For someone who is both a teacher and an actor, the news could hardly have been worse. In summer 2013, Gregg Weatherby learned he had throat cancer. He knew it meant surgery, radiation treatment and chemotherapy. What he didn't know was that his illness would drive him to become a union activist.
In the weeks following his diagnosis, Weatherby arranged medical leaves from his jobs as a part-time lecturer at SUNY Cortland and an adjunct faculty member at Tompkins Cortland Community College. In the back of his mind was one overwhelming thought:
"I was afraid that I was going to lose my voice entirely," he said. Months after his treatments, his resonant baritone, the product of years of performing in the Ithaca Shakespeare Theater, reveals no hint that he overcame stage 4 cancer.
Weatherby credits his recovery to the health insurance plan he had through his employment at SUNY Cortland and his membership in United University Professions, NYSUT's higher education affiliate at the State University of New York. The UUP insurance coverage allowed him to be treated at Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, one of several highly specialized hospitals in the Northeast for advanced cancer treatment.
"Without this insurance policy, I would probably be dead now," Weatherby said.
Yet, in spring 2014, when Weatherby tried to resume his three-course teaching load at Tompkins Cortland CC, or TC3, his dean was reluctant to hire him because of the cancer, even though Weatherby was considered cured. The college had tried to bring back other faculty members following such serious illnesses, Weatherby was told, and the professors found they often overestimated their energy levels.
Weatherby settled for teaching one course, but he was outraged that he had almost been shut out of his job altogether. That frustration fueled Weatherby's decision to take a lead role in an organizing fight at Tompkins Cortland. The goal: to organize an adjunct faculty union. He didn't want anyone to go through what he had endured — and face the prospect of losing a job.
"We had been talking for a long time in the adjunct office that we needed an adjunct union, but everyone was too scared," Weatherby said. "We decided we would go with NYSUT as the best umbrella organization for us, and that was the beginning."
A majority of the TC3 adjuncts wanted the union, but college administrators fought them, saying adjuncts should join the existing union for full-time faculty. The new TC3 Adjunct Association is awaiting a ruling from the New York State Public Employment Relations Board on the college's challenge, but the prospects for a decision in favor of the adjuncts looks very favorable. PERB in late January ruled in favor of the creation of a separate adjunct union at Cayuga Community College under an almost identical set of facts.
Weatherby's organizing effort won him the prestigious Fayez Samuel Award for Courageous Service from United University Professions, which he shared with Robert Earle, co-founder of the TC3 Adjunct Association.
The hardest part may yet be ahead — the negotiation of a first contract. Weatherby is impressed by the fortitude of his fellow TC3 adjuncts, many of whom are teaching the equivalent of a full-time faculty load but are typically paid no more than $3,000 a course and often earn only 25 to 30 percent of what a tenure-track faculty member earns. Now that the adjuncts are organized, and expect to be recognized as a fully functioning union, Weatherby says pay equity is the next push.
"We all enjoy teaching; we're all dedicated to teaching," he said. "When we're engaged and appreciated, we do our best. When we're overlooked, morale goes down. My goal is to really see this whole adjunct system change, and to make it more equitable."