me to find.

What have you found most satisfying?

Ellerbe: The most satisfying thing for me has been meeting all these people, along with discovering how much we have in common. I have had some marvelous conversations!

Waters: Making friends with co-workers whom I’d never met before.

O’Callaghan: Most satisfying has been meeting my colleagues around the state. The nature of adjunct work is isolating and particularly so at CCV. We have a revolving door of faculty from semester to semester. Being part of the campaign has given me meaningful connections and community.

Luden: I find it very satisfying to recognize that simply by staying with it we have managed to keep this campaign alive for a year, to the point that we now have full-time professional staff support. I find it very satisfying to remember that this was done on sheer faith in the issues, and through a sense of responsibility to each other. I also feel a sense of satisfaction that I have put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, by trying to prevent yet another employer from robbing its employees of the basics of fair compensation and professional dignity.

CCV’s business model, formulated in 1970, relies on (until recently) owning no property and employing part-time faculty exclusively. In fact, it is a model that has been successfully copied by other community colleges and some for profit colleges, as well. In a sense, if your organizing drive succeeds, this business model could be drastically changed (for instance, the union could demand the college convert some of the part-time positions to full-time) not just at CCV, but also at community colleges throughout the United States. Comments?

Ellerbe: The original business model was quite possibly appropriate for when the total enrollment of CCV over the entire state was a few hundred students. That model was based on the assumption that a teacher would “drop in” from his or her regular job to teach a course. The teacher’s main income and benefits would be from the regular job.

That assumption no longer holds when in one semester nearly 2,000 students pass through the Burlington site alone (There are 12 CCV sites). From the data that we have been able to gather, the majority of CCV faculty don’t just “drop in” to teach one course, but rather teach regularly throughout the year, and the money that they earn from CCV is a substantial part of their incomes.

O’Callaghan: It is exploitative to use this model and it does not serve our students. Standards cannot be maintained if faculty are just here for a term or so.

Luden: The union drive points to some serious flaws in CCV’s model. It may be good for business, but it’s certainly not good for students. CCV students pay some of the highest tuition rates in this country among community college students, while CCV’s teachers are asked to go without benefits, fair compensation, or job security.

Who, exactly, does such a business model serve? CCV has invested in its administrative infrastructure at the expense of its teachers. Why don’t we have voicemail or e-mail? Why don’t we have professional development opportunities? Why don’t we have a seniority policy? CCV has not invested in its faculty and, as a result, it has made itself dependent on an economy in which teachers teach only as a kind of sideline.

How have CCV administrators responded to your organizing efforts and overtures? Is the response what you expected? How about the Vermont College System, to which CCV belongs, any response from that organization?

Ellerbe: The CCV administration has responded with anti-union letters. However, the Chancellor of the Vermont State College system has posted on the System’s Internet portal that he considers the work of managing five unions challenging, and that expedited win-win negotiations can be a boost for all. Since the system handles five unions already, a sixth should not be much of a problem, and since the Chancellor agrees that win-win negotiations are a boost to all, CCV administrators should have no problem negotiating a contract.

Waters: There has been some public discouragement of the union effort, but it hasn’t been intense or hostile.

O’Callaghan: CCV administrators sent out letters to our home addresses against the unionization effort.

Luden: In the Vermont way of things, I expected them [CCV administrators] to call a town hall-like meeting to address our grievances directly; I did not expect a five-page proclamation defending their position and denying our concerns. CCV’s administrators have formally and publicly opposed our union campaign. They responded to our letter introducing the campaign to our fellow faculty with a five-page memo laying out their argument against not only the union, but against any change to their business and academic model at all. They have never approached us with an offer of compromise of any sort. They have never called for any type of discussion, debate, or public forum on this dissatisfaction they have apparently been surprised to find amongst their faculty.

How have your part-time faculty colleagues responded to your efforts? Is the response what you expected?

Ellerbe: So far, when asked about a union, a substantial portion of the part-time faculty has said “Great idea!” Another substantial portion has asked for more information, and when given that information, has decided “Great idea!” I know of two people who are anti-union, both of whom are anti-any-union on principle. I didn’t know what the response would be.

Waters: I think it has been mixed: some fear, and some opposition, but most of the responses I’ve heard have been positive.

O’Callaghan: Positively. This is what I expected.

Luden: People have ranged from curious, open, and interested to very supportive in the main. We have, as a group, heard from only a few faculty who oppose a union at CCV. I did not expect communicating with my colleagues to be the most difficult aspect of this union campaign, however. As a college that is dispersed across 12 sites plus on-line, spread across Vermont, lacking a faculty network of any kind—e-mail, newsletter, listserv, etc.– and unorganized into departments, CCV poses an enormous challenge when it comes to gauging and formulating any consensus. I would have expected CCV to be more “sporting” in its willingness to allow us, its faculty, a means by which to discuss taking this very significant step.

Thus far, what is the most valuable lesson this effort has taught you?

Ellerbe: Firstly, what all of us who teach at CCV have in common; I am not alone in my concerns. Secondly, how bitterly the administration will fight before it gives up any turf.

Waters: Wow. I’m not even sure where to begin. I think it’s mostly a good lesson in keeping the line between professional and personal. I’ve seen some very personal reactions to this. And, to be sure, it is quite personal on one level. But this isn’t really about the personal. It’s about the structure in place and the decision-making processes in play. With the current staff in administrative roles, for example. I have absolutely no fear whatsoever that my contracts will not be renewed on the basis of my not being heterosexual. I do, however, have concerns about what the next people in charge will do. Learning to frame the discussion in those terms, and to keep it from spiraling downward into personal battles is extremely important.

O’Callaghan: That it is difficult for people to face the truth of how CCV provides its education—in an exploitative way.

Luden: I have met many faculty who choose to do this work despite the poor working conditions, low pay, and lack of job security. Community college educators have the power to improve the lives of the people they work with and many have chosen to do so.

You sent out an open letter to your colleagues in spring 2004; you have a Web page {} that has been visited well over 1,000 times. What’s your next project? A newsletter? Campus meetings?

Waters: We’re in the planning stages for the next steps.

O’Callaghan: We have a newsletter coming out, we have ongoing meetings, we just completed a successful phone blitz.

Any parting advice?

Ellerbe: The work has its own rewards, but it takes a lot of time. And I don’t know if we could do it without the Internet.

Waters: Talk about it and if there’s momentum, do it. Don’t get caught up in fear. But if you do it, don’t make it reactive and really think about exactly what your goals are without getting sucked into every little detail. Don’t let anyone set your agenda for you. It’s easy for people in supervisory positions to phrase things in a way that will push your buttons. It’s easy to react out of frustration and anger, and while it’s understandable to do so, it’s counter-productive in the long run.

But mostly remember that if you’re not willing to be public about something, you’re not giving anyone else a motivation to do so. It’s up to you to stand up and say what’s right, and you can’t expect anyone else to do it for you.

O’Callaghan: Be brave and call the institution’s bluff.

Luden: Retain your sense of humor at all costs. Find encouragement in the foibles of human nature instead of becoming a misanthrope. Make sure you have a partner/spouse/best friend with a lot of patience. Buy a cheap phone calling card and get a good Internet plan with unlimited hours.

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