As Miami Dade College Adjuncts Vote On Union, Organizers And Administrators Claim 'Intimidation'

Mar 11, 2019

A conflict last fall over union recruitment at Miami Dade College resulted in multiple municipal police officers pointing guns at a labor organizer on the school's campus in Doral.

The Sept. 13, 2018, incident was one of several alleged dustups that have led the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to file a complaint against the college charging unfair labor practices, a claim that is still pending under Florida's Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC).

The labor organizers and the college administration are accusing each other of intimidation and harassment in what has turned into an ugly battle over a March 27 election that will determine whether adjunct faculty at one of the nation's largest colleges form a union.

"Some of the tactics, unfortunately, that they are using go back to last century, which is intimidating faculty, harassing faculty," outgoing Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón said of SEIU organizers during an exclusive interview with WLRN last week.

"[Union organizers] go and knock at [adjunct professors'] doors and insist on coming in and talking to them. … Our security has to escort the adjunct faculty to their cars, because there are people waiting for them, to walk with them and convince them to join the union," he said. "And they feel intimidated by that."

Padrón said adjunct faculty often call and email him about the alleged harassment. WLRN requested the emails under Florida's public records laws, but a spokesman for Padrón had not provided them as of Monday morning. 

Representatives of SEIU deferred questions to Miami Dade College adjuncts who are working to organize their colleagues.

"If anyone is doing the intimidating, it’s the administration," said Christian Schlaerth, a sociology adjunct professor who has been active in the union effort. Schlaerth teaches part-time at the University of Miami and Barry University, as well.

Schlaerth cited the college's anti-union campaign — sending emails and letters to adjunct faculty members encouraging them to vote against organizing — as an example of "intimidation." (College spokesman Juan Mendieta confirmed that the administration has distributed such communications, which he called "informational." He said: "We want our adjunct faculty to be fully informed.")

Further, Schlaerth pointed to the unresolved dispute over the conflict involving campus security, local police and a union organizer in Doral last September.

According to two versions of events filed by SEIU and Miami Dade College with PERC, a state agency that mediates labor disputes, here's what happened: A campus security guard confronted SEIU organizer-in-training Clayton Blackwelder as he was attempting to talk to adjunct professors.

The college stated an adjunct faculty member had reported him as "a suspicious individual following her and sitting outside of her classroom."

Campus Public Safety Chief Dan Grossi arrived and asked Blackwelder for identification, which he did not provide, according to both the union and the college.

According to the college, Grossi told Blackwelder he did not follow the school's rules for visiting and soliciting and therefore must leave the campus.

Blackwelder initially refused to leave, both parties acknowledge.

Then, Grossi called the Doral Police Department. The college argued it was because Blackwelder was displaying "erratic behavior."

The union organizer, Blackwelder, accused Grossi of unlawfully seizing his backpack, which the college denies. A spokesman for Doral police said Blackwelder reportedly abandoned his backpack, which raised alarms for campus security guards and the responding officers.

Both sides agree on the following: Eventually, Blackwelder started to leave the campus. Grossi followed Blackwelder to his car in a parking garage and took photos of his license plate. Blackwelder began driving down the levels in the parking garage, and when he reached the bottom, there was a police car there with its lights on. Blackwelder pulled into a parking space and turned off his car.

Police officers ordered Blackwelder to exit his vehicle. He did. Then "multiple officers" pointed guns at Blackwelder and handcuffed him, according to both SEIU and the college.

In Blackwelder's personal statement, he described the following:

"I heard orders to 'get out of the vehicle with your hands up.' I complied. Multiple officers were pointing guns at me. Another order: 'Put your hands on that car,' with which I complied. I put my hands on the back of the car I parked next to and stood still, waiting for further direction. The same officer repeated the order: 'Put your hands on the car!' I replied calmly: 'My hands are on the car.' Next thing I know, an officer rushes me from behind, picks me up by my belt loop and slams me against the parked car. They take my hands and put them in handcuffs and they frisk me."

The college stated in a lengthier description of the incident filed with PERC: "At no time did Chief Grossi request the Doral Police to restrain Mr. Blackwelder, draw their guns on him or otherwise interact with him in any particular manner."

Ultimately, Blackwelder said the police took off the handcuffs and told him if he returned to the campus he would be arrested. (The college responded it had no knowledge of what the police officers said to Blackwelder.)

A police report regarding the incident does not mention officers drawing their weapons or physically restraining Blackwelder. Rey Valdes, public information officer for Doral police, said the officer who filed the report said he did not see any officers draw their guns, but he was not the first officer to arrive to the scene.

Valdes guessed six or more officers responded, although he didn't know the exact number. He said they had been told there was a suspicious male who was acting erratically, refused to provide identification, refused to leave and had abandoned a backpack on campus. (The detail about the abandoned backpack is not in the police report, either.)

