Solidarity in the Apocalypse

Campus organizing without campus.
By Kathryn Wichelns

In October 2019, those of us who teach and work at the university of New Mexico celebrated the realization of what at times had seemed like an unattainable shared dream. In a landslide vote with a reassuringly huge turnout, our colleagues across the state chose to unionize as the United Academics of the University of New Mexico. Our union now had a mandate to represent full- and part-time faculty at all five of UNM’s campuses. After the vote was certified, we met at a local bar in Albuquerque; we made toasts; we hugged people we’d just met and others we’d known since our first covert meeting years earlier. Tomorrow the real work would begin.

Many in our core group of faculty organizers thought that our toughest immediate project would be negotiating our first contract with an administration that had put a great deal of money and effort into an antiunionization campaign, and indeed that was a hard grind. As we had in the past, we relied throughout the year of bargaining on the experience of the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers, which had come together to support our successful effort. Those of us who weren’t directly involved in the long, often daily meetings with the university administration carried out other tasks, including writing our constitution and working toward our long-term goals. As our various advisers and faculty colleagues on other unionized campuses consistently emphasized, a “yes” vote was just the beginning. While some of us were negotiating our first contract, we also needed to bolster our membership to ensure the enduring success and relevance of our new union.

Inspiring trust and communicating solidarity among potential new members are critical to growing a healthy organization—and knowing how best to do that had taken a lot of practice. Over the course of the prior five years, we had learned strategies based on the power of in-person conversations. Sometimes on my own, sometimes with another staff or faculty organizer, I would set up a meeting with a UNM colleague (usually someone I didn’t know) and visit them on campus, mainly to listen. When it seemed appropriate, I’d share our group’s progress, suggest how joining the chapter would support them in their professional goals, and ask them to become more involved. Faculty organizers got together for phone-banking sessions, with the goal of eventually setting up face-to-face meetings with prospective members. I found that using a local landline, rather than calling from my out-of-state cell-phone number, made it more likely that colleagues would answer when I called. When no one picked up, we left voice mails and followed up with a text messages. I’d become pretty skilled at judging whether a potential member would prefer to talk to someone who wasn’t me—or simply wasn’t a queer, tenured white woman in the English department on our central, Albuquerque campus. My UA-UNM faculty colleagues gladly stepped in when I’d gotten nowhere with a faculty contact. I counted on David, Jon, or Mike when I thought UA-UNM might be more effectively represented by a straight male colleague; Ernesto, when a potential member wanted to sit down with a faculty member from our law school; Matías, when an economist might inspire greater trust; Ozzy or Satya, when it should be someone in the sciences; Billy, Hilary, or Jeremy, when a demonstration of adjunct solidarity was in order; Antoinette, Myra, or Sarah, when a woman of color could address their concerns with greater authority; and Alexa, Gary, Kristian, or Peninah, when a colleague in Valencia, Taos, Gallup, or Los Alamos might be more helpful. We were a team, a collaborative human system of solidarity-building across differences—and, as our successful unionization vote suggested, we worked well in part because of our various differences.

Then the pandemic hit. In addition to the pedagogical, professional, and personal disruptions March 2020 and its aftermath represented for all of us, organizing efforts for UA-UNM ground to a halt just when we needed them to kick into overdrive. Our extraordinary lead staff organizer, Cassandra Villanueva, moved our phone-banking sessions online to remind us of the energy and purpose we shared. But now it was even more difficult to get people to return our calls. Few of us still have landlines at home, and during lockdowns we couldn’t go into the union offices to use a local number. Alongside everyone else, the colleagues we needed to reach couldn’t be tracked down after class or in offices on campus anymore. We didn’t have a vaccine yet; the smoke from global-warming-related wildfires in California and Arizona was wafting over central New Mexico; school-aged children and sweatpants were much too present in our working lives. Teaching online seemed surreal, for colleagues who weren’t experienced at doing so, and campus felt very far away. Many of us had research and other commitments that had been put on hold, throwing professional plans and promotion schedules into disarray. Some were directly and devastatingly affected by COVID-19. People who did want to talk, or (rarely) meet over Zoom, often told us that they had more pressing immediate concerns than union membership. “Why are we talking about this now?” one potential member asked me, and then waved vaguely offscreen, at everything in her surroundings. “It’s basically the apocalypse.”

How do you communicate how much union membership matters to faculty when they feel like their lives are coming apart at the seams? I may not have been able to knock on doors during the pandemic, but my colleagues and I could demonstrate the concrete ways that our successful attainment of a faculty union at UNM was a promise of security and lasting change. UA-UNM’s social-media accounts have become lifelines of communication since the onset of the pandemic, in ways that they weren’t before: we may not be on campus, but nearly everyone is sitting in front of a computer screen for much of the day. As in any new union, we had to learn quickly from our mistakes. For example, based on member feedback, our newly elected interim officers advocated for a vaccine mandate last summer, and those backchannel conversations helped push UNM reluctantly toward requiring vaccines for students, faculty, and staff. We were startled when our university president subsequently took credit for the mandate without acknowledging that our work and advocacy had helped make it happen. The vaccine mandate should have been a practical success for us, and of course in the larger context it was. But when we don’t communicate our victories clearly to members, they don’t understand what their union has done for them as they would have in the past, when they could discuss union issues through informal or in-person channels—and right now they need concrete demonstrations of shared purpose more than ever. We’ve learned that we need to be more diligent about standing up and declaring to our community both our ongoing challenges and our victories. We can’t have as many direct conversations, so communication (through emails to members and social-media posts) has to be even clearer and more relevant. Our current priorities include educating members and potential members about the guarantees contained in our first collective bargaining agreement, negotiating with the university administration over measures to ensure that faculty and students can safely return to campus, publicly pointing out how gaps in UNM’s institutional practices make certain faculty members more vulnerable than others during a pandemic, and gathering information from union members on what to emphasize when we next sit down at the negotiating table with the administration. All of that happens electronically, and all of it contributes directly to organizing.

