Friday, May 9, 2014

Why I fight for a union

I’ve been involved in the campaign to establish a union for the adjunct faculty members at my university, Loyola Marymount, since the beginning of that movement.  Its roots go back several years, if not even further.  As a non-tenure track, visiting professor from 2003 to 2005, I was understandably miffed after discovering that not only was I not chosen for the tenure track position that I had interviewed for there – hoping at the time that my two and a half years of service would count for something – but that despite the presence of two separate and simultaneous student petitions circulating to have my position extended, I was allowed to fade away, and my contract lapse.  During that time, I heard whispers of a particular tenured professor on the faculty senate who had been trying to unionize his tenure line colleagues for years.  It was mentioned that I should talk to him, and see if there was something he could do for me.  I spoke to him and he pleasantly heard my story, my impassioned pleas to have his help in extending my position, hoping that he could use his considerable influence, as if the threat of a union would somehow keep me working.  He sat and listened to my puerile attempt to link the concept of a potential union with my job stability and so forth, but blithely asked me, “what do you want me to do about it?” With that, I was dismissed.  I was annoyed at not only his lack of ability to do anything about it, but also his seeming lack of concern about it.  I would later come to realize that his frustration with the problems associated with forming a union were not unique, and his apparent detachment from my case was nothing personal.  He couldn’t have done anything anyway. 

And so, by the time the Summer of 2005 ended, right after returning from my honeymoon, I had removed all my books and personal belongings from my temporarily held office—but not before my office computer was unceremoniously recycled to make room for new office computers, and all of my personal and professional files that were on it from the previous two years lost!  I grumbled and continued walking, never really looking back.  I tried to apply for tenure track jobs during the next few years, but they became fewer and fewer in my field.  From time to time, my sleep was haunted by dreams about LMU, in which the school was often presented as compared to the Empire from Star Wars, as if its buildings were somehow part of the Death Star and housed countless evil minions serving Darth Vader or the Emperor.  During waking hours, I would cringe to drive past the overgrown water fountain that presented the school’s first impressions to the public on Lincoln Blvd., which cost about a million dollars to build, and a whole heck of a lot to maintain every year.  The school that I had loved so much had become the locus of my pain and disappointment. 

But somewhere about three years later, having taught and consulted for a variety of small startup schools around L.A., my former chair at LMU called me out of the blue and asked me if I was available to teach part time.  I refrained from telling him to kiss off, knowing that my lack of continued employment there was not fully his fault; in fact, the decision to ask me back was likely his own.  So I put aside any of my residual annoyance at him or the school as an entity, and I gratefully accepted two classes for the Fall of 2008, now teaching part time.  Accepting these two classes, I was now an adjunct.  I had of course been teaching part-time at other universities since my original position at LMU ended, but it seemed different somehow.  They were startup schools, and one of them even somewhat prematurely gave me the title of Dean of Students as an incentive, prior to their folding due to funding problems and a fight among its board members.  With LMU, I had now taken on the identity of a person who was good enough to teach the students continually, but evidently not good enough to be hired on permanently. 

But I still gleefully accepted my two courses per semester for the next several years (2 classes being the limit for part-time positions; anything higher and they would have to pay full-time wages and benefits).  I was glad to be teaching students of that caliber and to be teaching at a place with a mission that I truly resonated with – even if the administration was questionably able to carry it out. 

Over the years, my parents were growing older.  We were always very close.  We had always intended to live closer to one another, but they lived in New York, my homeland, in the house that I grew up in and had been built by my grandfather in 1972, just for us, the last home he ever built.  We planned that someday, somehow, I would be able to live in the same town as my parents and we would not have to satisfy ourselves with one or two visits a year interspersed between frequent phone calls. 

But my parents began to decline somewhat slowly and imperceptibly.  And during that time, my father developed a phantom limp and had to walk with a cane.  No doctor could offer a reasonable diagnosis.  And alongside of this, he had begun to develop memory issues.  My mother had been a compulsive hoarder for many years, and every time I returned to visit, the house got worse and worse, to the point where by 2007, I could no longer enter it.  They had to arrange for me to stay with family or friends when I would come to town; we would visit with one another wherever I was staying.  I perennially planned to do something about the situation, but my mother’s personality was far too strong for me to overpower her with the logic of the situation.  Even after threats of calling the department of health on them, I was powerless to convince them to clean up their environment.  So, in 2009, when I received a call that the town department of public safety had removed them from their house, “placarding it” for safety and sanitary violations, I was not surprised.  But I was also at a loss for what to do.  So I flew to NY to help spearhead a major cleanout.  During this time, they stayed on the couches of various loved ones who lived nearby.  They were effectively homeless during that time, and on more than one occasion slept in their minivan in the driveway of the house.  Within four months, utilizing the help of numerous family and friends, I flew back and forth twice to oversee a successful cleanout that allowed my parents to regain legal entry to their home by Christmas. 

