Getting ready (3)

A little background: I taught writing, part-time/adjunct, all over the San Francisco Bay Area for many years. I got my first jobs on the basis of having published a couple of novels, but then decided I loved teaching. However, it was “love the work, hate the job,” as they say. The working conditions of contingent faculty, who make up two thirds of all faculty in higher education, are just awful. Today, of course, there’s a movement to organize adjuncts and they’re part of the Fight for $15 group, along with fast food workers, homecare workers, domestic workers and just about everybody else, come to think of it. But back then many unions were focused on full-time faculty, a big mistake while their institutions filled up with grumpy, pissed-off part-timers.

I was lucky enough, back in the 1980’s, to work at a community college in Oakland that took part-timers seriously. One day a full-timer ate my best class. My department head told me (in a whisper) to go to the union. I did. I walked in on our President and said, “You guys do nothing for us!” He didn’t throw me out. Instead, he invited me to a meeting. I went, I saw people debating, treating each other respectfully, thinking hard about a range of problems facing faculty that was way beyond what I had been able to see from where I was sitting. Also, i have to say, it looked as if all the men with any oomph to them were involved in the union. I was hooked. They encouraged me, let me hold some meetings, write and distribute a newsletter, and eventually hired me. They also sent me to some labor education programs run by the union.

I became part of a state-wide organizing effort that took advantage of a change in the law to improve the working conditions of part-timers. I learned about contracts and about how to deal with a grievance. I learned to read small print. I learned how to confront the same people who hired (and could fire) me and get angry at them on behalf of another worker.

Eventually I got blacklisted but I saw it coming and went back to graduate school. By the time I had a PhD I also had red flags of “union activity” all over my resume, so I soon gave up trying to get jobs as straight faculty anywhere. Instead, on the advice of my husband Joe Berry, who was doing labor education at the University of Iowa at that point, i looked for labor education jobs. I got hired at UNITE, the garment and apparel workers union, in Philadelphia. I had the best title anyone could ever dream of: Director of Education and Political Action. Imagine — putting those two jobs into one job title!

That job was a baptism — I’m not going to say of fire, but it was intense – into the world of Post-NAFTA factory work and the private sector. Public sector unions, as my mentor Irv Rosenstein patiently explained, can always go to the public and say, “Allocate more money for this important service!” ¬†Private sector employers do not have that flexibility, with the result that negotiations are much rougher (at least they were then, back in the 1990’s) than in the public sector. (NOTE: This may have been true 15 years ago, but it is not true now, for many reasons.)

I have written a whole journal of what I learned that year, so I’m not going to repeat it here. Maybe I’ll post some photographs. But just imagine: Shops where they make full-length men’s cashmere coats that cost as much as a car; shops where they make alligator doctor’s bags; shops where they make woven straw Easter hats, shops where they make the dress uniforms for the cadets at West Point. Beautiful, beautiful stuff. And people who made $14 an hour back in the 1980s are making $9 an hour ten years later, as the union concedes, concedes, concedes, to try to keep the jobs from disappearing. Bosses are doddering old couples in their 80s who come by only occasionally; the shops are really run by the workers; the sons and daughters of the old bosses are just holding their breaths, waiting to have the chance to sell the whole thing off. How does a union like that fight? Not on the shop floor, except very carefully (and I saw some fabulous, dextrous negotiation going on, especially by a beautiful smart woman named Doll Wilson, may she rest in peace). Maybe in the legislature, as the threat of the multi-fiber trade agreement loomed, for example, bringing in cheap cashmere (remember when suddenly places like Land’s End were selling all kinds of low-cost cashmere sweaters?).

Enough of that. By the time I’d fought enough battles in that job, I got offered a tenure-track position at the University of Illinois, working out of the Chicago office of the Labor Education Program. There’s enough description of that in my book, “What Did you learn at Work Today? Forbidden Lessons of Labor Education,” by Hardball Press.

Joe and I retired from there in 2010 and came back to California to try to calm down. And now we’re trying to learn as much as we can about Vietnam.

Onward, as usual.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

4 thoughts on “Getting ready (3)

  1. Bravo Helena! Enjoy the travels and please keep us informed. I posted this address on the Union Leadership and Administration Face Book (ULA1) page so I’m hoping that a lot more will follow you.

    1. Rich, I would like to include the story of your current IBT experiences as part of the thread on leadership. Can you contribute some thoughts and observations here?

  2. Hi Helena. How exciting. John and I will be following your blog, if I can figure out how – not to tech sAvy.

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