Wriggling My Toes for Justice: Reflecting on our Union Journey—and Naming Names
David R. Weiss, January 2016
Note: This is a longer than usual post; read it as a pdf if you prefer.
On December 17, around 1 a.m., two bleary-eyed teams of negotiators signed off on a tentative agreement for the first union contract between Hamline University and the adjunct faculty of SEIU Local 284. This was nearly two years after we began organizing a union, more than 500 days after we affirmed our hopes in a union vote, fourteen months into bargaining, and sixteen hours after we sat down at the table one last time the prior day.
We have the honor of being the first adjunct faculty to unionize in Minnesota. Technically, there are unionized adjunct faculty at the state schools in Minnesota, but they’re covered by union contracts won and negotiated by fulltime faculty—and the adjunct faculty at those schools often don’t have full union benefits themselves, nor do they teach under a contract bargained with their interests at the forefront. We are the first group of adjunct faculty to organize as adjuncts and win a union for ourselves. And the first unionized faculty of any sort at a private college or university in the state (current law prevents fulltime faculty at private schools from organizing unions). So this is a historic moment.
It’s been a long journey to reach this day, and I’m offering these personal reflections as someone who was deeply involved from the very first organizing meeting through putting my signature onto the tentative agreement on December 17 as steward of our bargaining unit. I’m no historian, so I am neither claiming nor trying to be exhaustive here. But before my own memories fade, I want to capture a few of them—and also name some names.
We were organized by SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, and a few worthy shout outs go to SEIU staffers. Nikki Bohen, Haley Leibowitz, and Allie Busching were the initial SEIU organizers who came to Hamline. Such work is often mostly thankless, so their intrepid efforts are all the more laudable.
The first adjunct faculty who stepped forward to form the organizing committee that led our drive to become a union were Swati Avasthi (Creative Writing), Jen Beckham (English), Juliette Patterson (Creative Writing), Jhon Wlaschin (Psychology), and me, David Weiss (Religion). It would be hard to overstate the courage required of these folks. We faced odds and obstacles as challenging (and occasionally as idiotic) as any reality TV show—and with far greater goods at stake. We began as relative strangers on almost all counts except our convictions and ended as dearly trusted colleagues.
Throughout our organizing campaign leading up to our union vote we received assistance from Nikki and Haley, as well as others at SEIU. Most notably, Josh Keller, who coached us in media strategy and messaging focus, and Todd Rickert, who came in at several points to help us navigate the petition process that secured us the right to vote.
The adjunct faculty who served on our bargaining team could write their own Cliff Notes on Dante’s nine circles of hell. This is not to demonize our administration counterparts (though at some points that case is compelling…), but to acknowledge the peculiar stress of bargaining so long on behalf of so many and against such odds. Those who served at one time or another on our bargaining team were Jen Beckham (English), Mark Felton (Accounting), Adam Lindberg (English), Andrea Moerer (Latin American Studies), Gabrielle Rose (English), Jhon Wlaschin (Psychology), Della Zurick (Political Science), and me, David Weiss (Religion). Altogether we invested some 750+ hours—all unpaid—in the bargaining process. Some of our members even paid for childcare so they could volunteer on the bargaining team.
Even though our first contract did not reach as far as we might have liked, its reach went further than many though possible. And that is a testament to the perseverance, creativity, resilience, and mutuality practiced by this these folks. If Hamline ever had any doubts about the intellectual strengths or the steadfast character of their adjunct faculty, we silenced all such doubts at the bargaining team.
In addition to the five faculty members on our bargaining team at any given time, our lead negotiator throughout the process was Carol Nieters, executive director of SEIU, Local 284, the education local with which we are affiliated. A seasoned negotiator, Carol educated us along the way about bargaining and contracts, received our input and offered her counsel. She made sure that we made every final decision, and then carried our words faithfully and forcefully to the table. More than any other person at SEIU, she accompanied us on the longest stretch of this journey.
Two other SEIU folks deserve special mention for playing small but critical roles in our effort. Dave Zaffrann assisted with our social media campaigns as well as fine-tuning our messaging during the homestretch. And Kevin Hippert was the person who routinely launched my Union Stew member messages into cyber space.
