In the Shadow of the Rouge Plant: Dearborn’s Newest Labor Union

by Marjorie Lynn

Bill Norris had had enough. Finally, in early summer of 2007, he became fed up with the situation of so many of the adjunct faculty and approached the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, AFL-CIO to begin the process of organizing almost 600 part-time faculty at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, MI. Aided by John MacDonald, the President of the HFCC-FT Local 1650 (the full-time faculty union) and by the AFT, the HFCC-AFO (Adjunct Faculty Organization) began holding meetings to gauge interest in unionizing. Plenty of it was found.

Indeed, from those initial meetings in the summer, through the labor-intensive Pledge Drive during the Fall term, to certification by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission in December, the AFO moved very quickly through the initial process toward becoming a union. They got membership cards signed by well over the 30 percent of the names required. They filed these with MERC in December; MERC agreed that enough interest had been shown to warrant an election which they held in early spring 2008, and won.

When this piece was written, the AFO aided by AFT representatives was negotiating with the Administration and its lawyers to determine the process for an election and the limits of the bargaining unit. This sticky process was frustrating and time-consuming as the administration wanted fewer in the unit and the union wanted all part-timers to be included.

“We did a lot of work in a few months!” said Mary Beck, who is the official spokesperson until a union can be officially formed and officers elected.

I spoke with both of the AFT staff organizers, Lynn Marie Smith and Dave Dobbie, with the AFO spokeswoman Mary Beck, and visited a weekly meeting of the AFO Organizing Committee. This committed group meets every Saturday from 3:30 – 5:00 at their off-campus office on Michigan Avenue. When I arrived a little after 3:00, Lynn Marie Smith and Dave Dobbie, the paid AFT organizers, were busily planning the agenda. Ultimately, about ten members arrived.

The group is justifiably proud of their work and hen I spoke with them, they were a bit grumpy about the foot-dragging of the Administration. They seemed surprised by my surprise at their dedication and speed, and were eager to share their stories.

ML: Why did it take the part-timers so long to move? After all, the full-time faculty which includes non-tenured instructors as well as librarians and counselors has been an AFT Local for over 40 years. Even support staff and even administrators have unions already.

Dave Dobbie, AFT Staff Organizer: Some campaigns had been started before, but they never made it all the way through. This time the AFO has a solid group of core leaders who are really committed.

Ron Webb: The FT 1650 (full timer union HFCC-FT, Local 1650) had been pushing people, but there just was no adjunct leader. Finally, one person got off his duff and got us going. (He pointed to Bill Norris across the room)

Bill Norris: That failed attempt in the early 80’s was half-assed. Even though I was teaching sociology part-time then while I had a full-time job in human resources elsewhere, I didn’t even hear about any organizing effort at the time. I knew I wasn’t getting paid much to teach these classes, but I loved it. It wasn’t until I retired from my day job, and I began to teach more that I learned just how bad the situation was for most part-timers. So, since I require my students to do some sort of civic action, I felt I had to as well, and getting us organized seemed like the best bet.

ML: How about others of you? Why did you get involved?

Ron Webb: Henry Ford Community College is part of the Dearborn Public School system. I had been teaching English at Dearborn High School full- time during the day, and teaching night classes at the college. We got paid for overload based on our regular full-time wages, and I assumed the other part-timers were like me. But when I retired in 2004 and my pay dropped back to the usual pay for part-time teachers, and I began to hear how so many of them had to live, racing to several campuses, I was stunned. When I heard of this recent effort, I felt something had to be done.

Joe Sorokac: I’m also retired; I practiced psychology in the state system. For me, I view the world simply. The way they cut the pie at HFCC just isn’t fair. The administrators’ union gets about 30 percent, FT 1650 gets about 30 percent, the union that represents everyone else but us gets about 30 percent–that leaves a tiny slice of pie for us. What an insult. We’re want to see that damn pie cut into even slices!

Mary Beck: I’ve been here about five years. I started teaching when my kids no longer needed me as much. I found the pay insultingly low, but my biggest hardship as an adjunct is the lack of private office space. About twenty of us share space at different times of the day and week. I teach psychology, and especially in my child psychology classes, issues can get stirred up for students and they need to talk. I met with one girl in “The Bones Room” where skeletons for anatomy classes are stored!

ML: Why do you care about a union, if you’re not dependent on this job?

Beck: I know many adjuncts do need their jobs here. As I heard about the struggles of others, I decided to get involved. It’s an issue of justice.

Sherry Morgan: I’ve been teaching business and economics here since 1975. My work is a legacy for me too because I expect to quit teaching in a few years.

Glenn O’Kray: I retired from directing financial aid at HFCC and had been involved in starting the Administrators’ Union. But when I came back to teach, I got bumped. Part-timers need more protection.

