Hot Summer at San Francisco Bay Area Art Colleges

To unionize, or not?

The semester is ending and summer seems to be warming up… The ranks of contingent, adjunct, and non-tenure faculty at several San Francisco Bay Area colleges are deliberating if they form unions.

The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) by Diego Rivera at the San Francisco Art Institute.

I could have been one of the many faculty in the San Francisco Art Institute’s prospective union. (SFAI already has a separate union of full-time tenured and tenure-track professors). But I recently had to decline an offer for a part-time Visiting Faculty position at SFAI when I received a full-time postdoctoral fellowship (a unionized position, with health benefits). I was enormously excited and proud to join SFAI, with it’s long and storied history in various art, aesthetics, and culture waves. I wouldn’t have qualified to vote this month because I barely missed the cut-off, but I think I would have gladly joined the incipient union. Meanwhile, Mills College is also in the process of voting for a union. And a third school, California College of the Arts (CCA)—where I am currently an Adjunct Professor—is possibly getting close to filing for an election too.

Had I not landed a full-time position, I would have spent my next year, and perhaps much longer, juggling part-time teaching positions at SFAI, CCA, and maybe UC Berkeley, where I was still waiting to hear about budgetary approval for my undergraduate urban geography course (a unionized part-time job also). And the way things look in academia right now, coming back to piecemeal jobs in the future is not implausible. I tried to negotiate for a full-time job at CCA, but the prospects looked bleak. Altogether, my combined work at several schools would have consumed more than a part-time workload in order to “cobble together” (in adjunct argot) a full salary. It’s an unfair situation not only for those of us who teach, but for the students who get our splintered attention. Everyone knows this, including administrators. And yet, tuition only goes up while faculty salaries shrivel as we try to keep up with Bay Area cost of living.

As anyone inside these schools knows by now, the fact that three Bay Area institutions are simultaneously deciding if they unionize is not a coincidence. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has a nationwide campaign called Adjunct Action and has launched this Bay Area push off the ground. (Note: The word “adjunct” as a category for faculty who are actually quite central to the functioning of these schools is horribly inaccurate for reasons I won’t get into here; the common term will have to do for now). Organizing contingent faculty on a city-by-city or “metro” basis is strategic: faculty, like me, often teach at multiple institutions, trying to hedge enough work in case any one class gets cancelled. In addition, our schedules and classes are so scattered that organizing without an SEIU is challenging, to say the least.

Since January of this year, I have been at several meetings with the SEIU and with colleagues from all three of these schools. I have also spent countless hours in one-on-one meeting and emailing with colleagues about our collective decisions. I write this post because there are, unfortunately, some questionable positions around the town, in my view.

Assertion 1: SEIU is an outsider

Administrators and senior faculty, following a pattern seen in other cities, have described these elections as a kind of infiltration by a manipulative outsider—the SEIU. The problem with this portrayal is primarily that several of us faculty insiders ourselves have been part of this process from the get-go. Setting aside the fact that the SEIU is a familiar union in the Bay Area with a complicated history—indeed, a number of us have directly and vocally questioned some of the methods of the SEIU—we are not beholden to the SEIU. Please don’t remove us from the organizing picture. This should serve to motivate faculty to become more committed and invested in the union movement. It shows how easily the various school administrations, in the best case scenarios, seem to misunderstand us. And perhaps in the worst case scenarios, they would rather pretend that we, and our needs, don’t exist.

Assertion 2: What faculty need is information

A car parked outside of CCA.

Many of us have been part of unions in the past or at other institutions. We are, at the very least, open to this vote because we already have done this before. I belonged to the UAW as a Graduate Student Instructor at Berkeley, a place where the hard organizing work by some (my lazy self not included) led to electing a progressive slate of union stewards. My upcoming position at UC Davis will also be organized with the UAW. A side note: the UC Office of the President dragged postdocs’ contract negotiations out and thereby wasted an untold number of dollars in the process. A lesson administrators might take heed of?

Many people I meet have been proud members of the graduate instructors’ union drives of the 90's. College administrators and more alarmingly, elected faculty senators (apparently carrying water for the administration) have written to us, set-up websites, and convened meetings (during our own unpaid time), using the regrettable paternalistic language of handing down “information.”

But we’re obviously not that clueless. We can (and should) get information on our own and educate ourselves collectively. We can research up the SEIU and the schools without interference of administrators or union bosses. However, not surprisingly, these information drives—in which contingent faculty rarely have a role in doing the informing part—seem to only strengthen the union drive. This was remarked in a Vitae article looking at other colleges:

(…)the fastest way to drive your employees to unionization is to pay them poorly and treat them disrespectfully. Send out a form email about why they shouldn’t unionize. Be sure to carefully explain all the “benefits” you offer them. Suggest their jobs are actually pretty great and then close your email by affirming that you really appreciate all their hard work. Finally, be sure to subtly imply that they can be easily fired and replaced if they ignore your friendly message. If you follow these steps, you can guarantee your adjuncts will start attempting to unionize immediately. (more…)

In other words, past efforts by higher-up’s have ironically resulted in underscoring the fact that we are powerless.