Too many to name. Besides the folks whom I’ve named, there are countless others. Among them, our adjunct faculty peers who shared this journey with us in so many ways, cheering us own, showing solidarity, voicing gratitude, stepping up for tasks when needed. Also students, whose readiness to become visible on our behalf was priceless. And both staff and fulltime faculty who found myriad ways to offer support, some of it quiet, personal, and off-radar, some of it very public. Every expression of support mattered. There were days when the smallest gesture undid a mountain of doubt, and days when a grand readiness to stand with us embodied the very best of Hamline’s ideals against its own bargaining posture.
We—together (because that’s how union works)—made history.
A Brief Re-Cap
The saga of our journey rightfully includes both the wider context of economic and ideological pressures facing higher education nationwide, as well as Hamline’s own peculiar jaunt through that terrain. Higher education as whole, and Hamline as one instance, have been more complicit than resistant to the forces that have made adjunct attractive and easy targets for exploitation. But the contours of that story are available elsewhere. This is a more personal narrative.
It begins in February 2014 the initial SEIU organizers Nikki, Haley, and Allie, crisscrossing campus to connect with a very disconnected adjunct faculty. They caught many of us after a class ended and struck up conversations in which they dared to pose out loud questions many of us already had rumbling around inside: “Do you enjoy teaching? How do you feel about your pay and work conditions as an adjunct faculty member? Can you imagine something better—pay and conditions that would help you flourish as a teacher? Would you like to be part of building that something better right here at Hamline?” If you think about it, these questions are actually quite similar to the sorts of aspirational and vocational questions Hamline hopes their students ask about their place and role in the world.
No doubt some adjunct faculty were put off by these unexpected interruptions in our day. We are, after all, a diverse lot of folks. But for others of us, these questions invited conversation, community, and collective action. Thus, Nikki, Haley, and Allie sparked a beginning. Would you call them “outside agitators”? That entirely misses the point. In the face of injustice, there is no such thing as an outside agitator. Each one of us, insider or outsider, either agitates for justice or becomes a guilty bystander.
Swathi Avasthi, Jen Beckham, Juliette Patterson, Jhon Wlaschin, and I chose to agitate for justice, forming an organizing committee to build a union. There were a few others who joined us for a meeting or two—and many others who were vocal in their support of our work, but we were the five who came to count on each other with almost unimaginable camaraderie as we ventured into wholly unmapped territory together. We brainstormed strategies, imagined possibilities, weighed the union’s advice, met with administrators, co-edited our public messages … and spoke with almost every one of our adjunct peers, whether in person, by phone, or by email. We guided the union effort from our first meeting (Feb. 2014) at Dunn Bros. Coffee on East Lake at the river through gathering sufficient signatures to petition for an election (April 2014), to the union election itself (June 2014) and concluded our work with the (August 2014) appointment of a bargaining team and selection of me as our first steward.
Typically, a single team would bargain a contract from start to finish. But one of the reasons adjuncts have been so prone to exploitation is the very transient and unpredictable character of our work, and this dynamic shaped the ability of even our most committed members to serve on the bargaining team. Every hour we bargained was on our own time—sometimes, for those who needed to obtain childcare, at our own expense. Not surprisingly, changes in teaching schedules, teaching loads, teaching locations (sometimes at multiple schools), and personal circumstances necessitated some who served to step aside after several months. We wound up needing three “generations” on our bargaining team before we signed the tentative agreement in December 2015.
Our first team, active from September through December 2014, consisted of Jen Beckham, Adam Lindberg, Gabrielle Rose, Jhon Wlaschin, myself, and Carol Nieters from SEIU. As our lead negotiator Carol did most of the talking, especially early on, but she made sure that her words reflected our wishes. In similar fashion, the Hamline team, comprised of 6-7 administrators, was led by an outside attorney who did most of the speaking from their side.
