Community college activists resolved to spread a message of strength and solidarity to their campuses in the wake of ongoing challenges facing educators and their unions.
Nearly 150 members from NYSUT community college locals around the state convened for an intensive three-day conference in November where activists gained the latest information and strategies to fortify current members and engage new ones.
"The conference was eye-opening. And it was invigorating in showing how important it is for all faculty members to continue to convey and support the union narrative," said Joseph Bernat, who teaches mathematics at Nassau Community College.
Alice O'Brien, the National Education Association's general counsel, offered activists a sobering primer on a case before the U.S. Supreme Court — Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association — that will be argued in early 2016; a decision is expected in June.
Friedrichs centers around the future of fair share, or agency fees collected by unions from those who have elected not to be union members, but who are fully covered by the union contract. Such fee-payers pay their share toward the union representation that affords them the rights and benefits provided by a contract.
Fair share fees, which are limited and highly regulated, have been permitted for decades in the U.S. They are part of tens of thousands of public sector collective bargaining relationships, including those in New York state.
The petitioners in Friedrichs seek to overturn the precedent, saying fair share fees violate the First Amendment.
Precedent that established the fee-payer system would normally suggest a favorable outcome for public employee unions, but these are not normal times, O'Brien said.
"It's relatively rare for the court to overrule its own precedent and it's rarer for the court to overrule its own precedent in a closely divided case," O'Brien said. "On the merits, we should win. But we may not. Politics may triumph. And even if we do win, this is one of many, many cases coming down the pipeline."
The ramifications of an adverse court decision was not lost on the higher education activists.
"We need our union to ensure our voices are heard," said Katelynn DeLuca, who teaches writing at Suffolk County Community College. "By making sure our voices matter, the union empowers our students' success."
DeLuca was among a large contingent of first-time attendees to the 37th annual conference, almost twice the usual number. Many of them are new union members who are just starting to become active in their local.
"We did this by making the push and by asking people," said conference chair and NYSUT Board member Kevin Peterman, president of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College. "The new people from our local who are here? I personally asked them."
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta updated members about the upcoming legislative session, saying the union "continues to hammer home the need for more funding for higher education in general, and community colleges in particular."
The union's longtime goal of a state funding increase of $250 per full-time student for community colleges is not unrealistic this year, he said.
Eileen Landy, statewide secretary for United University Professions, NYSUT's affiliate representing faculty and staff at SUNY, and a national coordinator with the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, echoed the NYSUT officers' call for greater higher ed funding.
"Community colleges are underfunded much the same way as the SUNY state-operated campuses," Landy said. "There's a disinvestment, and they've been asked to do more and more. I think we're all facing similar issues. And we all share a core commitment to quality public higher education."