October 30, 2017

Unionists fight to preserve promise of community colleges

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT Communications
community college leadership conference
Caption: “I love that we got to practice techniques and how to approach people in a non-confrontational way to introduce them to what the union does,” said first-time leadership conference participant Melissa Adeyeye (left), a communications assistant professor and member of the Faculty Association of Suffolk County Community College. Adeyeye is pictured here at a conference workshop with Steven Shaw of Orange County Community College Faculty Association. Photo by Andrew Watson.

Whether it’s fighting for funding or respect for faculty and staff, unionists must keep advocating for community colleges because they represent opportunity and hope for so many students.

That was the underlying message delivered by keynoter New York State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Terry Melvin, and speaker after speaker over the weekend at NYSUT’s 39th annual Community College Conference.

Calling community college professors and staff the great "unsung heroes," Melvin told them their work may too often go unnoticed — but it it truly valued and cherished by their students and graduates.

"Without a quality community college program, millions of New Yorkers would be left without a viable option on how to advance their lives, their careers, and most importantly their opportunities," Melvin said. "And that is the most important thing of all — opportunity. With no opportunity, there is no hope."

Melvin noted that community college students make up a crucial demographic in America.

"You offer opportunity for so many ... the working mothers and fathers looking to advance in their careers.

The struggling high school student that isn’t sure about a four-year college but is driven to be educated.

The place for low-income families to send their children to get a degree like their wealthier peers," Melvin said. "We need you now more than ever."

  • Remarks by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Terry Melvin at NYSUT’s Community College Conference (click to view)

    It is an honor to be here amongst great minds and educators.

    The professors and staff of community colleges are our unsung heroes.

    You work at one of the last affordable bastions of quality education and your work has largely been thankless or unnoticed but valued and cherished by your students and graduates.

    Without a quality community college program millions of New Yorkers would be left without a viable option on how to advance their lives, their careers, and most importantly their opportunities.

    And that is the most important thing of all - Opportunity. With no opportunity there is no hope.

    With no options there are no choices - and those without opportunity or options become defeated, deflated, and ultimately, destitute.

    You offer opportunity for so many and as a result you offer hope, guidance, and the possibility of a better tomorrow.

    This is what we need now more than ever. We need dreamers, thinkers, and game changers.

    We need an educated and mobilized mass of Americans to make the changes needed in our society and government.

    And we need you to help create, mold, and guide them.

    Your students make up a crucial demographic of America.

    Your students are the working mothers and fathers looking to advance in their careers.

    The struggling high school student that isn’t sure about a four-year college but driven to be educated.

    The place for low income families to send their children to get a degree like their wealthier peers.

    Community colleges are the home for working men and women and in New York State we have one of the greatest community college programs in the country.

    For that I salute you all for your selfless service.

    Right now we are confronted with some ugly truths about this country.

    Education, the key to escaping poverty, is becoming harder and harder to access.

    Misinformation and lies are being crop dusted over the masses like DDT.

    Nazi’s and White Supremacists are now being called alternative views.

    We are in a 1984 version of reality where history is being rewritten to fit whatever narrative is seeking justification.

    The only way to combat this is with quality education provided affordability and you are at the heart of this.

    You are the guardians at the gate ensuring we have an informed populace, an educated workforce, and critically thinking citizens.

    You are the gardens for the minds of our future. You are the curators of future artists, directors for the next great masterpiece, designers of future fashions and trends.

    You are the molders of generations and you do it all with little thanks, and little paychecks.

    For that I commend you.

    But what we see in the face of this reality is growing disrespect and contempt for you and your careers.

    We see the unemployed and underemployed jealous of your union contracts.

    We see our elected officials blame you for their bad budgeting.

    We see anti-union forces targeting you as the last bastion of our great movement.

    You represent the American dream we all want and while being constantly attacked you represent the best of us as you continue to do your job and maintain your professionalism.

    We are facing difficult times, times that require all of us to break out of our comfort zones.

    Unemployment has dropped and the stock market is rising.

