One dark night sometime in 1960, a few faculty members from El Camino College, gathered together by Joe Collier and Earl O’Neill, met surreptitiously in a nearby bar with CFT rep. Hank Clarke. Primarily with a view to counterbalancing the CTA “company union” (which at that time included administrators) with a real labor union, this sedate albeit free-spirited group formed the first community college AFT local in California with the names of sixteen members appearing on a charter dated November 4, 1960.
Mike Pelsinger, our first president, found reading the flood of incoming mail from CFT and AFT his heaviest duty. Treasurers collected dues and kept minimal records. It should be noted too, that our original constitution was largely, if not exclusively, the work of Al Wrobel and that he had a hand in almost all subsequent revisions of or amendments to it.
During the local’s first ten years or so, its chief role was that of a gadfly. It was the 1960s, after all–a time that exalted lobbying in Sacramento; there was little a teacher organization could do about traditional educational concerns. So-called business unionism, i.e., furthering the economic interest of our members, was impossible since it required recognition as the bargaining agent for the faculty–a legal status then impossible under California law. And so, turning our interests to broader issues, we practiced what was often called social unionism.
Spurred on by Irv Boxer and others, we acted as a sort of surrogate of the ACLU in fighting for the right of underground student newspapers to be sold on campus and our own right to use college bulletin boards. We supported anti-war protest. Most significantly, perhaps, under the leadership of Will Scoggins, we enlisted in the civil rights cause. Specifically, around 1962 we endorsed and participated in the picketing of a Torrance housing tract which refused to sell houses to blacks. That kind of concern persisted and in 1969 then President Myron Kennedy wrote an open letter asking for what amounted to an affirmative action program in view of the fact that there were no black clerical employees, counselors, or administrators and fewer than two percent of the student body was black.
During this period, two student organizations, Students Against the Draft and the Black Student Union, had a profile on campus, as did Students for a Democratic Society. There were antiwar rallies, teach-ins and BSU demands. The FBI had under-cover informants operating on campus and the John Birch Society exerted a noisy, disruptive presence at numerous community meetings. This was the raucous milieu in which our local raised, a bit cautiously, the banner of social change.
We then called that banner Proof and made it a newsletter. It was a name suggested by Dave Brady and an obvious take-off of the Faculty Association’s PROF. When the first issue appeared, October 25, 1963, Irv was president and Chuck Sohner editor.
All of this changed in 1977 with the advent of collective bargaining. Against all odds, but with the inadvertent help of administrators attempting intimidation, the Federation, under the charismatic leadership of Dick Schwarzman, overwhelmed the CTA by a vote of about two to one (although our membership was only about half theirs) to become the first community college local in California to win an election and negotiate a contract. We began almost immediately to prepare contract proposals for the beginning of formal negotiations with the district. Again, Dick was the leader in putting them together and it was assumed he would act as our chief negotiator. But cancer is no respecter of assumptions and soon Dick became very sick. It was in April, less than two weeks before negotiations were scheduled to begin, that the local’s executive committee met and reluctantly, sadly designated Chuck Sohner for the role that was to have been Dick’s. Helen Martin had been vice-president, never dreaming when first elected that she would succeed to the presidency under such tragic circumstances or at such a critical time. But succeed she did, in every sense of the word, and discharged her responsibilities with lighthearted grace and competence. When she, too, died of cancer, on November 7, 1983, our sadness was profound and the loss incalculable.
The ECCFT has remained the bargaining agent with only one abortive attempt at a decert by CTA; an election was never held. Relations with the administration and with the Board of Trustees have gradually improved over the years as the strength and ability of leadership and the Federation’s desire to not only further empower the faculty but also to enhance the quality of education at the college became apparent. Fewer than half a dozen grievances have gone to arbitration since 1977. We attribute this unusually low number to the strength and detail of our contract and the incredibly able Grievance Chairs who have served us over the ten year period, first Will Scoggins and then Gus Shackelford.
Over the years that the ECCFT has been the bargaining agent, the faculty has been well served by the most dedicated of individuals who have been Presidents. Peggy Ferro followed Helen Martin for a one year term, Gerry Karpel grew gray hair during her four year stint (followed by more gray hair and a few more wrinkles as Chief Negotiator for three years), Joe Georges served spectacularly as President for two years (and then as Negotiator for another three), Merrill Jones held the fort for three years, and now Lance Widman begins his presidency, with our thanks and best wishes that he stay young, healthy and handsome during his ordeal.
More recently, and heading into the 21st century, the Federation has continued to represent and advocate for better working and learning conditions at El Camino College.