MiraCosta’s Independent Union: Understanding the FA
by Brad Byrom
Gaining Clarity On MiraCosta's Faculty Assembly
Based on several comments the FA has received from those it represents, I'd like to provide clarification on exactly what the FA is, and even more so, its relationship to larger organizations such as the Academic Senate and the California Community College Independents.
Academic Senate v. Faculty Assembly
Most faculty know there is a difference between the FA and the AS, but some struggle with defining that difference in meaningful terms. Both the FA and the AS were created through California state laws, although the FA is also impacted by federal law. In fact, public labor law defines the role of the FA by determining which working conditions issues are mandatory subjects of bargaining, and which require cooperation by the local community college district in order for negotiations to take place. For example, salary, evaluation, and benefits are examples of things that are subject to mandatory bargaining. Scheduling, the decision to hire, and the college budget are matters that the FA can negotiate only if the district agrees to do so.
The Academic Senate’s purview was established in a single, sweeping piece of legislation known as AB 1725. This law was passed nearly unanimously by the California legislature in 1988. Retired MiraCostans, Leon Baradat and Julie Hatoff, played important roles in the creation of this landmark legislation that created what is known as the 10+1 —ten areas in which local Academic Senate’s have purview, along with any other areas in which the AS is able to negotiate purview. The 10+1 includes such things as professional development, curriculum, and grading policies.
Meanwhile, various California state and federal labor laws define the areas subject to mandatory bargaining. In general, the FA steers clear of the 10+1 and the AS stays away from matters subject to bargaining.
However, there are matters that overlap. These include evaluation procedures and the academic calendar, over which the FA negotiates specific policies with the district after consulting with the AS. This means that the FA and AS must work well together, something leadership from both groups recognized from the creation of the FA and have worked in tandem to address since then.
The FA Budget
One of the greatest strengths of the Faculty Assembly is its budget reserve. According to Jeanine Sepulveda’s latest budget update to council, our reserve is currently over $300,000, and by the end of this academic year, is almost certain to top $310,000.
This article is my attempt to explain the decisions made and the resources we tapped into that helped build an increasingly healthy reserve. The same factors that helped produce our reserve were critical to many other FA accomplishments. Consider, for instance, that our budget was produced entirely by voluntary contributions set at one of the lowest rates among the 72 California community college districts. Also note that the FA’s original leadership was comprised of union novices operating with no significant budget, no reassigned time, and no lawyer on retainer. Had serious negotiation problems led to impasse at that time, there is little the FA could have done in response.
Success Need Not Be Expensive
Reflecting on the past six years, one lesson I’ve learned is that it doesn’t require spending large sums of money to produce solid negotiation results. In fact, with only modest expenditures (mostly on legal fees) the FA has produced agreements that have provided cost of living increases in each of its six years, while also producing steady increases to our health and benefits contributions, dramatically improved family leave options, and much more. Our contract provides strong protections for academic freedom and intellectual property rights—rights so impressive that union leaders from UCSD and various other colleges have asked how we managed to do it (short version: strong AS leadership established practices at MCC which protected intellectual right, and then much later the FA succeeded in negotiating those practices into a binding legal contract).
Our success is well known to other unions, many of which use our contract as a basis for their own negotiations. Their interest in our contract isn’t simply our salary schedule. We are frequently approached by union leaders and lawyers, some of whom look to our contract as a model for salary and other negotiated matters. Of particular interest to other unions are our investigation and due process policies, benefits package, banking policy, family leave options, department and committee chair reassigned time, and sabbatical leave program. Work remains to be done—particularly in relation to non-classroom faculty and their on-ground requirement, as well as a need for more equitable compensation among those performing non-contractual work.
An Independent Union
The point here isn’t to sing praises about the accomplishments of the FA. Rather, it is to explain how the FA has succeeded despite a limited budget and the challenges that come with a top ranked salary schedule and local control over our union.
Many faculty wonder what the difference is between the FA and—as one faculty member put it—“a real union.” That is to say, what is the difference between an independent union and a local affiliate of a large union such as CFT or CTA?
First off, make no mistake—the FA is a real union. The FA serves faculty at MCC in the same manner that a local union belonging to CFT or CTA is a real union. The same labor laws that apply to large unions apply to independent unions like the FA. While we are not directly involved in statewide political campaigning and lobbying, neither are union locals. Instead, local unions lend their political voice to the positions taken by CTA or CFT, no matter what local members think about those positions. For example, in the past larger unions have considered supporting the redistribution of excess funds provided to basic aid (community-supported) colleges like MiraCosta. If such a change was implemented, it would be hugely destructive to the MCC budget, and likely force us to the bargaining table in a cost-saving negotiation. In other words, large state or national unions like AFT/CFT establish political positions that may run counter to the interests of local unions. In no way is this to suggest that a state or national union should not be given a political voice—rather, it’s a recognition that a college union that has unique political interests should have the ability to direct union dues in a way that protects its members’ unique interests.