Within two years, the house was still clean enough to live in, but was steadily being filled up again, my mother’s compulsive illness remaining uncured.  And perhaps by the grace of God, the unthinkable happened.  During Hurricane Irene in 2011, a tree fell squarely on the house, doing about a quarter of a million dollars of damage.  Luckily, the insurance company paid for most of the repairs, and in the process, we gained a very close friend in the form of the contractor who showed up to start the repairs.  Over the course of the next year, he worked steadily to make the house livable for my parents, and in this time, he witnessed my parents’ gradual decline while I was away in California, working.  He witnessed my now daily phone conversations with my parents.  He became very close friends with my mother.  He was there for them when Mom was diagnosed with cancer.  He was there when Dad’s still undiagnosed dementia got out of hand.  But where was I?  Despite my deep and abiding love for my parents, I was nowhere to be found.  Not because of volition, but because of necessity.  The days in which a dutiful son could easily take care of his elderly parents, working a job nearby his birth place, were gone.  I had gone west to attend graduate school, and was forced to stay there to find a job.  There were no jobs to speak of in my field that were anywhere near where I wanted to be.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not find any reasonable job in my field that was nearer to my parents.  And so my absence was that much more dramatic when they began to fall seriously ill, as if they had been deprived of their son’s love for too long and they had begun to wither. 

During the Summer of 2012, after classes were out, I stayed in New York to take care of them.  I watched as my father’s dementia grew worse and more unmanageable.  I was there as my mother’s cancer began to rapidly metastasize.  I was there when my father, suffering from frequent episodes of disorientation, struck my mother, thinking her a dangerous stranger.  It was I who had to call 911 to have him confined to a hospital.  It was I who took my mother to visit my dad at the VA every day for the rest of the Summer.  When we finally had him placed in a nursing home that could just barely handle his frequent outbursts and fits of violence—so uncharacteristic of the gentle and mild man that I grew up with as a father—I was there to visit him daily to make sure he had some kind of family member to give him a sense of stability and home.  But when I had to fly back to Los Angeles to start a new semester of classes, I was heartbroken, not knowing who would care for my parents in my absence.  A few family and close friends chipped in, driving my mother to her frequent doctor’s appointments and to visit my dad a few days a week, but it was not enough.  I was stuck in California, working for subsistence wages in the only job I could find, while my parents desperately needed me. 

For many years, we had talked about the possibility of my moving them out to L.A. to live with Melissa and me for at least part of the year, not only so I could help care for their needs, but also in order to enjoy the time we had left on earth together, trying to make up for all the years we had lost, while I was in graduate school and they were only able to see me during Summers and holidays.  But the small, 1940s-built house we rented in L.A., though considerably more affordable than most in this area, was still not large enough to house four grown adults.  It was barely large enough to house the two of us and still leave room for a home office, since I did much of my research and side consulting work from home.  When my parents would occasionally visit, they would have to sleep on the fold-out couch.  I dreamt of being able to rent a house large enough to give them their own bedroom, or even a side apartment with a separate entry.  But this was never to be. 

