Thursday, May 24, 2018

Pasco-Hernando State College faculty seeks to unionize

Caitlin Gille grew up in a union household in Wisconsin, where her mom was a long-time teacher in the small city of Wauwatosa, just west of Milwaukee.

She was accustomed to seeing educators advocating for their working conditions and pay, having a seat at the table to discuss issues affecting their livelihoods.

So when Gille arrived at Pasco-Hernando Community College (now State College) a decade ago to begin her first full-time teaching job, she was surprised to learn the faculty had no union at all. Still, she took it in stride, teaching her biology classes and becoming more enamored with the college she now viewed as part of her life.

Over time, though, Gille and others saw what voice they had fading.

"It's not something really specific," she explained. "It was mostly a gradual thing."

If there was a straw that broke the camel's back, prompting the 140-member full time teaching staff to consider unionizing, it was this: The college at one point told professors they would get an annual raise if they earned a doctorate.

"They changed it to a one-time payment, which is a pretty big difference," said Gille, one of the organizers seeking to join United Faculty of Florida, which is connected to the Florida Education Association.

This week, 60 percent of the faculty submitted petition cards asking the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission for a union election. They're part of a growing push in higher education looking for greater workplace protections amid limited resources, a push to performance funding and a trend away from tenure and long-term contracts.

Adjunct professors at the University of South Florida are among the groups seeking unionization, too. Graduate students at the University of Florida also have organized to press for better wages.

PHSC officials did not return calls seeking comment on their faculty union drive. Gille said the school's official stance to them has been "it's not in our best interest" to unionize.

She, for one, does not agree.

The faculty do not have a collectively bargained contract. Each gets a separate agreement that offers few details beyond duty days and salary. The faculty senate is advisory only.

"All policies that govern how things are handled are unilaterally decided by the administration," Gille said.

She saw what happened in Wisconsin, where she grew up, when Gov. Scott Walker pushed through the elimination of teacher collective bargaining. The change "actually caused [her mom] to retire early, because of the way they were treated," Gille said.

PHSC faculty deserve better than that, she suggested. So in this, the college's 50th year since its founding, the faculty decided to look to the union label.

If they get a majority vote, whenever the election takes place, the effort will win. The college's union organizing committee has already begun talking with United Faculty of Florida leaders at the state's 12 universities and 15 colleges where it already operates, for ideas.

Gille looks forward to the opportunities: "We want a say in the policies that affect our employment."

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