Organizing in the non-community community college

BY CAPRICE LAWLESS

Vitamin AAUP

By their decree, every word on every wall at our community college system is controlled by the administration. It seems even the formerly full-time First Amendment has itself been replaced by adjunct amendments, and is now as scattered and as difficult to organize as are we. Adjunct faculty comprise 80% of the total faculty, 11% of the budget, and we work under a heavy layer of what we call “reprimandments.” Classroom and hallway walls are for paint, not posters. Bulletin boards are controlled by department chairs. Our once hectic and charmingly shabby mailrooms, rich with gossip and friend-making possibilities, are gone. Adjunct faculty mailboxes are now in a separate room from the full-time faculty mailboxes. Adjunct faculty mailboxes have been reduced to file folders behind an admin’s desk, where Unpersons (adjunct faculty) must ask for their mail, and are monitored about leaving anything in a colleague’s folder. Adjunct faculty may come onto campus and work in spooky “adjunct workrooms” lined with counters, where all keyboards face the walls, where reside moody photocopiers and where working staplers briefly appear, then disappear. There is sometimes a staffer there, sometimes not; no hot coffee, no phones, and often, no signs of life whatsoever. Official signs there remind us that unofficial signs cannot be posted on the walls. Laminated notices mention how to evacuate the building in case of catastrophe, and list staff to call for help, provided you need help 9-4, Monday-Thursday. If you teach at night, there is no help coming.

Organizing and communicating with understandably frustrated, disenfranchised, angry, and lonely adjunct faculty in this setting is critical, but daunting. Our tools, therefore, are unusual. Our events are quirky. We deploy an arsenal of peanuts, M&Ms, empty milk cartons, tissue boxes, miniature pumpkins, chocolate chip cookies, bookmarks, strings of holiday lights, tea towels, cans of beans, used DVDs, coloring books, cookbooks, cheap felt and a toy microscope. Our events began as simple potlucks in living rooms at our homes, but since then we hold formal and informal meetings at the state Capitol, in brew pubs, coffee shop patios, libraries, community centers, former ghost towns, city parks and the poker room at the Denver Press Club, to mention a few spots.

We can’t charge chapter dues because our wages are below the poverty level. We can’t pay for meeting space or catering. Soon after we formed our first chapter, we published The Adjunct Cookbook, and then The Adjunct Coloring Book to simultaneously raise funds and awareness. Sales from those two books underwrite our get-togethers, printing, and ingredients for change (mostly muffin mix and M&Ms). Our chapter members are devoted, quick on their feet, and extraordinarily sincere. What’s more, we have behind us the mighty Colorado Conference of the AAUP, whose leaders drive long distances to meet with us, help us research labor laws and legislative tactics, work with lawmakers to help our legislation, and coach us in all things Redbook. Consequently, we’ve gone from a handful of AAUP members at one college to scores of members at six of the colleges in the Colorado Community College System, launched a House Bill and a Senate Bill, and put forth a request for a Legislative Audit. Our work turns heads, changes minds, snags headlines and dogs administrators.

Recently, colleagues in the academic labor movement have asked us to share how we have built so much with so little, especially since we are advocacy chapters, not a union. Although it’s difficult to categorize our guerrilla marketing approach to organizing, here are the outlines of it and some of the specifics. Use these ideas where you are. We aren’t expert labor organizers, but ordinary adjunct faculty who, like you, find ourselves in one of the biggest and most important movements in history.

The Faculty Un-Service

To recover from the soul-crushing, fall-semester in-service, we usually host an AAUP Un-Service at the historic Denver Press Club. (The AAUP Colorado Conference purchases an annual $250 membership at the Club so we have a go-to, dignified place to meet, and where any of us can have fun in a classy spot for just the cost of a drink). At this event, we un-celebrate and un-announce the start of another academic year for some of Colorado’s best teachers – us! Every year is different. One year we made a homely, sorry-looking cardboard corn-hole game, the openings marked with salaries of administrators, full-time faculty and adjunct faculty. What it lacked in beauty it compensated for in the interest players took in the game once we set it up in the back room at the Club. This game grew louder and funnier as the night wore on and our cardboard cut-out board grew increasingly unsteady.  This drew the attention from a few seated at the bar across the room, none of whom were affiliated with higher education, but who soon became friends of the AAUP. One of them, on his way to the loo, stopped to chat a long time and to introduce himself. He is the news director at a local TV station. You never know when a friend like that might be helpful later on, down the rocky road we tread.