    Yet in the face of this economic boom, the dollars have not flowed down to the average worker.

    While CEO’s and investors are raking in seven, eight, nine digit salaries, the average American is working more and making less.

    This is an unbalanced system that is funneling all the wealth into the concentrated hands of a few while the rest of us scrape by to exist.

    Making things worse we have a full on assault of the Labor Movement and our members.

    See labor unions are the only organization that represents all Americans, and the only vehicle that gives power to the worker, enough power for us to demand a cut of the profits and a say on the shop floor.

    With our union we get the power to make changes both economically and socially that benefits all people, and specifically uplifts disenfranchised communities.

    Blacks, gays, women all receive bigger benefits under a union than white men.

    Why you may ask, well the answer is simple.

    Unions make all workers equal, and since there is a real gap between white heterosexual men and all other workers, unions bring up the bottom to the top to make it equitable for all.

    This is why we are so hated. Unions have the power to end the social and economic divisions that allow bosses and politicians to pit us against each other.

    Unions helped desegregate industries, helped promote women and people of color into leadership positions, helped to unite people of different cultures and creeds.

    Unions help unite Americans as working people and this is a threat to the elites who use our differences to force a race to the bottom.

    It is the differences in our skin color, methods of praying, people we love that they use to force a wedge between us to make you work cheaper than me, or to make you fear me.

    It is these divisions they use to fuel hatred.

    While Trump is bragging about building a wall to keep out Mexicans, his golf courses are trying to hire more Mexicans to work there. That’s how they keep us fooled.

    This is the fight we are in right now brothers and sisters.

    The wage gap between the richest Americans and the rest of us is larger than any other country in the world.

    Let me repeat: Our rich folk are 400 times richer than the average worker, while in countries like Japan and England it is only 50 to 80 times.

    Let me repeat that, our rich are triple digits richer than me and you, but in England and Japan it is only double digits.

    What that means is our rich are filthy in their wealth and they want more.

    They want to cut the regulations that make sure our drinking water is clean because they don’t want to have to pay to not pollute it.

    They don’t want any rules on how they invest money because they want to be able to scam the poor guy out of his pennies.

    They just want to consume and consume and consume.

    They want your health care, your pension, your land.

    They want to make sure you have nothing so they can have everything.

    And that is our fight today.

    It is no longer a fight to get better, right now we’re fighting to keep what we have.

    This is a fight to preserve the soul of our country and the faith of all working men and women.

    We are fighting for our livelihood, our freedom, and our vitality.

    We are fighting for our future, our health, and our families.

    This is a fight to decide if America is for the rich or for the many and right now we are losing.

    We are losing because a bigot is in the white house.

    We are losing because nationwide you may all lose your right to be in your union.

    We are losing because our justice system is focusing on whether or not colleges let in enough white students and not investigating all the domestic white terrorists killing people with their cars.

    We are losing because we unions are less than 12%.

    We are losing because our children are losing hope in this system and in us.

    We are losing because tomorrow is looking bleaker than today.

    So we have to fight back.

    We have to organize.

    We have to rise up and remind this country that it was built by workers, built for workers, and will always be for honest working men and women regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.

    This is a country of immigrants, built by hard-working men and women, some of whom were paid and others who were whipped, but none the less they were all workers.

    So find your voice.

    Get invested in your union because tomorrow is never guaranteed.

    There are only two givens in this fight.

    The first is that the rich will fight back with all their might and fury.

    The one percent will do anything and everything in their power to keep their power.

    The second you are guaranteed is that tomorrow will be better than today if we all work together.

    We were fractured in the 2016 election and we lost our unity.

    We are living the consequences of that action. But if we unite again like we did when we elected Barack we can all be victorious.

    We can all rise.

    That is my challenge to you. Rise to the new challenge.

    Be the hallmark of this movement and country as you continue to do the good honest work no matter the conditions.

    We need you now more than ever.

    Professors and educators, I call on you to help raise our children to help raise this country.

    I call on you to make thinkers and not followers, to make change agents instead of mindless sheep.

