Monday, December 10, 2012

Part-time instructors and graduate teaching assistants form umbrella union at KVCC, Western Michigan University

Ursula Zerilli | uzerilli@mlive.comBy Ursula Zerilli | 
on December 10, 2012 at 12:50 PM, updated December 10, 2012 at 12:52 PM

_MG_0459.JPGKalamazoo Valley Community College     

KALAMAZOO, MI – Local union members may have been the only labor activists celebrating in Michigan over the weekend.
Despite being enraged about Gov. Rick Snyder’s promise to sign right-to-work legislation on Tuesday, more than 1,500 part-time college teachers and graduate teaching assistants were happy to announce the formation of a consolidated union between Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Western Michigan University over the weekend.

After three days of online voting, members ratified a constitution with a 234-13 vote on Friday creating an umbrella union comprising the KVCC-Federation of Teachers, the Professional Instructors Organization (AFT Local 1903) and Teaching Assistants Union, (AFT Local 1729) on Friday. The West Michigan Federation of College Educators (WMFCE) represents 650 part-time instructors at WMU, 550 graduating teaching assistants at WMU and more than 350 part-time instructors at KVCC.

Under the new agreement, each employee unit will retain its own contract and unique identity, with members paying different dues at each union, but the three entities are sharing leadership and resources.
The collaboration stemmed from a common passion for the same issues and a desire to build union muscle by having strength in numbers.

"We may only have a few people at the table, but it's nice knowing that 1,500 are standing behind us," said Dr. Catherine Barnard, a part-time KVCC psychology instructor of 15 years. "The original issues that prompted us to organize have been addressed, but I'm learning more and more about part-time members who are on state welfare and food stamp programs."

A late paycheck, among other complaints, prompted KVCC part-time instructors to form a union last year and members voted in favor of a bargaining unitin May. More than half of the for-credit classes taught at KVCC in 2010-11 were taught by part-time instructors.

“We are the only unions from a community college and a university to do this in Michigan,” said Kelly O’Leary, a part-time instructor at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and president of the local federation of teachers. The union is currently negotiating with KVCC administrators for the first time.

Part-time instructors at WMU and KVCC are currently ineligible for health and retirement benefits, and complain of having little or no job security and lower pay than their full-time counterparts.

“There are three primary benefits of a single local with shared resources,” said Thomas Kostrzewa, a part-time instructor of political science and international studies at WMU for over 20 years and president of the Professional Instructors Organization (PIO). “…Broader access to resources, an expanded sense of community and solidarity among our members and the strength necessary to better serve our students and promote our members’ rights.”

While the leaders of the unions are thrilled about garnering enough support to collaborate, they are still enraged by Gov. Snyder’s promise to sign right-to-work legislation prohibiting unions from collecting dues or fees from workers as a condition of employment on Tuesday. Kostrzewa said he is not sure how the legislation would impact the new union yet.

Police officers and firefighters would stay in closed union shops under the measures. Local union members are hoping the governor decides to carve teachers out of the bill, as well.

“Michigan was the foundation of the labor movement around the world,” Kostrzewa said. “Unions are a result of democratic action and the idea is you can opt out of a democratic vote but you still pay your taxes. How is is it different for union dues?"
More information about the WMFCE constitution, including the full text, is available online.

Contact Ursula Zerilli at or 269-254-5295. Follow her ontwitter.

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