In response to Editor’s Note: ‘Do students know what they’re picketing for?’

By Letter to the Editor, by Martin Bernstein

As an avid reader of the Chronicle for ten years now, I was a bit concerned when Jeff Lyon and Kyra Senese left, and a new editor took over this year. The quality of the writing and choice of editorial content has been so good for so long, I wondered if you would measure up. As it turns out, I should not have been concerned. Your writing is very good. The editor’s column is my first stop. The positions are usually well-reasoned, insightful.

That said, your last two pieces, about the P-fac strike, have fallen short. They lack an understanding of the issues, especially as they concern our students, the ultimate beneficiaries of any contract growing out of that job action. You were not a student when the previous contract expired four years ago. The administration tried the same tactics then as now – delay, deny, bargain in bad faith (if at all). It took the threat of a strike to finally bring the administration to the table; an equitable contract was hammered out in three months.

So, here we are again. Same tactics, same strategy. Our contract expired in August. If P-fac did nothing, the administration could stall, wait it out, force the union to spend good money after bad filing lawsuits. They have much deeper pockets (your tuition). After the end of the semester, we’d be powerless. No contract, no faculty, student, parent or community support. The administration would be able to make a last best offer which we’d be forced to accept. The part-time faculty union would be dead, and with it the education at Columbia College as we know it.

Our only recourse was to take action which would affect the students minimally, with maximum publicity for the cause. You’d have to have been present at the strike to appreciate the energy from the students, faculty and community supporters. And every one of those signs the students carried? The ones you asserted “are legitimate, but are not the issues the strike was organized to push.”? On the contrary, they are as much a part of our contract as wages and seniority, if not more. You see, this contract is about so much more. It is mostly about working conditions, i.e. class size increases, section and department consolidation, required reduction of rigor in course content, tuition increases, the inability to finish curriculum requirements within a reasonable time because class assignments are cut to the bone. As Liz, one of the student organizers put it, “Your working conditions are our learning conditions.” The students know, they see very clearly what issues they are throwing their weight behind, and what affect they can have. They, and their parents are the only real voices the administration will listen to. They are the money.

The stated mission of the administration is now “the perception of value”. Let’s put up a facade, call it a college education and build a nice new shiny student center as a monument to our strategic plan. The perception of value. It may be a great way to attract foreign students, but our Columbia is mostly non-foreign. They already have a campus. It’s called the city. And they know the true value of their education lies not in real estate and the number of VP’s you amass, but in the original mission of the college – an arts-oriented institution of higher education, rigor-intensive degrees, courses largely taught by working professionals, thus the overwhelming use of part-time faculty.

Your editorials also questioned the vote totals, number of members in the union, etc. Why not ask the union leadership, instead of insinuating some nefarious motivations? “What’s really going on”, you ask, “What are the students’ voices being used for?” To save a college that has fallen victim to increasing corporatization, the neo-liberaization, the privitization of what should be a public good. If you’ve not read Benjamin Ginzburg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters – 2011, Oxford University Press, you can glean quite a bit about this trend sweeping the nation’s institutions of higher learning. There is a very good digest of it in the Washington Monthly,

And, if you’d attended the subsequent bargaining session, as forty part-time faculty, students and alumni did, you’d have witnessed the tangible results of that strike. As P-fac Union President Diana Vallera stated in the Member Update: Bargaining Session, December 1,

“The day after the strike, we walked into negotiations empowered, and nearly 40 strong.  The room was overflowing with red shirts.  Joining the union leadership in support, P-fac members, students, alumni and labor leaders packed the room.  It is clear that the college was impacted by the power and the impact of collective action. Their polite and even friendly behavior – so different from past sessions – is proof of success.

The bargaining session began with a statement from Chief of Staff, Laurent Pernot, insisting that the comprehensive contract rewrite the college presented to P-fac was meant only as a series of proposals, and that they never meant to suggest the removal of the seniority system (though the document denies seniority consideration in assignments).  The negotiations began with the college wanting to address some of the “low hanging fruit” in the contract, in order to show progress through potential Tentative Agreements (TAs). The Union then addressed some of our concerns with the comprehensive and asked directly for a formal commitment from the College, to value pt faculty.  We addressed the college’s unacceptable contract language, which would, in fact, remove our seniority system; and we interrogated the current the lack of shared governance.  Citing some of the college’s top down decisions, clearly made in the interest of profits, not students, we mentioned the unethical ways curricula changes have been made; increasing class sizes and the lack of courses and course sections for our students.

After a caucus the college returned and made statements indicating a commitment to job security and shared governance, saying perhaps their proposals were not responses to our proposals and we’d all been subject to some confusion.  They were cordial, even asking, “What would be palatable to the union?” a question so out of character as to be theatrical. Considering that the Op-Ed piece the Provost published in Crain’s, that very morning, restated – with no mitigation – the positions that brought us to the picket line; the tone and substance of the entire bargaining session may have been disingenuous, meant only for show, for the audience of observers. It’s worth noting that neither Dr. Wearden, nor Dr. Kim were concerned enough to attend.   It should also be noted that an OpEd by the union was also published in Crain’s.

The letters of support from universities, unions, politicians and others continue to pour in.  They understand that our efforts have only just begun and we will need support over the long run.”

After reading comments from students affected by the strike, I feel more strongly than ever that The Columbia Chronicle must become the voice and the sophistication they often lack.  If the publication is to continue its award-winning ways, then its editors must dig deeper, lest they become shills for the administration, blinded by the shiny things and slogans with which corporatists prefer to surround themselves. The recent editorials seem to support good investigative journalism and scholarship. The same should be observed when subjectively reporting the labor issues facing the college.

Please take this not as an attack on your editorial style and content which I find, in the main, to be superior, but as a critique of your uninformed and somewhat sensationalized position on the strike, its purposes and effects. I look forward to the courtesy of your response, and to your continued journalistic excellence.

Martin Bernstein, adjunct professor, Cinema and Television Arts