    It your job, your duty, your mission to make sure we do not fall into the darkness of ignorance.

    That our people are taught, educated, and encouraged to do more, think bigger, and for the good of the many.

    It is your job to mold and groom and raise up the next crop of leaders so we do not wither and die in the shadows of obliviousness.

    It is you that makes the future and I call on all of you to join in.

    To stand together, to teach and train not for a degree but to advance a nation.

    Rise up....

    • TO EDUCATE our family, friends, and neighbors on our issues

    • TO HOLD POLITICIANS who get our votes accountable

    • TO BRING our community issues to labor’s table and labor's issue to our kitchen table

    • TO STAY ENGAGED in political organizing work beyond Election Day

    • FOR AN ECONOMY that works for all

    • FOR A FAIR AND JUST criminal justice system

    • TO CREATE A JUST SOCIETY where Human Rights and Labor Rights are ONE IN THE SAME...

    • TO BE THE GREAT LEADERS GOD CREATED YOU TO

Community colleges hold a special place in the heart of NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango, a proud graduate of Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica. As the first in her family to graduate college, DiBrango said MVCC offered her an academically strong and supportive place to start her higher education journey.

“It’s where I met my husband and, for both of us, MVCC was such a wonderful place,” she said. “The professors really nurtured us and helped us grow.”

After graduating from MVCC, DiBrango worked as a school secretary at Oneida County BOCES, where she got the “teaching bug” and attended night classes at SUNY Oswego to earn her teaching degree. “Believe me, I know how crucial community college can be,” DiBrango said. “Without that institution, I would not be standing here today.”

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta assured participants that the statewide union would keep up the big push for greater higher education funding and support. At a luncheon held prior to the conference, community college presidents and union leaders committed to work together for increased state resources, including a joint lobbying day to make the case for a new funding formula.

With the Nov. 7 Election Day just a few days away, Pallotta urged community college activists to keep talking to friends, family and colleagues about the importance of voting “no” on the proposed constitutional convention.

“We’ve given out 300,000 signs, magnets and buttons — and made more than 250,000 phone calls,” Pallotta said. “Don’t let your foot off the gas!”

The need for continued political action was a common thread through many of the breakout sessions during the conference. Participants learned the ins and outs of lobbying effectively, how to build a political action program in local communities and how to use NYSUT’s “Why in 5” materials to educate others about significant social justice issues.

“I love that we got to practice techniques and how to approach people in a non-confrontational way to introduce them to what the union does,” said Melissa Adeyeye, a communications assistant professor and member of the Faculty Association of Suffolk County Community College.

Members also attended workshops on labor history, legal issues, member engagement, “hidden money” in community college finances, adjunct issues and learning tools to build the “town and gown” relationship.

One workshop focused on a wide range of bargaining topics — outside of salary and health benefits — that can go a long way toward improving working conditions for faculty and staff.

“It isn’t all about money,” said David Pollack of Sullivan County Community College Professional Staff Association. “Interest-based negotiations have worked very well for us.”

As an example, he said, the union negotiated a new peer review evaluation system that was less punitive and more focused on improving teaching.

“We convinced them of the importance of keeping good staff happy and negotiated a new schedule that was more conducive to reappointment,” Pollack said. “Our goal was to get to a place where people don’t have to worry every year about reappointment.”

“It’s getting a seat at the table we don’t usually sit at,” said Robert Cacciatore, of the Orange County Community College Faculty Association, noting his contract had no language that gave faculty any right to sit in on executive searches. “There are so many things we can be working on to give us more power and say.”

Cacciatore said his union has successfully bargained automatic promotions for adjuncts and a provision that assures adjuncts are entitled to office hours and additional compensation. Of course, providing office hours are not just important to faculty; it is important for better serving students, he said. “Giving faculty and staff a voice not only improves working conditions. It helps student learning, too.”

“Never forget what we do as unionists also impacts our students,” said Andy Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College, who was honored as one of NYSUT’s Higher Education Members of the Year. “It’s important union work.”