Higher Education
November 12, 2019

Community college conference attracts record numbers of activists

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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Caption: Verlaine Quinniey of the Faculty Federation of Erie CC (left) and Kathy Baxter of Monroe CC FA at the 41st NYSUT Community College Leadership Conference last weekend in Cooperstown. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

“Like a stray dog on campus … that’s how I felt,” said Laurel Morton, describing the early years of her time as an adjunct faculty member at Syracuse University.

The time she lost her course load at the last minute, she had no recourse, no standing and no union.

“I literally spent the semester on the floor of my living room, with my cat,” she said.

Now the president of the 11-year-old Adjuncts United local union at SU, Morton found that sharing these kinds of personal experiences was crucial to organizing and engaging members who were used to feeling alienated and alone.

“Playing up that personal story, and finding people who could understand that, was really huge. It builds trust,” she said.

“You have to find and share your members’ stories,” said Cyndi Riedi, of the Mohawk Valley CC Adjuncts and Part-timers Association. “The stories of why people are still members are very powerful.”

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41st Annual Community College Conference 2019

With the labor movement energized after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus, connecting with members and potential members is a priority.

“Membership drives are now 24-hours a day, 365 days a year,“ Riedi said. “This is our job one!”

In short, “Membership Matters” like never before, and it was the main theme of the 2019 NYSUT Community College Leadership Conference last weekend.

“We’re going to be in a battle forever,” said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT president. “We’re never going to be done with it. Most people are sticking with the union. But we will always be organizing.“

Roberta Elins, the president of the United College Employees of FIT and chair of the NYSUT Higher Ed Policy Council, said the 41st annual conference attracted more than 180 members from 30 local unions, both record numbers.

“We’re going to continue to work together to mobilize and engage members to build a strong union,” she said.

higher ed conference
A record-breaking turnout at this year's Community College Leadership Conference. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

In 2018, Bethany Gizzi, president of Monroe CC FA, spearheaded an effort to unify her members against an anti-union college administration. With a visible, red-shirted campaign to show unity on pickets and at trustees meetings, union members showed up in force. The trustees even had to reschedule meetings into a larger public space to accommodate the crowds.

In the end, the union took a no-confidence vote against the president, with 88 percent of members voting in support. The college pushed back, and the president vowed she would never leave. But guess what happened.

“A month ago, she announced that she got a new position in Virginia,” Gizzi said.

The FA’s action has changed the culture.

“We’re still going to focus on all the issues that need to be addressed internally,” she said. “But the board must work with us, and the trustees say now they want to work together with us to find a new president.”

The faculty is the heart of the college, said Frank Frisenda, president of the Nassau CC Federation of Teachers, and unity is key.

"Students don’t come to the college because of the 'great' board of trustees we have," he said. "They don’t come to the college because of the administration. They come to the college because of us, the members of the NCCFT."

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