YDSA Fights Privatization and Job Loss at Washtenaw Community College
by Robert Barber
There may be no tallying the losses inflicted upon the multitudes of communities maimed by privatization and outsourcing of good public jobs. However, we can sift through this overload of information by focusing on one case. Small things, like the outsourcing of Washtenaw Community College’s IT service, add up and create tremendous costs for society.
Thirty-one full-time employees worked for the WCC IT department, plus a number of part-timers. Almost half had worked there for over ten years. I spoke with many of them as the events unfolded. They loved serving their community. Without exception, they named commitment to students as the most important part of their jobs.
The proposal to privatize had secretly been in the works for years. WCC President Rose Bellanca was surrounded by outsourcing rumors since initially accepting her position in 2011. Her track record spoke for itself. She had worked at three previous colleges: St. Clair Community College, Macomb Community College, and Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Florida. At each of these schools, she outsourced IT services. In each case, the corporate beneficiary was a company called Ellucian.
Bellanca’s relationship with Ellucian was concerning enough to both staff and students that they asked for a response. In 2013, she promised the school paper, The Washtenaw Voice, that there would be no outsourcing.
In 2014, the faculty union overwhelming gave President Bellanca a vote of no confidence, alleging a severe lack of communication with her administration and the use of strong-arm tactics against staff, particularly non-union administrators, who disagreed with her vision for the college.
At best, the WCC administration, headed by Bellanca, mismanaged the IT department into the ground and fired the employees to make-up for its own incompetence. At worst, and more likely based on my interviews and investigations, Bellanca’s administration intentionally created chaos and inefficiency in order to build an argument on paper to outsource to its favorite company, Ellucian, without a public bid.
The majority of this took place in the dark, while students were gone and the administration was away from the public eye. Two-and-a-half weeks before the Board of Trustees’ final vote on the outsourcing proposal, on June 25, our fledgling YDSA group caught wind. We were three people at the time, not even registered with the college. Within a week, we had distributed flyers, picked up several more members, and staged a sit-in strike in protest. We registered with the college and made contact with the national YDSA organization to begin the steps for chapter recognition.
I’ll never forget the experience of our lost battle and the tears of the workers and their family members as their lives were shredded like discarded office documents. I remember the board members’ patronizing speeches about how tough their decision was and the news cameras trying to keep our protesters out of the frame.
I texted one of the IT staff members later in the evening that it wasn’t over yet. He responded: “…do not neglect your studies at all. Hope you complete your education. And bring some change. It is important to be strong and mindful inside. I sincerely wish you good luck. I remember my student days in India.”
The sundering of a civilization is rarely from one cause. It comes from millions of tiny cracks, little lost battles that happen every day in every town. All too often, we react with disbelief in the face of dire warnings. I saw it when they outsourced our school’s IT department. Privatization weakens us and makes our communities vulnerable to the cruelties of capitalism.
Now we must be strong and mindful. It’s time to bring some change.