On the other hand, the enormous size of an organization like CFT and CTA places an expensive burden on the various union locals. This is why the dues we pay at MCC are not only lower than locals that have elected to affiliate with large unions, but have the FA well on its way to establishing reserves necessary to pay for the extensive legal costs incurred should we find ourselves in a protracted impasse. Examples of what an impasse can cost a union abound. In 2015, the Yosemite Community College Union entered into a 3-year impasse, resulting in legal costs of well over $100,000 per year. Impasse is by no means an unusual event. In fact, in the past decade North Orange County, Rancho Santiago, Pasadena, Solano, Citrus, and Ventura Community College Districts (to name a few) have declared impasse in recent years.
As an independent, MCC faculty are able to rely upon their knowledge of local politics and campus culture to determine bargaining positions, while locals affiliated with larger unions are often forced to support negotiation positions identified by statewide CTA or CFT leadership. This has allowed us to more carefully tailor our negotiation positions to the priorities established by our membership in general, and our FA Council in particular.
Finally, when considering the independent status of the MiraCosta FA, it’s important to note that once a union decides to become part of a larger union, that status is not easily changed. Among other things, decertification requires a majority of faculty to vote in favor of decertification during a brief, 30-day open window that runs just prior to the expiration of an existing contract. Such a move not only risks interfering with a union’s contract negotiations, but due to the wealth and power of statewide unions make decertification a challenging endeavor. In fact, in an article on the subject an author writing for Forbes magazine claims,“It is, quite simply, nearly impossible for workers to get rid of a union once it has been certified as their monopoly bargaining representative.” Because independent unions like the FA are entirely operated by the faculty, a change is not so difficult—though it would require time and thoughtful effort. Ultimately, an independent union could become part of CTA or CFT simply by voting in faculty leaders who favor a larger union.
At MiraCosta, on the other hand, FA members pay dues directly to the FA. In turn, the FA makes political decisions based upon two considerations. First, the FA Council (a representative body of approximately 20 MCC faculty members) decides how to budget the income received from FA members based on our particular interests. MiraCosta faculty have unique circumstances that affect our spending and political priorities. These circumstances include our basic aid or “community supported” status, our unique salary structure, our strong history of collegial governance, and more. Given our many unique characteristics, it makes sense for us to have the independence necessary to make decisions that are in the best interest of MCC faculty.
No one is more important to our working conditions than our Trustees, and our good relationships with the Trustees is part of why our contract is so strong. Thanks to our independent status, the Trustees know union decision makers personally, and trust that they can rely on us to be open and honest about our membership’s needs. FA leaders frequently communicate with Trustees, interview prospective candidates running for our Board, and sometimes provide advice and campaign support (election contributions, door-to-door campaigning, street corner sign waving, etc.) to our most effective Trustees.
For these reasons and more, the FA has declined to join a large state or national union, choosing instead to be an “independent union.” For comparison purposes, it may help to know that of the 72 community college districts in California, 13 (the number varies slightly from year-to-year) are independents like us, and only one other has voluntary dues. Independents are, in a nutshell, local unions that operate independently of a state or national union.
California Community College Independents
That said, staying entirely out of state politics and neglecting to pool our contributions with those from other, like-minded faculty unions would not only be unwise, but a disservice to our membership. There are times when state legislators need to hear from unions like ours, but it's difficult to gain access to legislators when standing alone.
With this in mind, the FA has chosen to join the California Community College Independents (CCCI). Membership is based on annual dues that are adjusted based on the size of union membership. Last year, the FA paid $2,000 in dues, allowing members to exit the CCCI at any time (a major difference between the large unions and the CCCI). As part of 13 union organizations, our voice gains strength. Each semester, leaders of CCCI members unions meet with influential figures in state politics. Last October, for example, the CCCI was joined by California’s Community College Chancellor, Eloy Oakley. At these meetings we are also able to learn about the challenges and successes of other member unions, providing us with ideas and strategies for our own negotiations.
The Challenge of Independence
Of course, being an independent union is not for all colleges. It requires that faculty be dedicated to learning the negotiation ropes and prepared to take on a huge amount of responsibility. Fortunately, MiraCosta has a history of strong faculty leaders willing to take on such responsibilities. When I first became involved with faculty leadership at MCC, I was told by one of our seasoned leaders that while the district has well-paid attorneys and full-time administrators negotiating on their side of the table, we have the full intellect of the faculty on our side. So long as we continue to make use of that collective wisdom, the FA will continue to thrive.