For decades, the only way for faculty to participate in governance at UNM was through our faculty senate, an advisory body that does essential work but whose recommendations (notoriously, including a no-confidence vote by all voting faculty against UNM’s then president in 2009) have often been ignored. Having a union means that riding roughshod over faculty consensus now can have legal consequences: communicating the difference this makes has been crucial. We have worked this year on building bridges with the faculty senate, in order to ensure that all means for promoting faculty needs are working together and that we acknowledge each other’s efforts in messaging. Our union’s grievances committee, which includes a member who also is on the faculty senate’s historically effective academic freedom and tenure committee, has become more important this year than we expected. Setting up an email account where members and potential members can share grievances, and checking it regularly, ensures that even our farthest-flung colleagues have a means of communicating their concerns to us. Our most vulnerable members—part-time instructors, women faculty, faculty of color, probationary or non-tenure-track faculty, faculty on our non-Albuquerque campuses—feel the most cut off by the changed circumstances of the pandemic while also facing disproportionate pressure to compromise their workplace rights as enrollment rates have plummeted and the university budget has had to accommodate emergency pandemic measures. Giving our colleagues a reliable means of direct contact and the certainty that a fellow UA-UNM member will show up and advocate for them in Zoom meetings with supervisors when needed does more of the heavy lifting in our organizing plan than I would have imagined in 2019.

Organizing during the pandemic has brought us some unexpected benefits. New Mexico is a large state with a comparatively small population and striking regional diversity. Gallup, in the far west of the state, is a six-hour round-trip drive from Albuquerque. Faculty members on that campus serve many students from the Navajo Nation, including a large number of dual-enrolled high school students working toward college credit. Because students often don’t have reliable internet access at home, they have to come to campus to do work even in their online courses, defeating the purpose of an “online-only” push that has been the registrar’s main response to the pandemic. Before March 2020, I barely knew my colleagues at Gallup and the other three campuses far from Albuquerque, and I certainly did not fully understand how their concerns often differ substantially from my own, as a tenured faculty member at the central campus located in New Mexico’s largest city, which houses the majority of UNM’s graduate programs. In those prepandemic days, we held all but a handful of our union meetings in Albuquerque. Everyone at those meetings stepped over masses of cables that powered a large screen and a set of speakers, so that we could pretend that our faraway colleagues, all in different parts of the state, could participate equally by phoning or Zooming in. This system was awkward and prone to technical problems. UA-UNM unintentionally was repeating our employer’s ongoing tendency to treat the needs of faculty in Taos, Los Alamos, Gallup, and Valencia as peripheral—yet we wondered why we couldn’t get more people from those campuses to show up. Now we are all talking heads on a screen: there’s a radical, productive egalitarianism to that. Faculty on UNM’s other campuses clearly feel more recognized, as their active participation in meetings and on committees has increased significantly this year. As the fall semester was about to start, we voted to include campus-specific officer positions and hold all meetings online even after the pandemic is over, because the full involvement of all of our colleagues statewide is infinitely more valuable than being able to meet in person.

Organizing work, perhaps particularly for a faculty union at a large public research university, is both an education in how isolated our professions make us and the solution to that problem. In the midst of lockdowns, as we all struggled to move courses online, experienced Zoom burnout, tried to find toilet paper in stores, and worried about our vulnerable loved ones, our UA-UNM membership meant that we were not alone. As vaccination rates climb and we all move slowly toward a “new normal,” we continue to demonstrate to our colleagues that their concerns about crisis-related changes in their working lives are shared. Union membership means that our supervisors are not the only powerful resources we have, during a pandemic and afterward. I don’t know what organizing will come to look like in the wake of our drawn-out, global encounter with COVID-19, but it will not be the same as it was in 2019. As my colleagues and I in UA-UNM have tried to build our new union into a force for lasting change at our university, we have also had to reconsider what organizing looks like. The pandemic has required us all to find creative solutions to unexpected problems, to reevaluate long-held strategies, and to emphasize concrete needs. The practice of solidarity has moved off campus, into our in-boxes and onto our screens. Every contact, every post, every victory, every time we use faculty voices to counter some form of official spin, every chance we can show—and not just tell—our colleagues that they are valued members of a collective made more powerful through their participation, we are building our union. Alongside everything else in the last two years, the nature of faculty organizing has changed. I think it’s largely for the better.

Kathryn Wichelns is associate professor of English at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.