Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

SFAI's Adjunct Union Voting Commences -- As Does the Latest and Last Union-Busting Gambit

This post was written and circulated first last night among my fellow adjuncts, and has been edited to reflect new information that arose in the conversation of which it was a part.

Yesterday the ballots for the upcoming election to determine whether or not adjuncts at SFAI will join SEIU began to be mailed to us all. The time for voting will arrive for each of us any day now. There are hundreds of us, but as usually happens, a few folks have emerged in this fraught process of meeting and messaging who have taken on the brunt of organizing effort or whose voices seem to have been more conspicuous than others. I think it is important to recognize at this crucial moment that adjunct faculty at SFAI do have different needs and desires, and that we are not organizing to impose a one size fits all contract to replace the one size misfits all "at will" non-contract the present administration presently prefers. We want multiple options that reflect the multiple realities under which we are teaching here. Solidarity gives us the standing to make our shared needs and problems known, but solidarity is also supporting the needs and problems of our colleagues even when we don't always share them precisely ourselves.

There may be many adjuncts who have hopes or concerns that have not found voice yet in this process of education and organization, despite our best efforts to include everybody, because adjuncts are always busy, especially at the end of term and because the precarity of our circumstances makes us all the more hesitant to speak out -- and I can only imagine that some of these colleagues are all the more anxious about how well they will be represented in the midst of this change. Needless to say, the only way finally to address such silence is to add your voice and make those hopes and concerns known. All voices have been welcome in our process, and our conversations have been frank and sometimes disputatious, but indeed new perspectives are necessary to us all to testify to those aspects and problems in our situation that may have been overlooked so far. Above all, I trust we will all vote "yes" so that this process of voicing such hopes and concerns together is ongoing and can have a life beyond grievance and anxiety and a real chance of improving our conditions in the world. Whatever our disagreements -- and, again, intelligent people with real different situations always have disagreements, this is to be expected and welcomed -- we have worked to establish trust between ourselves, and public places where we can say where we are coming from and say so with our names proudly before us.

And yet now, today, as the ballots begin to arrive in our mailboxes, we have been confronted with what seems to me the latest and last union-busting tactic of SFAI, an unsigned letter purporting to represent visiting faculty and promising us a place in an altogether different union than the one we are voting on. After years spent ignoring adjunct concerns and then responding at all only when we began organizing so conspicuously with SEIU -- and responding even now with little but misinformation and veiled threats and boilerplate union-busting tactics -- I honestly didn't think anybody would take the least bit seriously this latest blatant effort at dividing and conquering us by claiming somehow automagically to unionize us all by attaching us to the faculty union and claiming to have secured, at least for now, legal representation on our behalf paid for by anonymous donors and without consulting us on the very day ballots start to arrive for the vote we've been learning about and debating together all this time.

As I say, this newfangled group claims to speak in the name of visiting faculty -- but its membership refrains from naming itself and we discover that none of the diverse adjuncts we know are among that membership -- and then this group declares it will negotiate with administration, supported by hitherto invisible legal teams and generous financial supporters, and in terms suspiciously like the very ones we had begun to come up with together ourselves. [UPDATE: The following day the author of the letter did disclose her identity and also listed a number of supporters among faculty and adjuncts of its contents. Incredibly, within minutes and then continuing on for days, people published as supporters began to protest in public about their inclusion in the list, saying that they did not support the letter and often complaining as well that they were not even consulted about being listed as such supporters. Very reassuring, I must say.] Dr. Robin Balliger, a professor at SFAI and President of that Faculty Union has notified us that
the leadership of the Faculty Union at the SFAI was never contacted by the 'group' claiming to represent visiting faculty, nor have we ever heard of them. We are shocked by language in that email that strongly implies that a conversation with our union has already taken place, because this is untrue. As a labor union ourselves (AAUP), of course we support your right to unionize, but this particular email is highly misleading. We may raise this matter with the California Bar Association.
One minute this mysterious group serenades us with easy promises of an administration transformed beyond recognition, offering to make all our dreams come true -- but only if we don't actually organize to obtain the standing from which to obligate the administration to respond to our concerns. And then the next minute we find the group has a clawed hand to fling mud with, especially if the target is SEIU, the union that has actually been organizing us, facilitating our communication together, and responding to our objections.

SEIU is a union at the front lines of organizing against neoliberal precarization of healthcare workers, food service employees, and teachers across the country at this moment of unprecedented wealth concentration and corporate-military distress, mind you. However fraught our present distress, it is exhilarating to participate in this rebirth of labor organizing after a generation of neoliberal looting and privatization and plutocratic exploitation. Meanwhile, our new would-be adjunct advocates hide their charges behind an anonymity presumably justified by declared fears that they will be targeted by an army of union thugs, conjuring hackneyed images from the age-old union-busting playbook of corrupt union cronyism and mobs throwing eggs.

