By Joe Berry
This is the first in a series of Academe Blog guest posts arranged by the AAUP Committee on Contingency and the Profession in celebration of Campus Equity Week. For information on and resources for CEW, see the national website at http://www.campusequityweek.org/2013/.
The year was 1999 and all over the Internet and the mass media something approaching panic was building over the predicted collapse of all digital databases and Internet communications, due to what was named Y2K or “the millenium bug.” Many IT “consultants” made a lot of money off this panic, which turned out to be a total nonstarter in terms of a crisis.
However, as Y2K entered the common vocabulary, inspired part-time contingents in over 100 California community colleges and their various organizations had a brilliant idea. Why not use the Y2K rhetoric to dramatize the need for more equitable pay for part-timers–who, by law, are all contingent in the California community college system–by trying to organize actions on all the community colleges in the same week under the name of A2K, or Action 2000? Eventually supported by all the organizations that represent community college part-timers for collective bargaining and other purposes (AFT/CFT, NEA/CTA, CWA, independent unions) and the lobbying group Faculty Association of CA Community Colleges (FACCC) as well as the California Part-time Faculty Association (CPFA), the action turned out to be a resounding success, even with only one paid coordinator for the entire state. With the inspired mascot, the Freeway Flyer, a part-timer in a chicken suit with a car for an office and a perpetually harried look, making appearances, both announced and surprise, up and down the state, literally thousands of California residents were for the first time exposed, on and off the campuses, to the realities of contingent academic labor.
The press coverage was wonderful and resulted in many uncomfortable moments for local administrators, state community college bureaucrats, and legislators, as well as in some wonderful parties and celebrations by part-timers, who, despite overwhelming unionization in California, were still mostly terribly isolated from each other on a day-to-day basis. A few months later, in January 2001, just as the US/Canada Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) IV conference at San Jose City College was beginning, came the word that the California state legislature had appropriated tens of millions of dollars for an equity fund to be used to begin to equalize pay between PT and FT faculty. It took about ten seconds before the idea of repeating A2K continentally took hold, and at the closing meeting of COCAL IV, the name Campus Equity Week (CEW) was chosen, with the understanding that the Canadians might use another term. (They eventually adopted Fair Employment Week, or FEW.)
A week was chosen at the end of October/beginning of November 2001 and other ambitious, though somewhat undefined, plans were made. A volunteer coordination committee was established, promises made to get home organizations’ support, and the first conference call date was set. Chris Storer, one of the architects of A2K and COCAL IV, was soon chosen as the poorly paid national (now international) coordinator, and the first attempt of the continental grass roots leadership of the contingent faculty movement to do something together, other that hold a COCAL conference, was on the way. Many of us were both amazed at our audacity and a bit fearful of falling on our face in public. We were also high on the promise of for the first time realizing a truly continental contingent academics movement.
We need not have worried, though the worries probably helped fuel some more energetic activity. By the end of the first Campus Equity Week in 2001, over 200 actions were reported on the CEW website, thousands of dollars were raised and spent, dozens of news stories appeared, and local COCAL coalitions grew directly out of this activity, in California, in Chicago and elsewhere. The creativity CEW unleashed was amazing, with plays, songs, cartoons, comics, the Freeway Flyer, Roads Scholars, and subway variants of mascots taking to the campuses. The action energized those in collective bargaining to make their unions more responsive to issues of contingent faculty and gave those without unions hope that they were not alone in wanting and acting for better working conditions.
From the beginning, and continuing into subsequent years on a biennial schedule until 2007 when national coordination was suspended, the most common slogans were “Teacher Working Conditions are Student Learning Conditions” and “Equal Pay for Equal Work.” The basic organizing principle of CEW was, and has remained an inside-outside approach of local actions, decided by local people, with resources and ideas shared by all through the web and otherwise and supported by a bi-national media strategy to amplify the local efforts. As one staffer for the Illinois Federation of Teachers said afterwards, “Anyone’s victory is everyone’s victory.” This attitude does not always hold, of course, but, overall, the energy and success of the effort resulted in communication, coordination, and even solidarity among many who had never been in contact before. Such is the power of movement success.
Like the COCAL conferences, CEW was an open-entry, grassroots initiative begun by contingent activists, brought together both by COCAL and by the then Campus Action Group of the overall contingent worker coalition the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE). These gatherings were what allowed the cohering of a nascent national, and soon continental, leadership where none had existed before, across boundaries of geography, discipline, union organization (or non-organization), and sector or level of higher education from adult education to grad schools, in both public and private sectors. Like the COCAL experience itself, initially most of the national unions were somewhat suspicious of a new initiative that they had not started or controlled, but, as support built, all of them, in the US and Canada, became involved and joined the overall coordinating committee and urged activities among their locals on campuses.
Tensions between local contingent activists, national union leaders, and staff and local FTTT union and governance leaders were always present, but actions took place and their relative success and the new organizing that was sparked led to yet more activity and cooperation on a higher level. For instance, CEW and the Chicago COCAL that came out of it in 2001 led directly to the organization and consolidation of over 10 new bargaining units, public and private, in the Chicago area and Illinois generally, and to reform of the state laws that had previously hindered the unionization of community college part-timers there. In fact, it can reasonably be argued that this and subsequent activity marked the beginning of the biggest surge in higher education unionization since the 1970-80 initial period, which had left out contingents in many areas of the nation.
In subsequent years CEW was held in odd years while the COCAL conferences were held in even years. After 2007, interest in national coordination waned and, except for local initiatives and more continuous activity in Canada, especially Québec, CEW faded. With the founding of New Faculty Majority (NFM) as a membership organization by, of, and for contingent faculty in 2009, (inspired itself by COCAL) the potential for re-establishing CEW on a more continuous footing was laid. Then, in 2012, along with the new coalition named Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE), formed to combat corporate pressure for neoliberal “education reform” in higher education, NFM adopted restarting CEW as its project for fall 2013.
Now, with a broadened focus that includes other aspects of campus inequity, we stop recounting history and go out and make some new.
Joe Berry is a member of the AAUP Committee on Contingency and the Profession and the International COCAL Advisory Committee (organizers of the 2014 COCAL XI in New York City), and author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing adjuncts to change higher education. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org> and welcomes correspondence, having recently retired from the University of Illinois and City College of San Francisco.
See also “A Brief History of Campus Equity Week/Fair Employment Week” by Chris Storer (2005) – http://campusequityweek.org/CampusEquityWeek/history.htm
For information about the AAUP Committee on Contingency and the Profession, see http://www.aaup.org/about/committees/standing-committees .