Published in the September 25, 2014 Santa Maria Times.

The Santa Maria Valley Union Picnic and Celebration of Sept. 1 was an amazing success, far surpassing the expectations of its organizers.

On Aug. 29, I wrote that a new Labor Day tradition would be starting in Santa Maria. Thanks to the efforts of the Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, and the people at UDW Local 3930, Laborers Local 220, UFCW Local 770, SEIU Local 721, and the Tri-Counties Central Labor Council, the new tradition got off to a roaring start.

More than 300 people came to the event. They were treated to free hot dogs and hamburgers, got their faces painted, watched their kids play in the bounce houses, and listened to speakers such as U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, San Luis Obispo City Council member John Ashbaugh, 35th Assembly District candidate Heidi Harmon, and Hancock College Board of Trustees member Hilda Zacarias — all of whom spoke of the importance of unions and working people in America today.

For the Part-Time Faculty Association, this was an especially meaningful day. The PFA has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1999. Where we once labored in virtual obscurity, we now represent all part-time academic employees at Hancock College with a collective bargaining agreement that has become a model for others to follow.

In 1999, the part-time instructors at Hancock voted 87 percent in favor of organizing into a union. This was an illustration of how unhappy the part-time teachers were with their pay and working conditions then. Even a member of the Hancock Board of Trustees said such a strong yes vote indicated very deep-seated discontent among part-time teachers.

“Happy employees don’t vote in those numbers to join a union,” he said.

Over the past 15 years, the PFA has greatly improved the working lives of the part-time faculty at Hancock College. When we began, Hancock’s pay for part-time instructors ranked 66th out of the state’s 72 community college districts. Now it is around 35th. Overall, pay has more than doubled.

Part-timers at Hancock now have a grievance procedure, improved sick leave, seniority rights for credit instructors, free parking, and paid office hours. We now have representatives on shared governance councils — a voice, in other words, in how the college is governed. What we have done shows what can be accomplished when working people organize and bargain collectively.

The strong turnout for our Labor Day event is an indication of the rebirth of unionism I wrote of in my column of Aug. 22. It is a rebirth not only of unionism, but of the union spirit of progress, of looking ahead rather than backward, of listening to the voice of reason and rationality. The gathering of people from occupations as diverse as laborers, caregivers, food service workers, social workers and teachers, coming together to make common cause with each other, to stand in support of one another and working people from coast to coast, shows that the noble spirit of American labor and American unionism is alive and stronger than ever.

The celebration of Sept. 1 was only the beginning. Next year’s event will be even bigger. The American labor movement, for so long quiescent, is rising again, and the unions of Santa Maria and the Central Coast are going to play the biggest role they possibly can.

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