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Higher education faculty in Colorado beg lawmakers to pass collective bargaining rights bill

Craig Svonkin relocated to Denver 15 years ago and while he’s been able to teach children’s literacy and poetry at Metropolitan State University of Denver exactly like he set out to do, it has come at a heavy cost: his financial stability.

The associate professor of English took a huge pay cut to move from Riverside, California, and was only recently able to pay off his student debt. As an associate professor, the 58-year-old has a small retirement plan from his three years as a lecturer at the University of California, Riverside but worked many years as an adjunct professor and a teaching assistant and hasn’t built up a giant pot of money for retirement. At least twice, he opened his spare bedroom-turned-library in his downtown Denver apartment to adjunct professors who were evicted because they couldn’t pay rent.

“This is all a function of a lack of collective bargaining,” Svonkin said during a roundtable discussion with other higher education faculty and the heads of the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors Monday morning at First Baptist Church of Denver. “This is unconscionable for a modern society to not give us a voice,” he added.

Faculty at Colorado public universities and colleges are the latest group of state employees calling on lawmakers to pass collective bargaining legislation that would allow them to unionize and negotiate for wages, benefits and working conditions. 

Several Democrats in the legislature are working on the measure, but they have yet to introduce it as they negotiate the bill’s language with Gov. Jared Polis and a long list of groups that support and oppose the effort.

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House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat who is leading the push for the legislation, confirmed Monday that the measure is still in the works. She said the bill will be introduced, “if there is a path forward.”

College and university employees across the state say many in their industry are underpaid, especially adjunct professors who are contract employees who on average make no more than $24,000 a year teaching a few courses each semester. Some of them say they can barely pay their bills and have to rely on government resources, such as food stamps. Both leaders of AFT and AAUP and higher education faculty urge legislators to support a collective bargaining bill for the sake of the existing workforce and to help attract and retain educators and preserve quality in the classroom.

Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors (left), and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, joined higher education faculty members from across Colorado Monday morning for a roundtable discussion at First Baptist Church of Denver. The group is advocating for a prospective collective bargaining bill that would give higher education faculty more of a say in wages, benefits and working conditions. Mulvey and Weingarten also met with Gov. Jared Polis on Monday. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Polis has expressed skepticism about the bill. He said in January that he wouldn’t support the measure “in its current form,” but it’s not clear how drafts of the legislation may have changed in the weeks since then, and how those alterations may have affected the governor’s thinking on the measure.

Colorado’s state-run higher education institutions — including the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and Colorado School of Mines — are fiercely opposed to the bill, warning that its passage would add significant new costs that could lead to tuition hikes. They have asked to be carved out of the legislation entirely.

AFT President Randi Weingarten and AAUP President Irene Mulvey, who both met with Polis late Monday morning to discuss the need for collective bargaining rights among higher education faculty, are advocating for legislation that would be as expansive as possible.

Weingarten previously discussed collective bargaining with Polis on Feb. 23 but repeatedly declined to comment on the outcome of that meeting during the roundtable.

The two national organizations have together organized collective bargaining chapters in eight states that represent more than 20,000 college and university faculty members. 

“Collective bargaining is an essential right for all workers,” Mulvey said during Monday morning’s roundtable discussion, describing current working conditions among adjunct faculty as “abysmal.” She cited low pay among adjunct professors in the Colorado Community College System, where statewide pay averages about $2,500 per lecture course.

“(Students) deserve a stable faculty with decent working conditions that has a voice in institutional decision-making and are not scrambling to make ends meet,” she said.

Faculty deserve a louder voice in conversations with higher education leadership as they understand the problems plaguing institutions, Mulvey said, since “they’re on the ground doing the work.”

JoAn McCarthy, who teaches English at the Community College of Denver, said most adjuncts live paycheck to paycheck while bouncing from one college to another to make ends meet. Adjuncts typically have to pick up whatever classes are available, often at inconvenient times of the day, and serve some of the state’s “neediest groups” of students, she said.

“The system’s broken, and it’s designed to protect and flourish the people at the top,” McCarthy said, noting that students are the ones who are ultimately affected.

McCarthy doesn’t work at multiple schools, but said many of her colleagues do. In some cases, she ends up picking up slack for them, helping their students outside class when their instructors don’t have time for office hours.

Svonkin, of MSU Denver, cited a sense of fear hanging over many faculty at campuses throughout the state as many worry about speaking up as “counter voices” for fear of retaliation.

“If people are afraid to speak up, you don’t have those counter voices in a significant way,” Svonkin said.

Faculty are also pushing for collective bargaining legislation to protect the “academic freedom” that draws so many of them to campuses in the first place, said Mary Van Buren, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Geography at Colorado State University.

She firmly believes in academic freedom so that educators can research and teach a variety of topics whether they upset others or not. But many professors, particularly adjuncts, are constantly scared for their jobs, she said, “because they have no protections, and they’re employed at will.

Higher education faculty members from across Colorado, including (from left) Mary Van Buren of Colorado State University-Fort Collins, Caprice Lawless of Front Range Community College and Craig Svonkin of Metropolitan State University of Denver are urging state lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow them to unionize and have more of a voice in negotiations. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

“We’re muzzling our faculty in a way that really inhibits the kind of adult, free-flowing, explorative kinds of conversations that we would hope would happen in a classroom at a university,” Van Buren said, adding that collective bargaining would ensure that grievance processes and protection from retaliation were enforced on campuses.

Weingarten, of AFT — which represents 1.7 million members across the country in early childhood, K-12, higher education, nursing, public-sector employees and retirees — said the momentum around securing collective bargaining for higher education professionals is “about democracy.” 

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It’s also about building up institutions, the economy and individual lives, she said, so that employees like adjunct professors no longer have to turn to food banks to make ends meet. 

“It says to workers in Colorado that you’re going to be valued,” Weingarten said.

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