Dad’s dementia only got worse, while I was away that Fall, 2012.  And Mom’s cancer grew more and more deadly.  When Dad suffered a heart attack at the nursing facility he was at temporarily and had to be hospitalized again, I flew out to New York, fully aware that I might not see him alive by the time I arrived.  When I did, my extended family was there, and my mom was slumped over in a wheelchair, a shadow of her former self, hardly able to hold herself up.  I stayed at my father’s bedside for two weeks, having asked a colleague to cover my classes in my absence.  My department chair was very kind and understanding, as were other departmental colleagues.  But I knew that it would not last forever.  No policies about family leave were in place and I knew that if I were gone for too long, someone would have to replace me.  And so, when my father survived his initial emergency surgery and lived long enough for them to extubate him, I saw his uptrend as my only opportunity to go back to L.A. to “check on my classes”.  I did not want to leave my father’s bedside, but I felt an obligation to go, fully intending to return to him in a couple of weeks.  But only a few days after I returned to L.A., my father was dead.  On the eve of Hurricane Sandy, bearing down on Long Island, the hospital called to let me know of his demise.  And as I made arrangements for family friends to console my mother when I called to tell her of Dad’s death, they also served a dual purpose—to evacuate her from her home and bring her to safety during the storm.  All flights in or out were grounded, due to the hurricane.  So, to keep from falling apart, I taught my classes the next day, making them fully aware of my father’s death. I took this as an opportunity, ever the theologian, to talk with my students about how tragic losses can shape and change a person’s thoughts on God and ultimate truths.  In honor of my father, the consummate teacher himself, I taught my classes wearing his favorite tie, given to me years before.  True to my own love of teaching, I knew that I would rather be serving my students than waiting helplessly to travel to my mother’s side. 

A few weeks later, I returned home again for Dad’s memorial service.  And even though my mom’s condition had worsened even more, and she was now mostly wheelchair bound, I could not conscion taking even more time away from my classes, for fear that I would lose my job and would not be able to support Mom in the absence of Dad’s pension and social security checks.  And so I returned to CA once again, leaving my cousin in the position of having to decide to hospitalize his favorite aunt the next day.  This was my purview, which I had relinquished due to my clouded mind, frantic with trying to earn a meager living in the wake of my dad’s passing.  With only about a week left of classes, I had to make the heartbreaking decision to stay and finish teaching, leaving family and friends in my stead.  And as soon as classes formally ended, I had a grad student proctor my exams and I flew back to New York to be at my mother’s bedside.  With no real medical options left for her care, we eventually got her to an experimental clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, the day after the New Year.  With every penny of my father’s life insurance money, we paid for the expensive, experimental treatment.  But in under a week, Mom’s condition had worsened beyond what their ICU could handle and we transported her back into the U.S., to San Diego, where she could be covered by her Medicare. It was there that she died, a week later.  I was now an orphan. 

As the new year continued, and I began my grieving, my foremost thought was to save my childhood home, against which all of my parents’ debts were levied.  And the wolves and the vultures began to visit.  In the form of creditors and banks, they came knocking.  The credit union temporarily froze our joint accounts, trying to force me to pay their bills lump sum.  I worked as much as I could and I stretched the remaining funds as far as possible.  And over the summer, I stayed in my childhood home for the entire three months, cleaning out every last bit of personal belongings, selling what I could to pay for the repairs and the bills, and donating what wouldn’t sell, in order to empty the house and ready it for tenants.  I was forced to part with almost everything left from my childhood in order to prepare the house for rental.  There was nowhere else to store these things.  Terrible losses I continued to sustain, giving away my family’s prized possessions in order to save the house.  For I had no intention of selling the house, what my grandfather had built for us, what my mother had intended to die in and to leave me.  It was all I had left of them and I was willing to fight to keep it.  Three long, unspeakably horrifying months, I saw nearly everything of value from my childhood liquidated.  And when I returned to CA in September, to begin my next semester of teaching, the one remaining thing I valued—the house—I left behind. 

In the Fall, I picked up a second job, consulting and doing administrative work for another small, startup university.  The work was interesting and it paid well, but it was not teaching.  Yet I was grateful to have income that would help pay the bills to save the house.  It was in terrible condition from my parents’ neglect.  Despite all the repairs from the treefall in 2011/12, there was still much to be done.  Between engaging the services of a cousin who was a retired contractor, and then later the same contractor who had done the treefall repairs, I was able to pay for most of the work to be done.  But every penny from my second job went to cover those costs.  Without that job, I surely would have lost the home.  At the time of the writing of this essay, some repair work still remains, but we are hopeful that tenants will soon help bring a happy ending to that part of the tale. 