We usually pass around misfortune cookies. (To make them, type a list of whacky fortunes like: “You will teach several classes for an unacceptably low wage. Your AAUP friends will make the semester bearable.” Roll these up tightly. Purchase a box of inexpensive fortune cookies, unpack them, use tweezers to insert the misfortunes into fortune cookies, then put them all back into the box.) Each attendee pulls a misfortune cookie from the box, and reads aloud both the fortune and the misfortune.  We toast both messages. Making the misfortunes ahead of time eats up an

CCCS Adjunct faculty “uncelebrated” their $4.80/week pay raise in style.

afternoon, but opening them like that down at the Club, just at the start of the term when you need genuine encouragement from real friends, might well be the very definition of fortune!

Project Gesundheit

            In February, our administration publishes our annual audit, something we want to share with faculty because they need to know how our college system has spent our funds. Few of them have the time, however, to read long reports. We consider educating one another about our own college system a critical part of our work as activists. We need a disarming way to put out some of that news, at least, in February. Also, sometimes that same month, we’ll have a Valentine-themed Scrabble game and potluck supper, where we’ll discuss the system budget and other puzzling issues. Also by February, most of us have head colds because students come to school sick, and germs are such opportunists! The college is too cheap pay us sick leave or to buy tissue to put in the classrooms.

This is exactly the type of mess that is organizing gold. We nail together the most startling financial facts, along with a few crazy photos from the internet, print them, and then tape them to blank, generic tissue boxes we buy for less than $1/each at the grocery store. We plant in classrooms our 69-cent, tissue-box “publications” with highlights from the annual audit. Those tissue boxes stay in the classrooms for weeks because faculty and students need those tissues. With each sneeze, we get the AAUP word out, so to speak. With each sneeze, as well, our peers get the low-down on where our college is, literally, stashing $20 million/year while telling us and the public that they are broke. It’s enough to make your eyes water.

The Damn It! Summit

Invitation to the Damn It! Summit

By year’s end, we’re all exhausted by the work, lack of support, lack of funds, and, most importantly, lack of fun. We need to blow off steam and to reconnect, so we created an event whose name is the theme. We ask attendees to send us one-line curses they want to get off their chests; all those little and big slights endured/collected from the academic year. Like adjunct faculty anywhere, the only challenge is choosing the worst one from among so many! We print these and set them around the Club before everyone arrives. We like reading them aloud while sipping glasses of Work Remover (beer, wine, etc.), and raising a toast to both the curse and to the author of the curse. It’s cathartic.

Also, participants prepare ahead of time and have ready to read to us their brief, bad stories about work that semester. After we listen to them, one by one, we vote on our favorites using tiny paper ballots. We then bestow printed 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place awards for Best Worst Stories about Work. Each award comes with a prize. Prizes are never work-related, but are usually beer-related or dinner-related, e.g., beer mugs from World Market, packages of British brew-pub coasters from an import store, packages of fancy peanuts, gourmet pasta, or crackers from Trader Joe’s, etc. The prizes have to be something adjunct faculty want, can’t afford to buy, but will use or eat. Pens, staplers, paper clips, or anything that looks or smells like work have no place at the Damn It! Summit!