Assertion 3: You would be better off being “independent” from a union

This is a trickier point to discuss, as it depends what “independence” means to each person and in which contexts. We are certainly not independent now, nor would we be if we voted against a union. Most of us are dependent; we depend on these contingent positions to survive. Furthermore, in the process of talking to contingent faculty about unionization, I have heard stories from people who frequently rely on unemployment benefits and food stamps to cover costs when classes fizzle. This January, I had a class cancelled, without a “kill fee,” the very week that the Spring semester was starting. At times, even with a full teaching load, some faculty can’t make ends meet due to high rent, unexpected debts, or dependents they care for. We can’t walk into a bank and ask for an emergency loan; rarely would we qualify. Some have had to make risky health choices, postponing an urgent treatment, for example. Some of us are lucky to have health care only because we get it through a spouse. In the broadest possible terms, the reality is that we (our families included) are, in effect, subsidizing our employers through, among many other things, our myriad forms of unpaid labor to the schools, while the state often subsidizes us, and by extension, the schools. This is not what independence means in the context of being an adjunct.

Assertion 4: We need to talk

The doors are always open to talk, but under what conditions? I have tried talking many times at CCA in the past with highly uneven results. You may sit down for a meeting and ask for meager improvements, only to be told that the enrollment is in bad shape or that you misunderstood the faculty handbook, or some other runaround. And talking always costs us money and time that we don’t have a lot of. Every single time I commute to and from campus just to sit down for a talk, I drop almost $12 (BART+MUNI). Again, the “tax” we have to pay for being at someone else’s disposal.

Another example—I finished a doctorate degree. With my degree in hand, I asked for a raise, confident that a terminal degree, after many long years, was grounds for some sort of promotion. I was denied. That is, everyone can talk. But one has to ask: What concrete, meaningful results come for contingent faculty from discussions and what do we have to show for after we tried talking? Further invitations to talk (or forming a captive committee of adjuncts to gather adjunct views, as our CCA faculty senators have done) strikes me as bluffing. If established faculty want to help us, I propose we do it in the context of a full senate meeting. (…Well, too late for me by now, but just an idea).

As workers, we need to be aware that we do not sit down at a table of equals. For example, the president of SFAI wrote, “This election comes down to a single question: Do you want this union, SEIU, to be your sole bargaining agent?” We can discuss the SEIU on its own merits and failings, but let me point out that it would be nice, at any of the schools, to have a bargaining agent, let alone a “sole” one, because currently we have…none. Anyone who knows the feeling of having no bargaining power—after all, we receive a non-negotiable, boilerplate contract in the mail—knows that most everything which makes a difference for our livelihoods is off the table. Any part-time teacher who also runs, say, a design or art studio, as many of my colleagues do, also understands how contracts should work. The point for me is that while communication is very important, it should not come at the price of postponing our rights.

Assertion 5: the SEIU is the wrong union for teachers

No managerial union is ideal. Unions in the United States have been weakened for decades now. The big unions have made depolorable bargains with the political caste of the U.S. The SEIU leadership is prone to betraying the rank-and-file, etc. And despite all of this, whether one likes it or not, adjuncts all across the U.S. seem to be eagerly running in the opposite direction from all the sudden, beckoning calls of school bodies. Maybe the contingents need something that the schools simply can’t provide, and everyone actually knows it. To wit: When the executive committee of the faculty senate at CCA called a meeting, only about 40 people showed up. There are many ways to interpret this attendance, I suppose, but that’s 40 out of a nearly unquantifiable roster of people who teach seasonally. The faculty directory at CCA spans almost 60 pages online, with about nine to twelve names per page. Granted, some names might be regulars, and some percentage may or may never be back. Still, 40 people? That was perhaps somewhere between 12 and…15% of the adjuncts in any given semester? Regardless, the point being that the contingents seem more receptive, on the whole, to a union than to their superiors.

What’s going to happen?

No one can predict what’s to come, but the strength of the faculty does not ride on the SEIU or any other big union, just as it does not ride on any concessions from admin. It rides on what teachers collectively do together to organize. Or as put well here:

Solidarity is the power of labor, no doubt. But worker solidarity shouldn’t be conflated with trade unions and their bosses. From the examples above we can see the divisions union bosses often create among workers and between union members and other members of the working class, with whom they share collective interests. In short, workers need to cast a wary eye toward their own unions because the unity of interests often described between the rank-and-file workers and their unions is most often a chimera.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather be a union member than not and I support organizing of all academics because unions have the potential to improve workplace rights, working conditions, wages, benefits, etc. But organizing, followed by bargaining a contract is merely the first steps of building solidarity and there are serious limitations to the kind of “business unionism” contracts we see for teachers and academics in particular.

How to vote?

I don’t presume to know how faculty in the different schools should vote in their own chapters, given myriad distinctions. I favor unionization, as is plainly obvious from this writing. I do know that at CCA, I would likely be voting “yes” to form a union with the SEIU. To be clear, cards have not been filed and much can still transpire. I don’t know if the vote can happen while I am still eligible, but if the vote were right now, I’d vote in favor. That is to say, I hope that if a “no” vote wins at any of the schools, it happens under strategic planning and decisions set by the contingent faculty themselves (and of course, the same goes for a “yes”). What would be the next step if we voted “no”?

Finally, one way some administrators may understand this election is as a pragmatic vote about how to best address or not address issues over bargaining power. But I think this is a problematic way to frame these votes. Bargaining is something we lack, as mentioned above, but only one element in a much larger struggle. We have many different and varied politics and issues at stake. I got involved because I found myself and my students underwriting a system that does not guarantee anything back for our collective futures. I also realized that the feast or famine model in which a teacher either has too many part-time courses piled on, or too few, was a betrayal to my work and that of students. We lack power. We have been docile, hesitant, and afraid to organize. But this could change if we wanted it to.

Javier Arbona

You can email me at aljavieera @ gmail . com or call me at 607.233.4615 (through Google Voice).

A place to meet?