At Columbia College, a contested part-time faculty union election | On Culture | Chicago Reader

At Columbia College, a contested part-time faculty union election 

Longtime CFAC president Diana Vallera and her team face a reform slate.

CFAC president Diana Vallera

CFAC president Diana Vallera

Courtesy Diana Vallera

After years of controversy—including the recent trial and expulsion of some dissenting members—the Columbia College Chicago Faculty Union (CFAC) is about to get a referendum on its leadership.

It's coming in the form of an election of officers. And it's being policed by the feds.

CFAC, which represents part-time faculty, is supposed to elect officers every two years. But disaffected members say no proper election has been held for the past two election cycles. They complained to the U.S. Department of Labor, which launched an investigation that turned up a different problem.

The union's constitution called for the election of four top officials to a steering committee, but not to any particular office. Once elected, the officials would decide among themselves who'd serve as president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary. Under this arrangement, Diana Vallera—who came into power charging that previous leadership hadn't been aggressive enough in pursuing members' interests—has been CFAC president since 2010.

But this setup, the DOL concluded, is a violation of federal labor law: union members must elect officers into specific positions. And the vote needs to be taken by secret ballot. To ensure security, it needs to be a paper ballot submitted through the U.S. Postal Service.

The incumbent union officials—Vallera (president), Andrea J. Dymond (vice president), Susan Van Veen (treasurer), and Lisa Formosa-Parmigiano (secretary)—are running as the CFAC Standing United slate. They didn't respond to requests for interviews by print time, but according to their campaign literature, they are the "experienced and proven team," with a "record of advancing diversity" and "establishing alliances supporting CFAC actions." Among those "alliances" is a recent CFAC affiliation with the Illinois Federation of Teachers after several years as a proudly renegade independent. (CFAC, then known as PFAC, for "part-time faculty," had previously been affiliated with the Illinois Education Association.)

They're facing a full slate of opposition candidates—the Reform CFAC slate, which presents itself as "rank and file members committed to making our Union more democratic, more accountable, and more transparent." They are Derek Fawcett for president, Jason Betke for vice president, Colleen Plumb for treasurer, and Chris Thale (one of the union's original founders back in the 1990s) for secretary.

Thale, who teaches American history (including working-class history), says the major problems with the current union administration are "bad decision-making and a lack of transparency." The bad decisions he cites include a long-running fight to keep full-time staff members who also teach out of the union and, therefore, out of teaching assignments. Thale says that was "a time-and-money-consuming disaster, and we lost." Also, there's what he calls the "ludicrous flip-flopping" on affiliation (including, at one point, a vote and plan to affiliate with SEIU that was quietly abandoned), and now—without full discussion—a change in dues from a flat rate of about $130 a semester to 2.5 percent of salary.

Reform candidate Betke says this change in dues means that "anyone teaching more than one three-credit course per semester will be paying more than they did"—possibly two or three times more. In addition, he complains that the vote to affiliate with IFT was rushed, improperly bundled with other issues, and should not have been "taken in August, when teachers are away."

And then there's the mysterious memorandum of understanding. Betke says that when members voted last spring on a new contract—which most never saw, he says—the union did not reveal that there was an accompanying memorandum of understanding between itself and the college, contingent on getting the contract approved. In the memorandum, the union agreed to pay the college $20,000 to help reimburse the staff teachers it fought to exclude, and—perhaps more important—the college agreed to "not seek reimbursement for its expenses and legal fees," which the union had been ordered to pay when it lost that battle. How much the college was giving up wasn't stated in the memorandum, but the Reform CFAC candidates wonder about the impact this deal had on the union's bargaining position. "What was given up to whittle the union payment down to that figure?" they ask.

"The heart of the problem is that leadership doesn't tell us much," Betke says. "We're left to speculate."

Ballots will be mailed to CFAC members November 18; the vote, under the supervision of the DOL, will be closed and tallied December 9. The union will also have a formal, balloted election this fall for its assembly of department representatives—an arm of the local's governing structure that members say has been sorely underpopulated and underused. v

Updated Friday, November 15:

CFAC president Diana Vallera, responding to interview requests after the Reader's print deadline, began by recalling that when she came into office at the Columbia College part-time faculty union in 2010, she was leading a reform slate.

"There had been no grievance or unfair labor practice filed in 12 years," and the union had a contract that put the college in charge, Vallera said. Now, she maintains, CFAC is "an active, member-run union" with "about 40 trained representatives" in its assembly and "exceptionally high" member participation.

Vallera calls the Reform CFAC slate now opposing her "an IEA slate"— referring to the Illinois Education Association, the statewide umbrella organization that CFAC was affiliated with up until a few years ago. These candidates have "opposed progress" at every step, Vallera said. "They didn't want us to vote for a strike, they tried to prevent us from ratifying the contract, and they tried to do a petition to stop us from joining with IFT/AFT. It made no sense at all."

As for the memorandum of understanding signed at the same time that the contract was finalized last spring: It was one of a number of issues resolved at that time, Vallera says. In the memorandum, CFAC agreed to pay the college $20,000 stemming from the legal battle over whether full-time staff members who also teach can be CFAC members, and the college agreed to let the union off the hook for its expenses and legal fees incurred in that battle, which the National Labor Relations Board had ordered the union to pay. How much did the college forgive? Vallera said she thinks it was about $100,000. She said it ended the litigation, which "makes it a win."

"The administration would love to get this [opposition] slate in," she said. "Why? Because they have no experience."

A CFAC membership meeting that Vallera said will include a budget report is scheduled for 10 AM Saturday at the college; union members should RSVP to info@pfac.org.

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