Second in a series of articles that address the importance of unions and what, in particular, your union, the Part-Time Faculty Association, has accomplished for part-timers at Allan Hancock College.

The Case of the 2008 Summer Paychecks

When I received my “offer of employment” for teaching the 2008 summer session, I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of the usual three paychecks for summer work, I would receive two, the first in July, the second in August. (Hancock, like other colleges, calculates a part-time instructor’s pay for an entire session, spring, summer, fall, etc., then divides it into equal amounts and issues a check each month. “You will be paid XXX amount in five equal payments of XXX” is what is written on a typical offer of employment). I would be getting my summer pay in two much larger chunks, the total divided in half instead of thirds.

Summer classes usually begin in the middle of June and end the second week of August. Hancock, always fearful of paying a penny it doesn’t have to, had always taken the position that paying in two payments might enable someone to quit before their class ended, and thus abscond with money they hadn’t worked for yet. That there was never one documented case of this happening, and that by making people wait until September 10 for money they had earned in July and early August seemed unfair, was something to which the district was indifferent. However, the Education Code allowed it to be done this way, so we had always felt there was no choice but to acquiesce.

So as the summer of 2008 began I thought: They have finally seen the light. Finally, they are going to do the right thing when it comes to summer pay. Finally, they have listened to the better angels of their nature. Classes end on August 9, so it seemed reasonable to give everyone their pay on August 10. So I thought.

The angels had fled by the time the July 10 checks were issued. When I saw my paycheck I received another surprise, this one not so pleasant. This check was a great deal less than I had calculated it would be.

When the shock wore off a suspicion crept into my mind. A quick phone call to the payroll department confirmed my fears: Whoever had designed the offers of employment for the summer had made a mistake, I was told. The district had never intended to issue two paychecks for the summer. They had (without telling anyone) corrected their error and were paying the way they always had, in three payments. Who had made this mistake? No one knew. Who had made the decision to change the amount of money being paid? No one knew.

Oh, the joys of dealing with bureaucracy! At our Part-Time Faculty Association office we were receiving phone calls from our members. How could this happen? Our members had expected to receive two paychecks, and many had budgeted accordingly. Now they were being forced to redo all of their planning. What was the Association going to do about it? As always, our members were being made to pay the price of someone else’s mistake.

What could we do about it? At first it seemed there was nothing we could do. The District was claiming the Education Code enabled them to do it this way. But did it? From our office we contacted our CFT Area Representative. He in turn contacted one of our attorneys. We were all in agreement. This was a change in the terms and conditions of employment, and should have been negotiated, not unilaterally imposed on us.

I sent an email to the vice-president of Hancock College (a different person than the one that holds that position now). “It is the opinion,” I wrote, “of all concerned that an unfair labor practice complaint against the Allan Hancock Joint Community College District is in order. We believe the case is solid and will be upheld by PERB. In the offer of employment that was signed by the affected employees and the administration, the District obligated itself to pay those employees for their summer employment in two equal payments in July and August.” The remedy we proposed was a simple one: Issue checks to all those affected that make up the difference between one-third of their pay and one-half of their pay, and then pay the rest on August 10, as the original offer of employment specified.

I didn’t have to wait long for a response. The District, that very day, agreed to pay out the difference between what they said they would pay and what they actually paid by the end of the month, and to pay the remainder on August 10. The district had, in other words, done what it had originally said it would do, but only after some arm twisting.

Why does this incident matter? It once again points to the importance of having a union. If the union hadn’t been there, the people we represent would have had no choice except to go along with what the arbitrary action the District had taken, and been forced to live with much smaller paychecks for the summer.

Many of our part-time instructors live on the edge, paycheck to paycheck, not because they want to or because they enjoy living this way (as the Fox News crowd would have us believe), but because they have no other choice. They cobble a living together by working several jobs. Being told they will receive one amount of pay on a certain date and then to have that changed, and without being informed of this ahead of time so they could plan accordingly, created a hardship they should not have had to bear.

As I said in my previous column on this topic, the union-haters would say the part-time instructors could have solved this without the union’s help. This is nonsense, of course; one person alone would not have known, nor would they have any way of knowing, that anyone else had not been paid correctly. One person complaining to the administration is not going to get anywhere except a possible boot out the door. (And make no mistake—people do get the boot for complaining).

Unions came about precisely because of abuses like this. Laws to protect people from issues like this one were passed because unions brought them to the attention of the public and to politicians. They would not have been passed otherwise; employers rarely seek laws that will give their employees more power.

One person standing alone can accomplish a great deal, but a group of people standing together can do even more. Unions are about people standing together, and fighting for what is right.

Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA