AFT-Lone Star College was founded in 1980, and in its 41 years, the union has boasted some impressive leadership. Kevin Bailey, the first AFT-Lone Star College president, went on to become a member of the Texas House of Representatives. He was followed in union leadership by Alan Hall, who held the presidency for 35 years, making Hall one of the longest-serving presidents of a local union in Texas.
John Burghduff, who took over as president in January of this year, is the third president of AFT-Lone Star College, which represents employees in the Lone Star College system with its seven major campuses.
“I’m just getting my feet on the ground,” John said. “We are a wall-to-wall union that includes faculty and staff. We have full-time and part-time employees as members. That’s a hallmark of community colleges versus K-12. Most of our employee base is part-time, and half of the classes we teach are led by part-time employees. They have very few rights. Working on behalf of adjunct faculty is a major goal of the union.”
We caught up with John recently to find out more about what unionism looks like for higher education and how he found himself in the labor movement.
John is one of our many exceptional leaders and members across Texas. Check out our past leader spotlights to hear from more of them.
How does union activism differ in higher education from K-12?
There are some extra challenges that higher education locals face — not to minimize the K-12 experience, we just have different issues. One is that we don’t have a standard workday like K-12 does. Community colleges open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. We are also open on weekends and we have quite a few classes online, so employees come and go throughout the day. Getting people together is more of a challenge.
With faculty, sometimes we face the challenge of people having some sense of being professionals and that unions are for working people like plumbers and carpenters. That is a misunderstanding we work with all the time. We are paid very similarly to K-12 instructors. In fact, some of our staff would be better paid in the school district than at the college. The idea that we are professionals doesn’t really work because we don’t set our own standards like a doctor or a lawyer.
We are helping people to understand that even if they want to think of themselves as professionals, and we behave as professionals, that we are not treated as professionals, so having a union is incredibly important. As people have challenges with their workplace, we are available to help out and help people understand the value of a union. We work for people and for policy.
Can you outline an example where the collective action of your members showed the power of their union?
One of our challenges for many years has been issues with due process for employees. We had for a while something called the “six-signature policy.” This was an administrative policy that said, historically, if a supervisor wants to fire someone, they couldn’t just fire them (which is a good thing) but that they have to get a series of six signatures by convincing six other people above them that firing the person is appropriate.
On the outside, that sounds like a good deal, except that the employee would have no idea that any of this was going on, and there was no opportunity for them to offer input or rebuttal. Instead, they would just all of a sudden get a notice that they’ve been fired. So we worked with the administration to persuade them that there are some obvious injustices with this process.
We organized for a couple of months, got matching shirts, and contacted as many members as we could to plan to have everyone show up at the board meeting. We had a series of speakers to talk about the discipline process and filled more than half of the boardroom with our members. After a few months of those meetings, the administration reached out to work on fixing the issue.
Since we got their attention we have been working with them very hard, and the process we have now is very fair. Now the process gives an employee lots of notice and provides coaching, so the whole purpose has been changed from punishment to mentorship to help them do a better job.
Tell me a little about yourself and your background.
I have been with the college since 1992. The job I get paid for is to be a professor of mathematics. I started at the Kingwood campus. In 2003, the Cy-Fair campus opened, and that is where I’ve been ever since.
I had been in a school that had an AFT local in an earlier job, so I knew who AFT was and I appreciated what they did. When I learned that we had a local, within six months I joined, and I have been in the local since early 1993. For most of that time, I was a member who would help with anything they needed, but I was not really involved in leadership.
We have a union newsletter, and there were some problems coming up with an effort to monetize online education more, so I asked Alan (the president at the time) if I could write an article about it. That was my first real participation, writing that article, and it got a lot of interest from faculty and administrators. The whole plan to monetize it collapsed, and Alan noticed that, so he asked me to write other articles after that.
When I moved to Cy-Fair, there was already a vice president on that campus, but he passed away after a tough battle with cancer, so Alan asked me if I would be vice president. I wasn’t sure if I could do that, but he said he believed I could do it and that he would help me, so I started meeting with him once a week about issues. I started gaining some confidence and taught myself the college policy. I learned what people’s rights were.
Then some of the leadership wanted me to be the spokesperson for the union at board meetings, and that was really terrifying. I remember my knees shaking the first time I ever did that. Nine years later, Alan approached me about potentially running for president after he retired, so I started shadowing him. This last fall we had our election and I was elected president.
Why does this work matter to you?
Education is something I have dedicated my whole life to. The only thing I ever wanted to do was to be in education, to be a teacher. For me, the teaching profession is truly a calling that I feel like I was made for and I love it.
The mission of what we do is incredibly important. My college in particular matters tremendously to me, the people in it matter to me. I work with an incredibly talented group of people who are very dedicated to what they do and want to help their students in whatever way they can. They can only help their students effectively if they feel secure and safe in their jobs. If they are afraid or threatened, on a humane level, that affects them and it also affects the students. I care about the employees themselves and their well-being, but also that we are truly providing all the best services to make our students’ lives better.