Sometime in the year prior to my parents’ deaths, a few colleagues and I had begun to meet to discuss the excessive usage of adjunct faculty to teach the university’s courses.  We now numbered over 51% of the faculty—significantly above the national average, which was already soaring in the 42% range—and if one counted the full-time, non-tenure track faculty (often called “Visiting”) who were also named as part of the contingent faculty, we numbered over 60%.  Several of us knew that we needed to speak our minds and to become part of the solution to this growing, looming problem that universities everywhere were ignoring.  So we formed a focus group under the name Contingent Faculty Network (CFN), and we held numerous planning meetings and even hosted a year-end social gathering.  We rapidly gained support from numerous tenure-line faculty members and even the faculty senate.  To top it off, we were given the tacit approval of then dean of the College of Liberal Arts and had access to his associate deans for brainstorming meetings.  All in all, our members sought to work within the system to make changes to the way that the university treated its contingent laborers, but all the gains we made were largely ceremonial and very few actually took root in ways that would effectively or materially improve our situations.  At every turn, it seemed as if the system set in place by the higher administration was hindering any form of progress.  But while my colleagues continued to work for improvements, I knew deep down inside that a union would likely be necessary to induce any real and lasting changes to our lot.  The rest of our group were reluctant to admit this, as if it were tantamount to a “nuclear option”.  But as I began to deal with the worst of my family issues, having to minimize my involvement in the group during my parents’ decline and in the aftermath of their deaths, dealing with the overwhelmingly engrossing estate matters, my colleagues fought onwards.  For the time being, I thought that my involvement had come to a halt, and I momentarily put my thoughts of unions and reshaping higher education behind me as I began to deal with the most challenging problems of my entire life. 

But in the Fall, when union organizers showed up on campus, having found our little cabal through its blog, they sought out a few of us who were known to be key members.  And when Mac, a young organizer, came to my office, not only did I readily sign a union support card using my lucky pen, but I asked about how I could get more involved.  And in honor of my father, who was an ardent union supporter, I got involved.  When I was growing up, Dad would often say that teaching was always considered a noble profession, but that it was also considered noble to starve.  And in the olden days, teachers were paid a pittance and expected to starve, embodying their nobility of character.  But if it weren’t for the teachers’ unions, we as a family would have starved, too.  Because of his union, as a public school teacher, we had a roof over our heads, we always had enough to eat, and my parents were able to send me to college with minimal student loans (it was only in graduate school that I began to rack up over a hundred thousand in student loans). 

I now recognized that despite my best efforts, I had failed to realize the American dream.  In fact, I was living the American nightmare.  After two masters degrees and a Ph.D., I had now almost $200,000 of student loans, after accrued interest, and no way to pay them back.  I was always employed, but never able to make ends meet.  And worst of all, I had spent two decades apart from my two best friends, my Mom and Dad, working toward making a life for myself that would include them and facilitate a way to care for them as they grew older; working to give them grandchildren; working to save them from themselves as their sicknesses overtook them.  And it dawned on me that if I had had a living wage, job security, opportunities for advancement, even family or sick leave, things would have been different.  All these were things available to hard working folk of previous generations, the grist of the Horatio Alger stories of old.  Some of the issues my family and I faced would have been at least partially assuaged, had I had these opportunities.  I have never been one to blame my problems on others; I am vehemently in favor of taking responsibility for my own predicament.  However, I have done just that.  I have played by the rules, and the rules have changed. 

So, when I had the opportunity to become one of the leading figures in the campaign to unionize the adjunct faculty at my school, I did just that.  Why?  Because I don’t believe in asking for handouts, when we can take responsibility for our own lot.  We’re not asking for government to step in and save us from ourselves, we are taking our destinies in our own hands and doing exactly what corporations do—fight collectively for the common interests of their stake holders.  And we adjuncts are the union members; we are the stake holders.  My mother used to say that people teach others how they want to be treated.  That is to say, we allow others to do to us only what we are willing to put up with.  We, the adjunct faculty members, have for far too long allowed administrations everywhere to exploit our kinder natures.  We have fallen prey to an abusive mindset that was trained into us in graduate school, perhaps capitalizing on the very personalities we had from the cradle, which guided us into higher education.  Our charitable, scholarly, martyr personalities are what got us to where we are.  But now, we foresee the rotten end of higher education in the ill treatment of its weakest children, the ever growing numbers of adjuncts.  And for the sake of our students, and our children and our families, we see the need to stop being pin-cushions and to do what is right.  We are banding together to teach the employer how we want to be treated.  We are standing up for what is right.  And we will not be stopped. 

And in addition to fighting for my colleagues and for the future of higher education, I fight for the memories of my deceased parents.  I fight to right the wrongs that they and I had to suffer, due to the corporate greed of supposed nonprofit organizations known as universities.  For these two people, I fight.  And I will not stop fighting until the task at hand is accomplished. 

In 2008

In 1972-73

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