We started the fall with by getting trained in “interest-based bargaining” (IBB). Both sides committed a “hybrid” model of bargaining, that would use some IBB sessions to assist us in having more productive traditional bargaining. This meant we would have several sessions of focused dialogue where each side seeks to share their own—and hear the other side’s—respective interests so that when you begin trading proposals in a more traditional bargaining mode you can hopefully craft proposals that create common ground.
Ironically, immediately after this fairly idealistic training we found ourselves mired for eight hours over the next two sessions simply seeking agreement on ground rules for the bargaining process itself, which was rather telling since it should have been accomplished in just an hour or two. Hamline’s outside attorney had a long list of ground rules—far more than Carol had ever seen, and it took us hours to prune them back to an acceptable framework. This was one of several tactics by the administration that, intentionally or otherwise (I say, intentionally), worked to delay our eventual agreement (read: justice) as long as possible.
Finally, in late fall, we commenced actual contract talks. By the end of 2014 we had reached TAs (tentative agreement) on five fairly innocuous articles and had held two pretty good sessions of interest-based dialogue around course assignments. Although we were the only team that had actually organized our thoughts into a formal presentation so we did most of the sharing, the administration team did offer us some helpful insights into both their constraints and their potential to address some of our concerns. We were eager for 2015 to begin and hopeful that we could make steady progress through the remaining non-economic items so that we could focus on the matters that involved money. We were naïve.
As we entered 2015 we fielded our “second generation” bargaining team: Jen Beckham, Andrea Moerer, Gabrielle Rose, John Wlaschin, and me (and Carol, of course). We began with a pair of less encouraging dialogues around professional development and compensation. In both cases we came to the sessions with well-prepared presentations that outlined the contributions we made to Hamline’s learning-driven mission, the challenges we faced as adjunct teacher-scholars, the aspirations we had for improvements, and the way that professional development and better compensation would strengthen Hamline’s goal of teaching excellence and align with Hamline’s mission. Unfortunately, the administration team had not prepared anything to present at all, and their off-the-cuff responses struck all of us as disappointing and almost dismissive.
I say this not to take a cheap shot at the administration after-the-fact. We do have a (soon-to-be-ratified) contract. But our bargaining team—to a person—found our negotiations throughout 2015, both professionally and personally, to be an increasingly brutal experience. Part of the reason I’ve named names here is that everyone on the bargaining team paid for our first contract with their own blood, sweat, and tears—and that deserves to be noted.
Throughout the spring of 2015 we worked toward TAs on the remaining range on non-economic issues. By March we put our opening economic proposal—covering compensation, benefits, and professional development—on the table. We began actively pressing the administration for a response, expressing our desire to complete the contract by the summer. First contracts invariably have a host of fine print; all manner of necessary detail that must be written up from scratch. But it quickly became evident that we wanted a completed deal far sooner than the university did. It took Hamline nearly three months (all the while continuing to chip away at other pieces of the contract) to respond to our economic proposal. As spring moved into summer, the heat in the room rose considerably.
In June Hamline made its first counter offer to our economic proposal. That is, if “zero” even counts as a counter offer. Neither side expected their first economic overture to be embraced by the other side outright. Indeed, part of the unhelpful framework of traditional bargaining is that it requires each side to err on the edge of unrealistic in opening proposals in order to leave room for “realistic” to land somewhere in the middle. Some people might say that an opening counter of zero movement on base compensation is still an opening counter (and some people on the other side of table said precisely that). But after having jointly committed to interest-based dialogue over economic matters, and after the very real effort we invested (and very real risks we took) in our January dialogues, the counter offer we received in June felt EXACTLY like a slap in the face, like it was intended to humiliate and defeat us there and then.
Instead (and much to their evident surprise), we chose resolute anger. Not because any of us on the team were given to quick tempers but because it was by then overwhelmingly clear that, despite Hamline’s proud public commitment to social justice in general, our pursuit of specific concrete justice for adjunct faculty in particular was not a shared venture, but one that rested singularly on our own resolve. No more naiveté for us.