Winter Break Unemployment Workshops

            When we researched the new U.S. Department of Labor’s Unemployment Insurance Program Letter 05-17, we had to try to make it work in Colorado for our adjunct faculty. We sought the advice of leadership at the New Faculty Majority, lawyers at AAUP and at the National Employment Law Project, and walked through the steps ourselves, following detailed instructions from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment website. We then nailed together a multi-page, how-to workbook for adjunct faculty to follow to apply for unemployment benefits directly following the end of classes in December, 2017. Accordingly, at the end of the semester and just as the holiday season was settling in, we held workshops in three cities in the metro area to help faculty at several CCCS colleges. The workshops were well-attended; indicative of need for the benefits. In the long workshops we walked each one through the application process. After a month of appeals to our initial applications, of the 50 who applied, only three ultimately received any of the meager unemployment benefits. Even in the darkest, coldest, paycheck-free months of adjunct faculty winter, our smug, ski-lodge-lounging administrators proved Ebenezer Scrooge was just a rank amateur at best.

Surprisingly, there has been a strange epilogue to this sad episode. By getting so many adjunct faculty together, we inadvertently constructed camaraderie among faculty who did not previously know one another, or know about our AAUP chapters. It was as if we had all been abandoned and were holed up in the same remote cabin, just as the worst blizzard of the year descended. We were snowed-in together, metaphorically, for that long, dark month of hoping; of non-stop correspondence, appeal-writing and phone calls. In the end, both the AAUP Colorado Conference and AFT Colorado stepped in to help us cover legal fees, all for naught. Our college administrators, the high-priced anti-faculty consultants they pay from our budget, and the anti-worker workers at the Colorado Dept. of Labor and Employment denied most of our claims and, along the way, a few of the state workers took pains to level insults at our applicants where they could. As a result, nearly 50 of Colorado’s best teachers had to charge gas and groceries during winter break. Some had to forego holiday celebrations altogether. Those 50 faculty members may not have known about our AAUP chapters before our workshops. They do now. They know we care, they know how much we tried, and now have an altogether different view of our parsimonious administration.

Un-celebrating the $4.80/week “pay raise”

            The first year our administration gave adjunct faculty a $4.80/week “pay raise,” (while six-figure admin salaries were jumping 30% to 50%), we were devastated. We needed an un-celebration and a few rounds of work remover. We planned to meet at the Club. We invited peers to bring items they might purchase with their windfall $4.80. We listed some of the possibilities in our invitation: a can of baked beans, a photo of one tooth that they might have cleaned ($180 per teeth-cleaning appt./32 teeth = $5.62/tooth); a snapshot of two fingers, manicured ($30/manicure/10 fingers = $3/per finger); a photo of a deluxe burrito from a taco truck, a coupon for a gallon of milk, a loaf of un-marked-down bread, a used DVD, etc. Attendees brought an assortment of $4.80 items to the party. We set up a display of these on a spare table. Then we decorated it with the string of holiday lights we bought on sale and carry with us to our confabs to add a festive note, if (and usually) needed. We had invited the press to that event, as well. Luckily for us, our un-celebration piqued the interest of a local reporter, who photographed our lowly “raise” display. Thus, we snagged a headline in the local news magazine. That same investigative reporter later did a front-page, cover-story feature on our situation when AAUP Committee A censured the Community College of Aurora for its firing of our colleague Nate Bork.

The next time the administrators gave themselves big raises and tossed us another $4.80/week “pay raise,” we asked adjunct faculty to bring their pay stubs with them to the annual meeting of the AAUP Colorado Conference. We set up a children’s toy microscope at a long table. One at a time, we photographed faculty peering through the eye piece, trying to locate the microscopic raises on their pay stubs. We sent those photos, along with a stinging caption, to our media contacts, posted it to our Facebook page, and to our AAUP Chapters of the CCCS website.

The Adjunct Index

            Every other year, we publish The Adjunct Index, a takeoff on the index published monthly in Harper’s. We publish this list of brief (but beefy) one-liners on our website, send them to chapter members, lawmakers, the press, our supporters in the higher education community, post them inside microwaves and refrigerators on campus. These are useful to adjunct faculty, especially, who are pressed for time. Some tell us that reading The Adjunct Index is what helped them decide to join the AAUP. The facts in it shine a bright light through the thick smokescreen of administrivia clogging our hallways and college web pages.

