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Working In These Times

Monday, Mar 12, 2012, 10:08 am

Philly Community College Workers Question Budget, Authorize Strike

BY Josh Eidelson

(Courtesy of CCP.)

Amid funding crunch, union says Community College of Philadelphia is trying 'to clip our wings.'

PHILADELPHIA—When the Philadelphia City Council meets April 4, Community College of Philadelphia workers will be there questioning their employer’s stewardship of its city-backed budget.  “We support funding for the community college…” says biology teacher John Braxton, “but on the other hand we do want them to ask tough questions of the President.”  Braxton is co-president of the Faculty and Staff Federation of CCP, whose trip to the City Council comes amid an escalating contract fight.

The union, Local 2026 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), represents 1,400 Philadelphia Community College workers in three bargaining units: full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and non-teaching staff.  Braxton, a former rank-and-file Teamsters for a Democratic Union activist and Teamsters staffer under Ron Carey, says he takes pride in Local 2026 bucking labor movement trends: rather than organizing by craft, it brings together teaching, housekeeping, and secretarial workers; rather than accepting steep concessions, it’s repeatedly gone on strike.

In the early 80’s, Local 2026 became one of the first community college faculty unions to represent part-time faculty.  Braxton says that organizing followed “an ideological struggle” among full-time faculty, as some asked, “Are they really like us? …Are our interests the same?”  Ultimately, full-time faculty chose to support part-timers’ organizing, and when the college resisted recognition, full-time faculty mounted an illegal strike that landed some members in jail.

On February 29, Local 2026 members voted to authorize another strike.  Their contract expired in August, and negotiations have been underway since January of last year.  Braxton blames the current tension on two factors.  “The funding is terrible” he acknowledges, “and that puts the college in a difficult position.”  Both sides note that whereas CCP's budget was once equally divided between city funding, state funding, and student tuition, tuition now makes up a majority of the college's budget.

But Braxton says the breakdown in negotiations also stems from management’s desire “to curtail the power of the union.  They want to try to clip our wings if they can, so they’re taking a tougher line.”

Braxton says that the union has already offered to accept increases in members’ insurance costs that would amount to a third of the cost of insurance to CCP, but the college is insistent on even greater cuts.  Last month CCP presented the union with its “best and final” offer.

CCP President Stephen Curtis says the college has already gone "as far as we can stretch" in negotiations, and its offer is "very competitive."  It freezes wages this year, but CCP says raises would total over 10% for most workers over the following four years.  "Part of our position on economic issues is on behalf of students..." says Curtis.  "We've got to keep the tuition affordable."  On healthcare, Curtis says, "All we've asked for is some modest increases in co-pays and a modest deductible."

Braxton says that the proposed healthcare concessions are particularly harsh given that workers have prioritized keeping those benefits affordable over wage increases in recent negotiations.  Braxton, who has been a CCP teacher for decades – first part-time while working for UPS, then full-time – says CCP’s proposal represents “a cheapening of the profession.” 

Braxton says that while CCP's wage proposals “aren’t real different from what we think is feasible,” they come with an unacceptable asterisk.  Management’s proposal includes a trigger under which cuts of more than 2% by Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor Tom Corbett would allow cancellation of raises after the contract’s second year, restrictions on sabbaticals, and suspension of a hard-fought union victory: a minimum ratio of full-time to part-time staff.  

Given Corbett’s commitment to austerity budgeting, and the fact that members’ healthcare concessions would remain the same even if their raises were cancelled, the union says that’s unacceptable.  “Why would anybody sign something like that,” says Braxton, “where the only thing you can be certain of is that your costs are going up?”

The current agreement has a clause under which management can seek voluntary "relief" from contract provisions due to budget circumstances.  Curtis says the proposed new provision, for involuntary relief, is necessary because Local 2026 would not agree to appropriate relief last year.  He says the union has shown "they have no intention of voluntarily helping at those critical moments."  Braxton says that's a distortion.  Because contract negotiations were already underway last year, says Braxton, the union wanted to consider management's request for such relief as part of overall negotiations, rather than a side agreement.

Braxton says in individual meetings so far, City Council members have been "pretty shocked" when presented with information on CCP's budget priorities.  Local 2026 notes that in the past decade, administrative salaries have risen from 14% to 21% of the university’s salary budget.  Had that percentage stayed constant, says Braxton, “they could have saved $30 million.”  Curtis says that increases in such positions were necessary to keep up with increased enrollment.

The union has also questioned CCP’s recent $5 million purchase of a new building, and its president’s salary, which exceeds that of the Mayor or the Governor.  Curtis says his salary "is very much in line" with peer institutions.  "This whole process is not about any one individual's salary," says Curtis.  "This whole process is about a lack of funding."  

Braxton retorts that union members' wages, especially for part-time faculty, have not kept up.  He notes that some of his CCP co-workers have left to teach in Philadelphia’s public high schools instead, where starting wages are higher. 

Pro-union students have begun distributing flyers that depict an administrator with a mouth full of dollar bills.  The union has run an ad in the campus newspaper showing a student with tape over her mouth and listing “questions that administrators at the Community College of Philadelphia don’t want to answer.”  The ad will run in Philadelphia’s major daily papers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, this week.

On March 1, in conjunction with the national “Occupy Colleges” day of action, students and workers held a rally – with a giant professor puppet – questioning CCP’s priorities.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has not yet spoken publicly about the dispute.  Braxton notes that during CCP’s last contract fight, in 2005, then-City Council member Nutter joined the union’s members on a picket line and declared that if he were mayor, there would be no strike.  But Nutter has clashed with District Councils 33 and 47, affiliates of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and last summer sided against labor in vetoing a paid sick leave mandate (Nutter later allowed a narrower bill, covering only city contractors, to become law).

Recent Local 2026 contracts have lasted five years.  Given economic and political uncertainty, Braxton says the union is open to a shorter contract.

In Braxton’s view, concessionary agreements by one group of workers inevitably increase the pressure for concessions fron workers elsewhere.  “It’s this downward spiral,” he says, “so we really think that by resisting this, to the extent that we can, we’re really standing up for everybody…We don’t expect to get rich, but on the other hand, we don’t expect to have to go backwards.” 

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: "jeidelson" at "gmail" dot com.

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