The rest of the summer was spent in hard bargaining. Every dollar we gained, every benefit we bargained for, came slowly. We did make progress toward a professional development fund that will be a real tangible benefit to many in our unit. But on most other fronts, especially around compensation and job security, progress was elusive. The administration bargained from a position that aimed repeatedly to limit every gain to the smallest possible circle of our members. Perhaps it was a subtle attempt to build into the contract a whole series of opportunities for dividing the unit against itself, but I fear the greater truth is that Hamline (at least at this point in negotiations) simply did not value us much at all, and approached bargaining almost solely as a matter of “losses to be limited” rather than seeing us as real assets to the university and thus worth investing in to support our teaching excellence. This perception was amplified by rumors around campus of departmental cutbacks which, coupled with unusually late appointment letters for fall teaching, sent whispers of fear running through our unit.
It was very difficult during those dog days of August not to feel exasperated and cynical. Were it not for Carol’s conviction, purchased across countless negotiations, that our perseverance would eventually pay off—plus the undeniably fierce collegiality we had formed as a bargaining team—we might well have given up before the fall arrived.
But fall did arrive, and with it a third generation bargaining team took its seat at the table: Jen Beckham, Mark Felton, Andrea Moerer, Della Zurick, and me (and, yes, still Carol). Throughout the fall we not only held our ground at the table, we also claimed our ground in the campus community … publicly. We launched an online petition of support, and released a social media video (special kudos to John Wlaschin for his starring role, as well a handful of student in supporting roles). We made buttons, window signs, lawn signs and promoted active displays of union solidarity around campus. We encouraged alumni to call the President and ask Hamline to work for a swift—and fair—contract agreement.
The most attention-getting activity we undertook was a food drive. In partnership with Hamline’s MPIRG student group (with gratitude especially to Wyatt Ehlke and Kayla Farhang) and the assistance of Kyle McGinn, an MFA graduate student, we created an event that put an inescapable visual image—$800 of collected groceries—on the lost value of our wages (per course) over the past decade. Combined with a launch event on Family Weekend that included public words of support from tenured faculty, it was impossible to ignore.
For the first time, because of our increased public presence and in direct counterpoint to our food drive launch, President Miller issued a statement on the union process. Her statement was riddled with half-truth inaccuracies. Rhetorically framed as a call to unity on campus, it was clearly intended to marginalize our voice and discredit our call for justice. By then it didn’t much matter. We had the President’s attention—because we had gained the community’s attention. And we weren’t about to give either of them back. In fact, shortly after the food drive and the President’s campus-wide message, we were invited to address the Hamline Student Congress about our perspective. And a growing number of fulltime tenured faculty reached out vocally or quietly in support.
Bargaining didn’t get easier per se, but the pressure on the administration team to reach agreement was now coming both from us at the bargaining table and from the President’s office and elsewhere. Hamline was increasingly aware of the toll that the negotiations were taking outside the bargaining room. In November both sides began to hint at a willingness to move from simple bargaining to mediation, whereby a federal mediator would try to help move us toward common ground. And in December, with both sides by now steeped in equal measures of weariness, desperation, and stubbornness, we entered mediation.
Wriggling My Toes
It took one short (six-hour) session on December 3 and a marathon (sixteen-hour) session on December 16 that spilled over into the next day to reach the tentative agreement. Mediation was hardly magic. The commissioner assigned to our case used “shuttle diplomacy” carrying open-ended proposals back and forth between rooms, encouraging movement from each side on points where she perceived it might be possible. Still, in our room, at least, tempers flared. We came very close to walking out in anger. Very close. But around 11 p.m. on December 16 it became apparent we were on the edge of tentative agreement. It took a final two hours to solidify and codify that, but we did it before leaving.
Yes, there were handshakes all around at 1 a.m. There were smiles and congratulations, although I suspect on our team that the true feeling was (huge) relief and (major) accomplishment more than celebration. It’s an unfortunate truth that for an entire twelve months in 2015 we felt more stung than anything else by Hamline’s posture. Even the tentative agreement, for all that it does to begin the march toward justice for adjunct faculty, was bargained with a bitter taste in our mouths much of that last evening.
