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365 Days Later: A different world for part-time faculty at Columbia College

August 7, 2013

How is it possible to describe the changes at Columbia College over the past year? It’s like Technicolor came to campus, but that analogy only works if you think black-and-white film processing was a repressive, abusive, and demoralizing system.

One year ago, Diana Vallera, president of the Part-time Faculty Association at Columbia (P-fac), was scrambling to organize a petition drive to save her job at the college. Now she’s organizing a ratification vote for a new faculty contract that achieves every single thing she hoped for—from a tiered seniority system that protects class assignments (and pay) for the most experienced faculty members to the guaranteed presence of part-time faculty on Columbia’s governance and curriculum committees.

“If I put together a wish list for the very best contract I could get, it would be the contract that we got!” said Vallera. And so much of it, especially the guaranteed preference for the most experienced educators, isn’t just good for faculty—it’s great for students.

The tentative contract includes:

  • Assignment of classes: Initial class assignments will be made to P-fac members with 51 or more credit hours of experience, who request two or more classes. Those members with more than 200 hours of experience also will receive preference for a third class, which would amount to a full teaching load. This tiered system is based on best practices around the nation.
  • Reassignment: P-fac members with 50-plus credit hours who have lost assigned classes will be able to “bump” faculty with less than 33 hours or administrators
  • College governance: P-fac is recognized as a partner in the Columbia College community. (Finally!) With that in mind, P-fac members will serve on all department curriculum committees, as well as the strategic planning committee and college-wide discussions of budget, finance, and academic affairs.
  • Salary: All P-fac members will get a retroactive 3 percent salary raise, effective for the 2012-2013 academic year.

So what happened here? A brief timeline can’t describe the ups and downs of this story. But consider that contract negotiations began in early 2010 and then failed, over and over again, often because Columbia simply refused to come to the negotiating table. In one of the first negotiating sessions, Vallera recalled, the then-college attorney told union leaders, “I’m going to make you beg for the contract you already have.”

Since then, P-fac members have suffered sudden, non-negotiable caps on the number of classes they could teach; the reassignment of classes from senior faculty (and union leaders) to rookie teachers; and arbitrary cuts in credit hours attached to specific classes, which hadn’t changed in materials, standards, or class hours. For people who get paid by the class or credit hour, it added up to non-negotiated wage cuts or, in the case of Vallera, who lost all of her classes one semester, to termination without cause.

In one of the more bizarre episodes of labor-management relations, and one of the more frightening incidents in this story, Vallera’s babysitter called police after discovering a man snapping photos of Vallera’s home and child. He refused to say why he was there, but the babysitter later identified him through photographs as a Columbia College attorney. (Criminal charges were never filed.) When Vallera told colleagues about the allegations, the college brought her up on misconduct charges! That’s how crazy this place got.

Meanwhile, union leaders refused to back down. They repeatedly sought assistance from IEA/NEA, local union allies, student groups, and from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In March, P-fac won a significant victory from NLRB, which pointed out Columbia’s “egregious failure to bargain” and ordered the college back to the negotiating table. NLRB also ordered the college to pay thousands of dollars in back wages to those faculty members who had suffered retaliatory wage cuts or class reassignments.

But the tide really changed when Columbia’s board of trustees reached out to Vallera in late spring and said, we want to work with you. They asked her to serve on a search committee for a new president. Now, instead of an administrator who says, “you have no rights. Don’t expect to have any rights,” the president gets the very obvious point that faculty matter to student achievement.

“When I speak with Dr. Kim, we’re speaking the same language,” said Vallera. “When we say we want experienced teachers, we both understand that experienced teachers are great for students… He completely believes that faculty voices need to be part of shaping the school, and he’s completely interested in wanting to work collaboratively with the union.”

“If you could take a snapshot from a year ago and compare it to today, even people’s body language has changed. People are excited!”