Credit: Marco Verch

Strike rumors have been swirling around Columbia College for months now. The school’s famously scrappy part-time faculty union—recently re-branded as CFAC (Columbia Faculty Union)—has been working without a contract since the last one expired in August 2017.

As negotiations dragged on, union leadership had been ramping up the strike talk. By Thanksgiving week, even the administration was warning that a walkout looked imminent.

The fall strike didn’t materialize, but something more surprising did: the sudden appearance of a mysterious tribunal, the Membership Integrity Committee, summoning union members to hearings where they’d be tried on charges brought by anonymous accusers. Punishment, potentially including fines, expulsion from the union, and other costs, would follow for those found guilty.

It’s a complicated story, and a bizarre one to emerge on a 21st century college campus. As Jennie Fauls, an adjunct faculty member and assistant director of the Program of Writing and Rhetoric, put it in a November 21 opinion piece on the website of the Columbia Chronicle, “The Integrity Committee might as well have posted their decree in the Salem, Massachusetts town square in the late 17th century.”

On October 23 CFAC member and part-time administrative employee Gita Kapila sent an email to the entire membership with this attention-getting subject line: “Full disclosure: the union is broke.”

“I am writing to inform you that the union is in debt,” Kapila wrote, providing a link to a public document filed with the federal Department of Labor that summarized the union’s finances. According to the document, at the end of the 2018 fiscal year on June 30 CFAC had negative net assets of $23,509.

CFAC, it appears, was drawing its members into a potentially long-term strike without a strike fund or other assets.

Kapila added that she’d been fired from her job with the union the previous day.

Two days later, on October 25, the CFAC six-member Steering Committee (consisting of union officials) announced that it had established a new union body, the Membership Integrity Committee, “which shall be authorized to receive and hear charges filed by any member against any other member whose conduct is alleged to cause harm to the objects and aims of the Union . . . or harm to any member of the Union.” No information was given about how many members the Integrity Committee would have, how they’d be selected, or who they’d be. But some members didn’t have to wait long to see the committee in action.

Within a few weeks, Kapila and two other union members, Michele Hoffman and Carey Friedman, received Integrity Committee notices informing them that they’d been charged with causing harm to the union and summoning them to hearings. The charges were dated October 28, the hearings were scheduled for November 26, and they were told not to bring legal counsel.

Hoffman, who teaches marine biology, says the first thing to know is that “I am pro union.” But, she adds, “I want a union that is democratic.” Hoffman had been concerned about the vote for a two-day strike a year ago. It seemed premature to her, and she believes the way the vote was administered—online in a Google document that included identifying information— violated the union’s bylaws.

Hoffman says that when the union leaders started pushing for a longer “permanent” strike this fall, suggesting that the previous strike vote could be invoked to authorize it, and when they announced a press conference for October 17 calling for Columbia president Kwang-Wu Kim to resign, she decided to take action. She printed her own press release and handed it out at the event. Her statement contained a list of questions for CFAC president Diana Vallera. Hoffman wanted explanations for, among other things, salaries and other expenses and why members hadn’t been informed about a 10 percent pay increase the college had offered during negotiations.

“I’m a Columbia alum,” Hoffman says. “I went on and got a masters in marine science and a law degree, and I’ve been teaching here 21 years. This is very personal to me.”

The summons she received from the Integrity Committee included charges that she had “passed out false information and made personal attacks on the union President.” Her anonymous accuser asked that Hoffman be “disciplined for trying to undermine the union and its officers.”

Friedman, a screenwriter and playwright who’s been teaching at Columbia for 21 years, says his intention in raising questions “has been to return to rational negotiations and get a fair contract.” On October 22, he emailed the CFAC membership a list of five questions for the union: Is there a strike fund? How many members signed strike cards? Why hadn’t the union formally responded to the administration’s contract proposal? Why is the union rejecting a federal moderator? And, have we explored all options before striking?

“I’m actually very pro-union,” Friedman says. “This isn’t union busting. It’s union informing, so we can make proper decisions.”

The charges against Friedman accuse him of using “improperly attained membership information to attack the union and make false personal attacks on the union President,” and of doing so “on an email system hosted and controlled by management.”

Kapila, who also teaches in the film department, says she was fired after pressing Vallera for invoices required to back up the figures that were reported to the DOL. The Integrity Committee initially charged that she used membership and financial information “without permission” to attack the union and “make false personal attacks on the union president.” On November 12, she was sent an expanded list of charges. She was accused of “creating a hostile member faction,” and her accuser called for an investigation of whether she overpaid herself.

On November 30, two additional union members, Kathryn Bergquist and Paul Peditto, received notices of charges (dated November 26) that they “conspired, planned and executed a campaign to create harm to the Union, its leadership, its bargaining team and its membership by engaging in the deliberate dissemination of misinformation to the Union membership.” Their hearings are scheduled for December 10.

All charging statements are written in first person, but none are signed. The membership of the Integrity Committee remains a mystery, and the accused question its legitimacy. The hearings for Hoffman and Friedman were supposedly held on November 26; not wishing to validate the proceedings, neither of them attended. At press time they hadn’t heard anything further from the Integrity Committee.

CFAC’s outside legal counsel, attorney Robert Bloch, said in an emailed statement: “The union steering committee established an integrity subcommittee to hear internal union charges filed by its members. The Integrity Subcommittee serves a copy of the charge upon the accused, schedules a hearing, and takes evidence. The Integrity committee issues a recommendation on the charges, subject to final review by the union’s steering committee. These procedures are common in all labor unions and are conducted in accordance with the law.”

And in a statement provided by CFAC president Vallera, union bargaining team member Susan Van Veen wrote that “it is a gross misrepresentation of fact to even suggest that the CFAC Union is broke.” According to Van Veen, the union had a temporary cash flow issue that its semi-annual dues, paid in November, would cover: “[T]his is where many entities use a line of credit. To say we’re broke is fake news and misreporting of facts.”

Vallera also provided a statement from the union steering committee: “The Union received a paper trail . . . that revealed 6 members planned and plotted for a while to wrongfully obtain membership emails, to disrupt union business and discredit the union leadership all for self interest and with the goal to destabilize the union so that we would not have the strength needed to strike.”

Vallera says a full report will be issued after the hearings.

Kapila’s hearing has been rescheduled for December 7. She’s not planning to attend.   v