Saturday, November 6, 2010

Organizing Victory: Why Economic Decline Is No Excuse For Broken Promises

Michelle Tokarczyk
   Goucher College
At the end of Capitalism: A Love Story Michael Moore depicts incidents of rebellion: workers taking over a factory, families refusing to vacate a foreclosed home, citizens marching on Wall Street. These sites of resistance remind and inspire viewers that despite the capitalism’s reach, when people recognize and assert their rights, they can (surprisingly) prevail. I write now as the president of a new AAUP chapter that has achieved a small, but noteworthy, victory.

For the past several years the Goucher College faculty has clashed with the administration. Each year was marked by another attempt by the administration to rein in faculty: a move to impose merit pay, an attempt to dismantle faculty legislation, the abolition of the academic dean position. Each of these moves reflects disregard for the academic principle of shared governance and suggests the imposition of a top-down corporate model.

While we had vigorous meetings in which a number of faculty members challenged the administration, the faculty as a whole exhibited a kind of false consciousness specific to academia. Academic institutions are often insular, and Goucher’s small size (1400 students and 173 faculty members) as well as its geography increase this insularity. Located less than ten miles from Baltimore and in the heart of a suburban business district, the campus’s lush 287-acres replete with deer and hiking trails have earned it the appellation of “the Goucher bubble.” Because Goucher is a teaching college with a 3-3 course load and heavy committee work, faculty members who want a professional life beyond the college must struggle to find time for scholarly activities. Many give up. As a result, Goucher’s status and one’s professional status are, for many faculty, inextricably linked.
Also, as my scholarship in working-class studies has indicated, faculty members are often from the middle and upper classes, where the idea of unions or professional advocacy organizations is an anathema. As good progressives, faculty will certainly support blue-collar unions, even teachers’ unions, but they will balk at the suggestion that “independent agents” with doctorates should organize to improve their working conditions.
The inertia of many colleagues was indeed discouraging for those of us who wanted to challenge the administration’s top-down model. However, as an activist friend of mine says, “your boss is your best organizer.” Finally, the administration went too far.
The 2008 recession hit Goucher as it did every higher education institution. After consulting with representatives from faculty leadership, the administration froze salaries for the 2009-2010 academic year. For the most part, faculty accepted this freeze as necessary. By the time contracts were drawn up, however, the administration decided that further cuts were necessary, and the college would reduce its contribution to its employees’ TIAA-CREF retirement accounts from 200% of employees’ minimum required contribution to 50% of this amount. Faculty contracts run from September to September; staff contracts, in contrast, run from July to July. Apparently, the administration did not want to compute the start dates for two sets of contracts. It implemented faculty cuts in July of 2009—in effect, cutting benefits we’d already earned.
The timing of these cuts infuriated faculty members more than the cuts themselves. To us, cutting the contributions in July and August of 2009 was a clear violation of our contracts. The administration disputed—and still disputes—that it was guilty of any contractual or ethical violation. Yet as I have explained to those outside academia, their action is comparable to hiring someone to work for $10 an hour and then on payday and saying you can afford only $5 an hour. An understood agreement is broken.
Representatives from the national AAUP came to a faculty meeting in June of 2009 and met with a few faculty members over the summer. In the fall of 2009 the Goucher College AAUP chapter was revived; our first task was to get restitution of the disputed TIAA-CREF funds.
Although we were skeptical of working with the administration, we decided to make one last attempt to resolve the matter internally before resorting to legal action. Ideally, we wanted to get the faculty at large—not just AAUP members—to endorse a demand letter. I presented the case at a faculty meeting, and a substantial majority of those present voted to send the letter to the president (with copies to the Chair of the Board of Trustees and college counsel). A few days later, the president indicated a willingness to meet with the faculty chair and chairs of relevant committees and reluctantly, the president of AAUP.
At one point during our first meeting the president stated that lawyers had said the college was not at fault, and that it would indeed have a good case, should it go to court. I responded that if we wanted to go to court, we’d go to court. The discussions proceeded.
Ultimately, the college agreed to return the disputed TIAA-CREF funds so long as 115 faculty members signed a statement acknowledging that the college had admitted no wrongdoing and that the faculty members would take no legal action. On the advice of the national AAUP, the Goucher College chapter decided to hire a lawyer to review the proposed agreement. Our chapter dues coupled with funds from the Maryland State Conference AAUP provided necessary funds. The only concern our lawyer had about the proposed agreement was the requirement that 115 faculty sign waivers. We met the waiver requirements. In the summer of 2010 the disputed funds were restored.
   The fall of 2010 has been the first in several years without a battle between the administration and the faculty. Perhaps this is coincidental, or perhaps the AAUP chapter has shifted the power dynamics by demonstrating to the administration that we will stand up to unilateral decisions. Perhaps we have shown the administration and some other faculty members that Goucher College is not an exceptional place, but an institution bound by the same rules and subject to the same pressures as other workplaces. Perhaps we are learning the power of organizing.



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