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THE REGION

She Makes Union Activism an Art

Labor: A Fullerton College instructor persuaded colleagues to organize and found a new calling.

January 27, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

College art instructor Linda Cushing was just another weary part-timer cobbling together a class on this campus and that.

Then she spotted another teacher grading papers in Fullerton College's faculty lounge, a veteran part-timer who, like herself, was juggling a student load for little pay and no guarantee of a job next semester.

"When he looked up at me, the mask came off," Cushing said of that fall day in 1998. "There was such despair and isolation and anger in his face. I thought, if I'm going to become this, I can't continue teaching."

Instead, Cushing pushed and prodded part-time teachers at the North Orange County Community College District to unionize. Then as president of the new union, she won them a three-year contract last September that guaranteed a 13.5% raise.

"If she hadn't been there, I don't think the union would have gotten started here," said philosophy instructor Sam Russo, co-president of Adjunct Faculty United at Fullerton College. "She just refused to give up."

Cushing's success at Fullerton and its sister campuses so impressed the American Federation of Teachers that it hired her as one of 39 national organizers. Her job is to concentrate on community college instructors--full and part time. So far, she has helped organize unions at Citrus College in Glendora and Palomar College in San Diego County, and is campaigning to organize the faculty at Cerritos College in Norwalk, the Kern College District, Victor Valley Community College and the College of the Canyons.

"It's not often an ordinary person can do things that affect people's lives," Cushing said.

About 17,000 full-time instructors teach at California's 108 community colleges. Another 37,000 part-timers help carry the course load. Some teach only an occasional class; others try to make a living at it while searching for a permanent faculty position.

Part-timers are paid 40% to 50% less than full-time instructors with comparable experience and education, the California Postsecondary Education Commission said in a report last April.

Full-time faculty teach 63% of classes, well below the state's goal of 75%, said Chancellor Tom Nussbaum, who heads the California community college system. The problem, Nussbaum said, is that California community colleges receive $2,300 per student less than the national average.

"To keep our doors open with low funding levels, one strategy has been to use part-time instructors," he said.

Last year, the state set aside $57 million to increase part-timers' pay. But the chancellor said $175 million to $200 million is needed.

"I think it's a long-simmering problem that had not been dealt with, and it reached a boiling point," he said.

Jonathan Lightman, who heads the Faculty Assn. of the California Community Colleges in Sacramento, said: "I can't emphasize enough how exploited and displaced part-time faculty feel."

Into that atmosphere stepped Cushing. She earned a bachelor's degree in communications from Pepperdine, where she headed the campus Young Republicans.

After graduation, she worked as a probation officer, managed a posh athletic club, then launched a graphic design studio in Fullerton. When the early '90s recession hit, she declared bankruptcy.

Cushing used the extra time to take a drawing class at Fullerton and fell in love with art.

She continued her studies until she had received two master's degrees in drawing and painting from Cal State Fullerton. She also decided she wanted to be a college professor. She searched for a full-time job and taught wherever she could, mainly at Fullerton, Cypress and Santa Ana colleges.

Cushing loved the work, and thought the $35 an hour she was making was pretty good. But when she added up time spent preparing lessons and grading papers, she realized she was making little more than minimum wage.

Seeing her colleague so despairing was her call to action. Someone told her about an Internet discussion group for part-time instructors around the state. Via e-mail, she found people in the same situation.

Also trolling the Internet was John Berg, a national organizer for the American Federation of Teachers. The two met in October 1998. With the help of Berg and a core group of other instructors, they launched a campaign for union representation of North Orange County part-time faculty.

"The key to organizing any group of employees is solid leadership at the top end of the local group," Berg said. "Linda was a very solid leader."

Organizing is a difficult business at best. It's even harder if you're trying to reach adjunct instructors who don't have offices or much interaction. Cushing and her group of activists waited outside classrooms at Fullerton and Cypress colleges and the School of Continuing Education, which make up the district, persuading part-time instructors to sign up.

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