The Mini-Innie

Since so many great speakers were going to be in town for the 2015 Summer Institute at the University of Denver, with a little extra boost from the AAUP, we made plans to host the first-ever, community-college-focused Mini-Innie; a one-day event the day after the big event at DU. A local coffee shop owner agreed that we could have exclusive use of his large, be-flowered, outdoor patio with its many umbrella-topped tables if we bought coffee and pastries from him that morning. One of our chapter members worked that summer in the nursery at Home Depot, so we had even more flowers for each of our tables and for attendees to take home as swag. You may already be aware how Hank Reichman and Howard Bunsis give blistering presentations about academic freedom and institutional finance. You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed those stirring speeches through clouds of petunias and peonies, as we did that morning. Afterward, we had lunch at a nearby brew pub, then spent the afternoon listening to more presentations by Don Eron, Ray Hogler, and Steve Mumme of our Colorado Conference. The public library next door to the coffee shop gave us meeting space for the afternoon, and set up for us ahead of time lemonade and cookies We thus spent the afternoon with more flowers, fliers and fiery academic labor talk. That was our maxi-impact, low-cost, Mini-Innie.

Guerilla marketing/ messaging

            Because the First Amendment has been reduced to fractions in Colorado’s Community College System, we can’t use faculty mailboxes (such as they are) because our college system has determined that our AAUP chapters are political activity. If we want to use a hallway table to promote membership among faculty, the AAUP has to secure a $250 vendor insurance policy because administration has determined we are commercial vendors. We can only use faculty e-mail if we scrape the addresses ourselves (time consuming). Furthermore, we can only send messages to faculty peers from our personal accounts.

In addition to tissue-box “publications,” we print and leave bookmarks in unexpected places on campus. Bookmarks are tops because they will be used repeatedly by the teachers who take them, you can put information on both sides, and you can print four or five on a single sheet of paper. Candy with a bookmark is an eye-catcher because adjunct faculty are always broke and usually hungry. We had great success with Project Pumpkin during Campus Equity Week 2017.  A crew of AAUP adjunct ninja put miniature pumpkins and Vitamin AAUP supplements in 70 classrooms. We had fun and got some good feedback from some new faculty we met. Even if something small but memorable helps a few more know who we are and what we are up to, that’s a win in our book.

Fear factor

We’ve hosted many other events, such as the Adjunct Health Care Fair, a series of Adjunct Survival Workshops, Food-bank visits, a pilot Campus Equity Week tailgate party, a series of regional pub crawls, numerous holiday-themed, one-hour Scrabble games (with holiday tea towels we buy on sale at Kohl’s or Target as prizes) and potluck suppers. We’ve placed in adjunct workrooms more of our AAUP swag (crossword puzzles, bookmarks, newsletters, fliers, muffins, Vitamin AAUP packets and chocolate chip cookies) than we can count.

The takeaway from these events, communication techniques and swag-sprinkling is to think outside the classroom, the conference room, and the normal frames faculty expect. All of this sounds like fun (and much of it is!), but there is an avalanche of fear tumbling all around us as we organize, through which we organize, and because we organize. Sadly, the faculty majority in our community college system does not feel welcome on our campuses, is afraid to advocate for better working conditions, and, in most cases, is afraid to be seen socializing with other faculty. Fear of job loss is real. Our non-community community college system runs on fear instead of freedom. For us, work is more perspiration than inspiration. Of course, that is wrong. That needs to change, and has already begun to change. That’s because faculty like us, and like you, are organizing. My colleagues and I know one another a little better now, and look out for one another.

Make it easy for your peers to get to know who you are, what you are up to, and where you are meeting next. Sometimes you have to start small with a package of M&Ms, a box of tissues, or a crazy-looking bookmark. Most adjunct faculty, especially, survive by keeping a low-profile, by commenting under their breath about how awful it is, and pretending to be laid back. Be visible in small ways, if you must. Offer playful ways for peers to move from awful-izing to organizing, and to rise from laid-back-tivism to activism.

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