St. Petersburg College trustees reject contract in blow to adjuncts

The three-year agreement had been approved by top college administrators. The two sides will keep talking.
The St. Petersburg College board of trustees declined last week to ratify a proposed contract with adjunct faculty.
The St. Petersburg College board of trustees declined last week to ratify a proposed contract with adjunct faculty. [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2020) ]
Published Feb. 1, 2021|Updated Feb. 1, 2021

After eight months of negotiations, St. Petersburg College recently agreed on a three-year contract with its newly formed union representing adjunct faculty.

The only step left was for SPC’s board of trustees to ratify it. At the board’s meeting last week, lead union organizer Jamaica Reddick thanked the college administration for recognizing adjuncts, who are unsalaried, as an integral part of the workforce. Terrie Lee, an adjunct professor of natural sciences, called it “a promising beginning.”

But about half an hour later, trustee Deveron Gibbons asked to remove the union item from the agenda, a move that stunned and angered union members.

At issue was a section of the contract that said adjuncts would be paid $150 if a course was cancelled less than two weeks before its start.

Deveron Gibbons
Deveron Gibbons [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2019) ]

“I think I’ve pretty much made myself very clear where I stand on the whole unionization thing,” Gibbons said during the meeting. “We have employees cleaning buildings, bathrooms and all kinds of other places. We have full-time faculty and other folks who have a tremendous amount of work to do all the time and none of them in the past five years have received one raise.”

He argued that colleges and universities everywhere are cutting back, and “plenty of folks” are looking for jobs, yet “we’re talking about spending more money.”

Gibbons proposed the board meet with president Tonjua Williams and administration to set “clear expectations of what we expect” and reopen negotiations within 90 days.

“They have decided as a group they want to be unionized, and that’s perfectly fine,” he said. “But ... I don’t agree with giving anybody anything when other folks at this college have not received one penny of an increase in five years.”

Trustee Thomas Kidwell said he thought additional conversation could help. “It sounds to me we need to discuss it more,” he said. “I’m all for discussing it more as long as we put a timeline in place.”

The five trustees voted to reject the contract and instead hold a closed-door conversation.

But characterizing the problems with the contract as a financial issue did not sit well with union negotiators.

Service Employees International Union organizer Rick Smith, who was chief negotiator for the union, said at no point did the union ask for increased pay.

“We’re not fools,” he said. “We have Ph.D.s. We went in with an analysis of the situation with the pandemic and enrollment is down, not at SPC, but everywhere, and that we’re in the middle of a depression. We made it very clear we’re not asking for a raise. A raise was never on the table.”

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Smith said the $150 fee for cancelled courses is standard in every adjunct union contract he has helped negotiate.

According to the adjunct roster created by the college last fall, when the union was formed, SPC was home to 723 adjuncts teaching 1,600 courses, Lee said. This fall, there were 56 fewer adjuncts teaching 109 fewer classes. COVID-19 has added to adjuncts’ uncertainty, she said.

“It’s hard to stitch together the 3,4,5,6 classes you need to stitch together to survive,” Smith said.

He was stunned that the board voted down a contract agreed upon by the college’s bargaining team, which included high-level administrators. “It never happens,” he said.

Matthew Liao-Troth, vice president for academic affairs and a member of the administration’s bargaining team, said he too was caught by surprise.

“We were negotiating in good faith a contract that was good for the college and good for adjuncts,” he said. “I did not have a sense it would go that way.”

Liao-Troth said he thinks that, because this is the first faculty contract, the board would like to spend more time to fully understand it. Resolving some of the issues might be an “educational process,” he said.

“We’re going to keep on trying to figure out a way to make things work.”

After the meeting, Liao-Troth sent an email to adjuncts informing them of the decision and that the college would continue to work in good faith toward meeting a new agreement.

Last month, the college’s full-time faculty filed a petition with the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission with a call to unionize and be represented by the United Faculty of Florida.

Jessica Magnani, an English professor involved in those efforts, said full-time faculty were disheartened to see what happened with adjuncts. “I think we were all pretty shocked,” she said.

“They are a big, big part of what we do at the college.... Adjuncts and the $150 have nothing to do with us not having raises.”

Last summer, full-time faculty were warned of the possibility of future pay cuts in light of potential state budget cuts. Magnani said it’s more essential than ever that faculty have a seat at the table.

“We’re in a pandemic and there is some concern about how the state budget cuts will impact colleges,” she said. “We really feel like its important not only to protect ourselves, but to protect our students.”