May 2015 Advocate – SCI Update


Union Solidarity in practice: The Palomar College Blitz

By Katharine Harer, AFT 1493 Co-Vice President & Strategic Campaign Initiative Lead Organizer

Palomar Faculty Federation (PFF) needed a boost of energy and more feet on the ground in order to reach out to their part time faculty members. In an act of union solidarity, CFT members and organizers from unions around the state answered the call.  From April 13th to 16th, Michelle Kern and I (AFT 1493 Strategic Campaign Initiative organizers) participated in a solidarity “Blitz” at Palomar College to help the local teachers’ union, the PFF, carry out a campaign to sign up new part time faculty to the union and support contract negotiations.

A little background: Palomar is located in north San Diego County, inland from the shimmering Pacific coastline. This large and architecturally stunning campus is tucked into the dry hills and operates with an outsized teaching force of 900 part time faculty – in contrast to 300 full time faculty. A significant number of faculty members at Palomar are fee payers, represented by their union, but the majority of the part timers are not union members; with so many, it’s difficult for the union to get out and meet them all.

Fighting for a raise & paid office hours
The PFF is in negotiations, fighting for a 2% raise for both part-time and full-time teachers, as well as a substantial increase in paid office hours for part timers.  Most Palomar part timers are only paid for about 3 hours per semester (not week) of office hour time.  Our job was to give each faculty member we spoke to an update on negotiations and try to jumpstart a connection with their union. Then we would go in for the prize: asking them to sign their union membership form.  One impression hit us hard:  many of these part timers are seriously exhausted by their freeway flying between 2, 3 and even 4 different colleges. Several apologized to us for not being able to make it to union meetings because of their harried schedules. Part timers at Palomar don’t have offices; they have nowhere to sit and relax for a few moments, nowhere to prep their classes, or to meet with students.  About half of the people we spoke to are making a meager full time living on part time teaching. We could see the exhaustion, and frustration, in their faces.

A battalion of seventeen SCI organizers from around the state came together to help PFF reach out to part-times faculty members.  Michelle and I joined a grassroots team that included six statewide CFT organizers.  We were led by the crack team of Sandra Weese, CFT Organizing Director, Jessica Ulstad, State Affiliate Political Organizer, and CFT Training Director, Laura Kurre.  Blitzers were flown in from Petaluma, Daly City, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, S.F., Galt (near Sacramento) as well as other SCI-funded locals.  Palomar SCI Organizer Extraordinaire, Debbie Forward, made sure we were well fed and briefed, given a PFF t-shirt and folder of information (campus map, teachers’ schedules, membership forms), after which we headed out in pairs to “ambush” part timers at the doors of their classrooms as they finished teaching.

It was hot and not always fun or easy.  Some faculty members were:  a) hostile to us specifically b) religious and/or political conservatives who would not abide a conversation with the union c) bitter about life in general; while others were grateful to see us, union-friendly, and willing to become members.  I had the memorable experience of being called a “Communist” as one man fled to keep from talking with me and Michelle, and Michelle spoke to one person who claimed not to “deserve” more money.  Thankfully, we re-convened at lunch and at the end of each day to compare notes, tell our happy and our strange stories, and tally up the numbers.  In the end, the Palomar Blitz was successful:  we made 96 attempts at meeting folks, carried out 74 conversations, and signed up 41 part timers to become members of PFF — a 55% success rate based on people with whom we were able to have “the conversation.” A majority of Palomar part-time faculty now has a much better understanding of the importance of, and are more connected to, their union and are supportive of the PFF’s goals.

Michelle and I left Palomar satisfied that they had done their part, happy to have met so many enthusiastic and hard-working union organizers, and grateful to live in the Bay Area.