We faced down that bitterness in two ways. As in August, Carol’s steadiness steadied us. Not to say that she didn’t herself grow weary or frustrated, this was a bit less personal, a bit more professional for her. Good thing. Without ever second-guessing or minimizing our frustration and anger, she helped us not walk away in a moment when walking would have put a very justified (though perhaps counter productive) exclamation mark on our reactions.
Beyond this, the five of us adjuncts who were there that day were keenly aware of the depth of our collegiality—and not just with one another, but with most of our unit. Sure, there are some in our unit indifferent to the union, and a handful unhappy that we unionized. But the majority of our peers have been vocal in appreciation. Many times over. Through the struggle to form a union and the long months of bargaining the contract, we became a union not just in a legal sense, but in a real sense. There were only five of us faculty members in the room bargaining that day, but representing five different disciplines, we felt the breadth and the abundance of our gifts, the depth of our convictions, and the yearning of our peers alongside us. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but it was a very full room, crowded with hope enough to hold the bitterness (even though just barely) at bay.
I had one more thing that kept me grounded—and, given that at one point late in the day I unloaded an f-bomb directly at the commissioner (in response to the other team’s actions, not hers!), it’s probably a good thing. Knowing it would be a long and trying day, I had doubled-down and wore two pairs of socks. They were thread bare on the bottom anyway. More importantly, a couple decades ago they were my grandpa’s socks. They represent half of the material inheritance I received from him. I don’t know that he ever wore them to a bargaining session, but I know my grandpa, a tool and die man for forty years, was a longtime union man, active in both local and regional union affairs. He belonged to a different generation and a different profession, but he knew firsthand the power of organizing together for a better deal. My dad grew up into the better deal my grandpa fought for. And every time I wriggled my toes (and there was a lot of wriggling that day), I felt my grandpa’s aspirations right there, inside my shoes, and they helped keep my own aspirations on solid ground.
Justice is never one person’s struggle. Indeed, to succeed, it’s always a struggle shared by many and with roots that run deep. All along, but especially on December 16, that was true for us.
Final Thoughts Before Turning Forward
It’s time now to turn our energy toward building a partnership with the administration for the future, and I look forward to that, though I still believe it could have happened much sooner.
Labor negotiations are framed—societally and structurally—as an adversarial process. But not inevitably. As educators we know that classrooms come complete with social and structural frames that don’t necessarily enhance learning. And the best educators work hard to resist and undo those frames for the sake of learning. I believe that on the whole we, on the adjunct faculty team, worked passionately and creatively (at times stretching the comfort level of Carol’s union sensibilities) to resist and undo the adversarial frame of negotiations for the sake of pursuing worker justice and teaching excellence.
From my perspective, the administration unfortunately chose to stay “in frame” throughout negotiations, and right up through securing a tentative agreement. I have no way of knowing (and no desire to guess) whether that was a choice made by the administrators in the room or by persons outside the room. But I don’t think the posture served anyone well—except Hamline’s outside attorney, whose billing time multiplied tremendously as a result. But it didn’t benefit students, faculty, administration, or the school as a whole. It prolonged the process and strained important relationships far beyond what was inevitable.
Again, this isn’t sour grapes. We have a contract, and a decent one at that. But our best chances to move forward from here will be aided not by glossed over nostalgia but by honest clarity about the past. There were better options available to us, and in this first go-round, the institution lacked the imagination and the courage to embrace them.
Our team, from the first session of training to the final exasperation at the edge of tentative agreement, had hoped to meet in the administration team willing and imaginative partners in thinking outside the frame toward a future for higher education where the affordability of teaching excellence does not hinge on the exploitation of adjunct faculty. We did not meet that team. Ever. Nonetheless, our first contract, hard-won, is a first step toward justice. And the first step is often the most difficult.
I hope it’s also a step that invites the administration to join us now as eager and enthused partners in fostering a university community where both budget priorities and campus culture support Hamline’s mission to pursue social justice and teaching excellence not as competing goals but as one interwoven reality.
I, for one, am more than ready for that venture.
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David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013, now ACTA Publications, 2015; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well asTo the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at email@example.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”