I'm not going to lie to you -- I have no words for anybody taken in by such a transparent and, frankly, panic-stricken eleventh-hour gambit, the latest oafish episode in union-busting in what is becoming a relentlessly embarrassing saga of union-busting.

Does anybody seriously think the loose talk in this mysterious missive of longer-term contracts and new benefits and better representation would have been the terms of the public discussion had we not been organized in the context of an actual union with actual stature and actual resources at its disposal organizing as we have done? Does anybody seriously think we would be receiving any response at all if it weren't for the prospect that we will acquire a standing through the union that SFAI cannot legally ignore? Does anybody seriously think that SFAI will take our concerns seriously when they are no longer legally obligated to do so -- as they never have been before? Does anybody seriously think that the "union alternative" being dangled before our eyes at the last possible moment is a good-faith effort -- when we know nothing about what part adjuncts would actually play in it? when we know nothing of its powers on our behalf? when we know nothing about its costs? when we know nothing about the costs of ongoing legal representation in connection with it? when we know nothing of its allegiances in an institutional context stratified by different stakeholder -- tenured and adjunct faculty; studio and academic faculty; administrators and teachers? when we know nothing about our real place within it? Indeed, all we know is that the leadership of the actual faculty knows nothing about the promises being made on its behalf at this moment and warns us of the letter's mischaracterizations!

Actually, we do know a little more: and I am sure many who have been with SFAI for any extended amount of time know well already that the faculty union has been unable to give heft to serious faculty concerns over the administration's elimination of department heads and demolition of chains of communication and accountability (with predictable and predicted disastrous results), and that on two occasions in the recent past the faculty union was unable to secure the agreed contract terms for tenured faculty members at SFAI -- who eventually settled out of court lest they be dragged into years of fruitless litigation with patient corporate lawyers... And how do you think adjuncts would fare in any actual dispute? And how have adjuncts fared in actual disputes thus far?

Use your heads! Ask yourselves: Who benefits from all this sudden turmoil and confusion at the last and vital moment of organizing as our ballots arrive, do you think? Already precarious anxious adjuncts? Or suave union-busters with nothing to lose but their profit piles and unaccountable control?

Look, I am far from thinking SEIU is the Mouseketeer Roll Call. I expect large organizations to pose problems even as they are deployed as instruments to address other problems. The Bay Area local with which we have been consulting is not exactly the same thing as the International Union. My understanding is that the present local 1021 was elected on a reformist slate with a broader social agenda and conspicuously committed to democratic decision-making emerging in part in response to the bad behavior and bad feelings arising from a local healthcare workers dispute some years back that has generated some lingering bad associations in the minds of good people. And, needless to say, we are working with the local we know and with union folks we have come to trust, and this is a different matter than seeking to judge or justify all of the good and all of the bad things all the people associated with SEIU in all of its formations have ever done in every context throughout its history. Can there be anybody who ever seriously thought otherwise? Politics is not the nursery, as Hannah Arendt once declared. We know what our problems are and we know what our shared concerns are and we know what our hopes are and we have had our outstanding questions answered. We have responded to a lot of outrageous misinformation from the SFAI administration about the costs and risks of joining SEIU and those few who are not convinced -- as I have been -- are likely not open to convincing as far as I know. But this last desperate effort to divide and confuse at the very hour we vote to embark on the terms to determine our collective prospects is really a new low.

The management and administration of companies, of hospitals, and, yes, of schools bargain with organized employees all the time. SFAI's President Charles Desmarais and other key administration figures in the present fight against our unionizing effort like Deal Rachel Schreiber will bargain with us on terms more equitable and congenial to us when we have been empowered by our collective recourse to SEIU. And of course this is true. This is obviously true. Again, people do this sort of thing all the time. Nonsense from administration about how the unionization represents a personal attack or represents a larger threat to the institution is all perfectly ridiculous. If we vote yes to SEIU and begin to determine our collective needs on the basis of the discussion we have already begun and then address these terms to SFAI, of course the administration will be professional about all this... as will we.

As we have all said over and over again we are devoted to SFAI and our concerns reflect more than our individual needs but also our awareness of the needs of our institution -- including the need students have for longstanding relationships of mentorship, including the use we all have for reliable and effective academic standards, including the desire for the facilitative culture of a cohort joined by a professional ethos and sustained by real support for the objective needs of teachers, researchers, and artists working together.

We want an end to a climate of fear that resonates even where we gather online. We want the security to do the work on which SFAI depends whether it admits it or not. We want the standing to communicate our knowledge of the needs and problems of the institution to which we are devoted without fear of reprisal.

SFAI will benefit from an organized and empowered cohort of adjunct teachers. Charles and Rachel and other fearful administration and faculty members will benefit as well from what we are doing, even if they still fear for now the hassle or loss of control that brings us all to the table.

Perhaps President Desmarais and Dean Schreiber will remember the principled respect for a democratic workplace to which they both have been devoted in the past at their best.

You can be sure that I am the last to hold a grudge. I will welcome their gratitude as a colleague when they finally find their way to it.

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