Amy Dewys-Van Hecke: While I’m not nearing retirement, I do have my own consulting business and a couple of kids to take care of. I came to HFCC to teach for my own pleasure, but as I met people and got to know their stories, I realized I had to do what I tell my anthropology students to do—commit to some action during the term. Even though I wasn’t sure how I could help, I find I can do phone calls all day!

Beck: I prefer the face-to-face. I also encourage my students to become active. I tell them when there’s something wrong, you just have to speak up! (She came in with a handful of petitions students had signed as part of the AFO’s next step in the campaign to intensify pressure on the administration.)

ML: Why did you get to be the spokeswoman , Mary?

Beck: I have a private psychology practice, so I’m not dependent on the job. This gives me the freedom to be outspoken. And, I was willing to be on a radio show panel about part-timer issues in the spring of 2007. That was a new experience for me.

ML: You said you all got a lot done in a short amount of time, and as a veteran of three drives which lasted much longer, I agree! How’d you all accomplish this?

Beck: We were very methodical. A few of us did the bulk of the work, but others from the full-time union and neighboring unions helped, too. We gave at least two days a week, including evenings and Saturdays to meeting with people. I rearranged my schedule for my private practice so I could spend two days a week and usually more. We just committed ourselves.

ML: So, how’d it go?

Beck: Well, we met up with some hard-liners, of course, those people who are anti-union for whatever reason. A few were fearful about signing the cards, but did so when we assured them that their signatures were confidential. The fear surely comes from the desperate need for the job.
However, most were pretty receptive, especially those who have been around a long time.

Lynn Marie Smith, an AFT staff organizer and “coach”: Organizing academics can be complicated by the way they view themselves as professionals, rather than workers like service employees. The light doesn’t come on for them until someone in an organizing conversation helps them discover for themselves that they are exploited, they do deserve better pay and working conditions, that they don’t need to be told to go find another job.

ML: So, since several of you are retired, you can afford to not be afraid?

Morgan: Yes, we know they need us, but some of the younger people did hesitate. They don’t have retirement income; this job is their livelihood.
ML: Were there any surprises?

Beck: Hah! The Administration sent all adjuncts a letter during our fall organizing campaign saying that they did not see that a union would help serve adjunct faculty better and they didn’t think it would be good for the community or the students for us to form a union. Most of us found that letter so insulting that it probably helped us get more signatures more quickly!

ML: Now that you have passed the first couple of hurdles, what’s next?

Smith: They understand that the pressure they applied today must be maintained and will determine the power and success they have in their contract tomorrow. They know they’ll have to remain strong and committed.

Beck: Negotiating with MERC and the Administration about who will be in the bargaining unit. We want everybody who teaches part time, but they only want people who have been here more than one year and who teach more than one class. They are calling the rest casual laborers, sort of like the kid who mows your grass. It’s pretty hard; they’ve hired a top gun lawyer.

Dobbie: Michigan does not have very good labor law. In Michigan “casual labor” is not part of the legal framework, and that’s what they want to call us.

Glenn O’Kray: What’s that old saying? “Labor does not begin unions, management does.” Management gets the union it deserves.

ML: How does this campaign compare with others you’ve worked on?

Dobbie: Henry Ford Community College is part of the K-12 school system in Dearborn, so many of the adjuncts live right in Dearborn and have taught at the college for many, many years as adjuncts while teaching in the public school system by day.

ML: Usually the public schools pay their teachers better than colleges pay their adjuncts, so why is the pay scale so low? (Wages at HFCC for initial 3 hours course are $1504 and go up to $1798 after four years, the lowest on the scale of nearby community colleges.)

Dobbie: Probably stagnation. The whole issue just wasn’t being given any thought. Adjuncts had no organization and the administration, like those elsewhere, just continued to load work onto the adjuncts without giving them recognition or pay. Informally, we’ve heard they seem to be embarrassed by these facts.

ML: What’s been rewarding for you about working with the Adjunct Faculty Organization?

Dobbie: Seeing the organizing committee develop a strong sense of self-confidence. And as they have organized others, people across campus have come together, learned each other’s stories, and discovered a sense of how important and connected this union can make them.
Smith: Organizing is a calling, not a job. It’s always empowering to help people discover their own power and move to make changes for the better.

Meanwhile, this fledgling union has a website, publishes monthly newsletters, and holds weekly strategy meetings to plan the sales efforts to the adjunct faculty and the administration to ensure success at the upcoming election and beyond. Commitment and enthusiasm run high. When I left the meeting, Dave Dobbie and Lynn Marie Smith began to report on the discussions with the administration about who will be in the bargaining unit and anger began to flare. They began to buckle down to divide up tasks for working phone banks, getting students to sign petitions, and carry on the fight.

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