Many Be Called, But Few Chosen: Duquesne University Adjuncts’ Fight to Organize, Part Three
October 8, 2012 10:20 am
By: Moshe Z. Marvit
The NLRB denied Duquesne’s request to withdraw its stipulation, and supervised a mail-in vote in late June. Duquesne appealed the decision, and the ballots were impounded pending an appeal. The adjuncts had voted, but the outcome of their vote remained a mystery through the end of the summer and the beginning of this semester. The ballots sat, uncounted, for several months until the Board ruled along party lines to count the ballots. It did not rule on the substance of the jurisdictional issue, but merely stated that the ballots should be counted because if the faculty voted against forming a union then the issue would be moot.
The ballot boxes were scheduled for opening and the ballots counted on September 20 on the ninth floor of the federal building in downtown Pittsburgh. On that day, several individuals from the Steelworkers were present, including [senior associate general counsel at the Steelworkers Dan] Kovalik, Maria Somma, a longtime organizer, and the campaign’s lead organizer, Jeff Cech, as well as several adjunct faculty members, including [Duquesne adjunct English instructor Robin] Sowards, [Duquesne adjunct instructor and organizer Josh] Zelesnick, and [Duquesne adjunct instructor Clint]Benjamin. All three are slight and slim, young, with glasses, and have the air of an older style of professor. Sowards arrived like a dandy entering a cocktail party, donning a slightly skewed bowtie and filled with nervous energy. As the person who kicked off the organizing effort, Zelesnick served as the official observer.
Ginny, the Board agent, opened the process precisely at 1pm, announcing that representatives of the union and the faculty were present, but no one from “the company” was present. Chuckles all around at calling Duquesne University “the company.” Benjamin remarked, “the company – that’s what we call them.” The Board agent backtracked, afraid she had accidentally insulted the university, and said, “the employer, the company,” indicating that the terms were synonymous here. But the English professors knew better. At the end of the joking, Kovalik said, “it’s part of their strategic plan to show that they’re not under the board’s jurisdiction. They won’t show.”
As the Board agent described the process by which the ballots would be counted, the adjuncts filled the silences with highbrow humor. When Ginny described the order of steps — how the large envelope would first be opened, then the names on the list marked by those who had cast ballots, then the smaller envelopes opened and the contents mixed up, then the next level of envelopes opened and the ballots mixed up, and last would be the count — Sowards remarked, “And the first shall be last and the last shall be first and all that.” Laughs all around. Everyone got the reference – not only fitting; not only to Matthew; but to the part of Matthew that deals with labor:
Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Matthew 20:8-16).
Inside the large yellow envelope were smaller yellow envelopes, and inside those, green-blue envelopes with names signed across the seal. When one envelope was invalidated for lack of a signature, Zelesnick joked, “you expect academics to follow directions?”
Inside the blue envelopes were yellow ballots. The process of carefully going through each layer of envelope and showing all present that nothing remained unaccounted, was slow. Zelesnick commented, “As tense as the battle of Trafalgar,” referring to the nineteenth century battle where the British defeated the French and Spanish fleets. In case anyone wondered which side the professors saw themselves on, someone quickly called out to Zelesnick, “Will you be our Lord Nelson?” To which he responded nobly, “I will try.” (It’s unlikely that anyone in that room did not know that Horatio Nelson’s two sidekicks were killed in that battle, and he was mortally wounded from an enemy shot.)
Present also was a reporter from the region’s conservative paper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which is owned by a scion of the Mellon family. She asked about the buttons that the professors were wearing, featuring a large “A” for adjunct. It was surprising that no one made a Scarlet Letter joke, but perhaps that was too obvious, too high school. Cech, the lead organizer from the Steelworkers, pulled a button from his pocket and reached across several people to offer it to her. She took it and said that she could add it to her button collection. After a pause, she boasted that she had one that read, “Guild by Association,” stating proudly, “you guys would like that one.” Polite laughter and nodding ensued, grateful that she was at least trying to connect with them.
Surprisingly, the reporter handed the button back to Cech. He looked defeated, turned and whispered solemnly, “my button was rejected.”
At that moment, the count of the envelopes concluded, and it was announced that 59 of the 88 adjuncts that were eligible to cast ballots had done so. Though there are 130 adjunct faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences, the parties had agreed early on that the bargaining unit would have certain limits, which brought the number down.
As the ballots were counted, everyone kept their own private count on small slips of paper. As each ballot was announced “for” or “against” everyone made hatch marks in unison. Thirty was the magic number, and as soon as it was reached, Kovalik yelled out, “We got it!” and gave a large thumb in the air. The count continued even after a majority was reached, and with each vote for the union, the organizer mumbled, “yes!”
At the final tally, 50 voted for the union and nine against. Someone announced, “Now that’s a mandate!” There were hugs and high fives. The Board agent warned that the count wasn’t official until seven days after all objections had been resolved. Except for the one large jurisdictional objection, there were no objections filed.
No one involved believes that the Duquesne adjuncts’ struggle is over. Zelesnick, Sowards, and Benjamin each told me that they would now approach the administration at Duquesne to set a negotiating schedule. Each indicated that Duquesne would appeal the jurisdiction of the Board, and that this fight would not be over until a federal court of appeals or the Supreme Court told Duquesne that it is required to bargain in good faith. The DC Board is expected to render a decision soon on the St. Xavier and Manhattan College cases, but no one believes that the matter will be resolved at the Board level.
Beyond the legal developments, Sowards explained that until a legal resolution is reached, the adjunct faculty would work to improve their working conditions immediately, “using essentially minority union tactics. We’re of course certified – at least morally certified.” They plan on going to the members, hearing their concerns, and beginning to make proposals to the department chairs to address these issues. “If the departments refuse to improve working conditions or address grievances in some meaningful way, then we’ll escalate. Attempt to apply pressure in various, of course legal, ways. Attempt to persuade them that it is prudent as well as moral to improve things for their adjuncts.” It’s unlikely that this group of mild-mannered intellectuals will strike or take other job actions, but they are Steelworkers now, after all, fighting a familiar battle in Pittsburgh.
Moshe Z. Marvit, an employment discrimination and labor attorney, is the author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice.
Image from here