Some Advice About Advice

Gregory Zobel has a terrific blog called Adjunct Advice. It’s a terrific blog, because Zobel gives some terrific advice. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s true. About a week ago, Zobel published an interview with the Associate Director of Field Services and Communications at American Federation of Teachers. Zobel writes, “In spite of my relative ignorance, I firmly believe that unions represent the best and strongest hope for adjuncts to engage in collective action to obtain professional parity.” Not to be unkind, but giving advice from the perspective of relative ignorance is never a good idea. People have been giving opinions from that perspective since, well, someone convinced Aaron to make that Golden Calf, because Moses was never going to come down from the mountain. Further, interviewing someone like the Associate Director of Field Services and Communications at American Federation of Teachers from a perspective of “relative ignorance” results in, well, just the kind of interview people like the Associate Director of Field Services and Communications at American Federation of Teachers thrive on.

In the interview, which I suspect was written (the worst kind of interviews, because the interviewer really has no recourse to ask follow-up questions, and this shows in Zobel’s piece), the AFT rep. talks up FACE. That’s his job, of course. He says “AFT has been working on contingent faculty issues for some time now. That work has mainly been through local bargaining efforts and state level legislative work.” Um….again, not to fault Zobel for his efforts, but this where his ignorance and knickers show clearly. At the new Western Washington University local, the union just negotiated a first contract on behalf of both full-time and temporary faculty. The full-timers negotiated themselves raises 12-14 times larger in dollars than they did for their NTT union brothers and sisters, plus $4,000 in merit pay payable to tenured and tenure-track faculty only. In fact, Western Washington’s “bargaining efforts” as the AFT rep. refers to the group’s work, are typical within AFT affiliates nation-wide. Equal percentage raises work only to sustain and widen pay/benefit gaps between union members.

The AFT rep. goes on to give Zobel the skinny on the AFT’s FACE efforts. I have written about FACE here, here and here. He tells Zobel, “FACE has been criticized by some for being all about creating more full-time positions and not about the needs of contingent faculty….Now obviously, that is the model legislation and it will get altered as it moves into and through a state legislature or through the bargaining process.” Hell yes it has gotten “altered.” In this case “altered” can be defined as “all talk of pay equity and job security for part-timers gets removed from the legislation, and AFT goes ahead and takes the money anyway.” It happened in New York, and it happened in Washington State.

Zobel asks a good question: “If adjuncts are in a union which does not address their concerns, how can they pressure their union to deal with those issues?” The AFT rep. answers thusly: “Unions are some of the most democratic organizations in this country, and as such, all union members have multiple avenues to make sure their voices are heard and their concerns addressed. The bottom line is participation. As I said earlier, unions are the people who make them up. It is not a third party organization; its members organize collectively to empower themselves.”

Yes, I am rolling my eyes, and making that pfffffft sound. First I want you to go to the AFT web site and download the group’s Constitution and bylaws. You can’t. They’re not posted. Second, are you feeling like you’d like to participate on, say, the AFT’s Higher Education Policy Group, the group that came up with FACE in the first place (FACE did not originate from the membership)? Well, you can’t volunteer or get elected to the group; you get appointed. And if you think getting appointed to AFT leadership positions is the result of volunteer efforts and organizing successes, you’re dead wrong.

In Washington state, AFT Washington’s President was recently appointed to the AFT Higher Education Policy Group. In the seven years prior to her appointment, under her leadership, AFT Washington added 55 new members each year total, in a state with 10,000 part-timers. AFT Washington’s president tripled the number of staff at the union, increased pay to union officers from $644 in 2001 to $111,000 in 2007, and in 2007 paid herself a salary equal to almost 10 percent of the total $1.1 million dollar revenue of the local. The previous president of the union paid herself a nominal $4,500 per year. Under AFT Washington’s current president, the union has decreased the amount spent on representational activities as a percentage of total revenue, while spending more and more each year on overhead, political causes, staff salaries and benefits. All the while, AFT Washington’s part-timers have seen their pay increased by just $60 per course per year.

Despite all this, AFT leaders in Washington, D.C. rewarded AFT Washington’s president with a position as a Vice President on the AFT Higher Education Policy Group.

The AFT’s rep. told Greg Zobel: “[AFT’s] work includes not only policy statements on how contingent faculty should be treated, but is backed by a deep commitment of organizing contingent faculty, bargaining the strongest contracts we can and working as hard on the legislative front as we can to promote fairness and equity for contingent faculty.”

If AFT Washington’s president represents a “deep commitment of organizing contingent faculty, [and] bargaining the strongest contracts we can,” every part-time faculty member represented by AFT is in deep, deep trouble. The truth that Zobel didn’t know when he posed his questions to the AFT rep. is that the brand of “management” adopted by the union leaders in Washington State is the rule among state AFT unions, and not the exception.

All of this our friendly neighborhood AFT rep. conveniently neglected to mention, and Greg Zobel neglected to ask about. At base, I don’t fault Zobel; he was clearly out of his league. I congratulate AFT, because as U.S. aphorist Mason Cooley once said, “The best propaganda omits rather than invents.” Greg Zobel came face-to-face with AFT’s nice brand of public relations strategy. It is best described by this quote from philosopher Hannah Arendt: “Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda.” The AFT’s Associate Director of Field Services and Communications works for the elite; Gregory Zobel gave that elite an opportunity to speak to their masses.

Here’s my advice: Actions speak louder than words, and at AFT, there is not a single part-time faculty member in a leadership position within the union’s Higher Education Policy Group, and the union represents some 60,000 part-timers. Is it that not a single one of those part-time faculty members has what it takes to be chosen for a leadership position within AFT? I wish Gregory Zobel had asked that of our friendly neighborhood AFT Associate Director of Field Services and Communications. I would have been interested in the answer.

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