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Over the Mountain: How a union changed the lives of some Oregon faculty

by Mary Ellen Flannery

Can joining a union change your life? Make you a happier person? Or a healthier person? Would you, as a union member, even teach better? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Just ask the faculty at Oregon’s Klamath Community College, where life can be so easily divided into BU and AU: Before Union, when over-the-top workloads and paltry pay made for sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days, and After Union, when a new collectively bargained contract provided for better service to students, a living wage, and more respect for faculty’s expertise. “When I first heard the noise about unions,” recalled Maggie Wood, a communications professor at Klamath, “I thought to myself, ‘Maybe there is hope.’"

Before Union (BU): When Kathleen Henderson, an award-winning early childhood educator who has taught for 35-plus years, drove to campus in pre-union days, she wasn’t allowed to park in the faculty lot. When she walked up to her classroom building, her keycard didn’t open the faculty door. And then, when she reached her office… wait a second, what office?! Henderson was assigned to a 10-foot-square windowless closet—with 70-plus other adjunct instructors. “My office was my car. I had bags across the back seat—a separate bag for each course,” she said.

Before Union (BU): With dark humor, history professor Tom Nejely calls them “drive-by shootings”—the unexpected, random assignments that KCC administrators would routinely dump on overburdened faculty. “Before the contract, any idea that any dean had could be added to faculty’s plate—and it was,” he said. Nejely was told to develop web pages for every faculty member, even though the college lacked the infrastructure to handle those pages and no faculty member had actually asked for one. Did it matter that Nejely already was teaching five full classes with 30 students in each? No. Did it matter that he was randomly assigned to advise 50 students each semester, whose  career goals might range from nursing to culinary arts? No.

Before Union (BU): Can you live anywhere in America on just $8,000 a year? Think about it. That’s about $660 a month or $20 a day. And while you can get a fairly priced piece of salmon at Nibbley’s Café in downtown Klamath Falls for less than $20, that’s your entire daily allowance. What about a bed and roof? Or a car to drive? What if you need medical care? Or a new pair of shoes? But $8,000 a year is exactly how much Maggie Wood earned as a contingent professor just a few years ago. “It was very grim,” Wood recalled. But, in those pre-union days, the issue wasn’t just money, she added. “It was just such a slap in the face. It was, ‘We just don’t value you.’ You were just another warm body in the classroom, and if you left they’d find another to replace you.”

Before Union: Students could count on multiple-choice or short-answer finals, because, really, who has the time to read, let alone provide thoughtful feedback on 150 research papers of length?  Before Union: You’re part-time? Well, I guess your invitation to any kind of on-campus professional training got lost in the mail… Before Union: You’re fired. No, really. That’s it.

Over The Mountain 

But in September 2011, after two long years at the bargaining table and the help of OEA staff, the nascent Klamath Community College Faculty Association (KCCFA), an  inclusive unit of full- and part-time  faculty led by then-president Jamie Jennings, ratified its first contract with the college. For the first time, faculty members had workload limits in writing. They had processes for  filing grievances. Contingent professors got email addresses! (They had previously been denied email addresses.) And modest salary raises were achieved.

But salary raises were never the end-all, be-all goal, said Mary Lou Wogan, then-chair of the KCCFA bargaining team. What drove her team of first-timers was the idea that they could achieve a contract that would make a difference for students. “We always kept in mind, ‘how can we serve students better?’” said Wogan, who is now KCCFA president.

Workload is not just a faculty issue, for example. When Tom Nejely was teaching 150 students, many of them needing individualized instruction, and formally advising another 50, plus serving on both KCC’s general education committee and the council council, plus leading the college’s assessment programs, he found it near-impossible to maintain an ambitious schedule of  student assignments.

“I remember thinking, ‘I just can’t do all of this,’ and everybody who was here pre-contract will speak that same language,” he said. “We have been through the fire and the furnace here, and there remains such dedication among the faculty to do what’s good for students. When we went into negotiations, it wasn’t to feather our nests or make our jobs easier, it was to do what’s best for them.”

The systemic abuse of adjunct or contingent faculty isn’t just a faculty issue either. “Nobody walks into the classroom and says to their students, ‘I’m an adjunct. I’m not going to be around for your questions and I’m not going to have the answers when you ask them,’” said Maggie Wood, who has since won a full-time job at KCC. (Her first purchase when she hit a five-digit annual salary? A laptop. “It was like, ‘wow! A huge luxury.’”) But the fact is the conditions of contingent employment do make it difficult to provide the best education. Studies have shown students at colleges with high numbers of adjunct faculty members are less likely to graduate on time.

AFTER UNION: In a new health and science building, Marilyn Culp directs KCC’s certified nursing assistant (CNA) program, which trains students through a single-semester, 7-credit course, plus lab, to pass the state Board of Nursing’s exam. But at the end of a recent term, Culp heard from college administrators that her 7-credit program would suddenly  become a non-credit program, which not only would dramatically change Culp’s employment status for the worse, but also seriously impact students. For one thing, a non-credit course would mean students couldn’t get financial aid—and when you add tuition, books, plus the  required vaccinations, it costs about $1,700. For another, students moving on to four-year institutions for more advanced nursing degrees wouldn’t be able to transfer any of their KCC credits.

 “In the old days, I would have to speak to the deans about my concerns for those students,” Culp said. “I’d be speaking as an individual, and usually they were pretty adamant about having made up their minds.”
 But these aren’t the old days. Culp filed a formal grievance, using the timelines and processes established in the new contract, and she walked into the president’s office with KCCFA’s Wogan, Lois Taysom, and other members of the grievance committee. She was not alone. “They helped me have a voice,” said Culp—and her students won back their much-needed credits. .

AFTER UNION: Kathleen Henderson sits in her office—it’s not huge and it’s still shared, but she can see the sun shining through the window. AFTER UNION: Tom Nejely is writing the college’s strategic plan—but he agreed to do it! And the college has adjusted his teaching workload accordingly.  AFTER UNION: Maggie Wood has a name. “It’s not just STAFF anymore,” she said. AFTER UNION: KCCFA’s first contract expires in June 2014. And you know what? Wogan, Jennings, and others already are planning for the next.