"When you weigh the totality of the circumstances, ... and what's happening in the United States nowadays with college security and campus security, it did warrant that amount of officers," Valdes said.

While stressing there was no record of Doral police drawing their guns, Valdes said: "I can't speak for the officers about what's going on in their minds. But drawing a gun on somebody is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on the circumstances. In this case, the officers were obviously alarmed."

Valdes said Blackwelder is welcome to submit a formal complaint to the police department, and it would be investigated by internal affairs.

The conflict followed at least one other in August of 2018 — SEIU alleges two incidents, but the college admits to only one of those — in which union organizers were asked to leave other campuses.

PERC held an evidentiary hearing by phone regarding SEIU's complaint on Jan. 10. The hearing officer must issue its determination by March 29 at the latest.

The union effort formally began last July, when the required 30 percent or more of eligible employees filed cards with PERC announcing their intention to unionize. After a campaign, adjunct faculty members are now voting by secret mail ballot.

The union and the college cite different numbers for how many adjunct professors are eligible to organize. The latest data from the federal government states there are more than 2,100 part-time faculty members at the college.

Miami Dade College adjuncts are paid $2,460 per three-credit course. Nationally and across public and private schools, adjunct professors earn an average of $3,000 per course, according to the TIAA Institute, a New York-based research organization focused on higher education finance.

Adjuncts who are promoting the union say they want higher wages, benefits like health insurance and more predictable schedules. They've also participated in a broader campaign for a $15 minimum wage for all campus employees and free tuition for their students.

Padrón sees the union push as coming from outside the school — not within.

"This is not an internal movement; don't let anybody fool you," said Padrón, who has announced plans to retire in August after 24 years as president. "This is an organization called SEIU, which is a well known, national union that is trying to add members to their roster and all of a sudden decided that adjuncts all over the country are a good source for them to recruit. … They picked Miami-Dade and other state colleges in Florida because of our size."

Schlaerth, the sociology adjunct, strongly denied the suggestion that this is more of a national effort than a local one.

"The idea that this is an externally driven movement is false," he said. "This is entirely an adjunct employee-driven union at Miami Dade College."

Schlaerth and some of his colleagues have complained that they don't know how many courses they'll be teaching from one semester to the next. He said he typically teaches between six and eight courses in the fall and spring semesters and three over the summer across the three colleges where he works.

He also complained that sometimes adjuncts are told just before a course is about to begin that it is being canceled or given to a full-time faculty member, and they don't get paid for the time they spent preparing.

A spokesman for the college said full-time faculty members are the first priority when distributing available classes, because they are contractually obligated to meet a minimum workload requirement.

Schlaerth said of the union effort: "It’s largely about respect for us adjuncts."

Christian Schlaerth, a sociology adjunct professor at Miami Dade College, is one of the leaders in the movement to unionize. He previously ran for a seat in the Florida Senate.
Credit Matias Ocner / Miami Herald

Schlaerth goes by "He-Man," and he appeared by that nickname on a 2017 ballot for a Florida Senate special election in which he took 2 percent of the vote. In that race, Democrat Annette Taddeo bested Republican Jose Felix Diaz, and Schlaerth ran without a party affiliation. During his campaign, he described himself to Miami Dade College's student newspaper as like "Bernie Sanders with muscles."

Schlaerth said he already voted to form a union as part of an ongoing mail ballot election that will culminate with a count on March 27. He posted a photo of his ballot on social media with the caption: "Tick tock motherf*ckers. Know your enemy."

SEIU and adjunct supporters have delivered items to food banks at the college which they say serve needy teachers as well as students. They recently criticized the administration for alerting adjuncts by email that they can sign up for state-sponsored health insurance for their children.

Shelley Dockery hopes a union could help her get health care. She is an adjunct professor teaching graphic design and a two-time cancer survivor who sometimes pays out of pocket for checkups. For the more than six years she has taught at Miami Dade College, she said she has bounced between uninsurance and Medicaid.

"Miami Dade College has a responsibility to be a leader in this movement," she said in July, "to step out in the forefront and say, 'We are going to respect those who educate our students.'"

Padrón argued unionizing will make things "much worse," not better, for adjuncts.

"If I am an adjunct faculty, I want to be able to relate to my chairperson and my department directly," he said. "I don't want to have to go through the union. … I feel the present system provides that opportunity for people."

Padrón noted that he began teaching at Miami Dade College as an adjunct professor.

"We respect the adjuncts. We value them," he said. "They're invaluable."

He added: "If the faculty votes to unionize, we will not only accept that, we will respect it."

UPDATE: This story was updated at 3:13 p.m. to include additional information from the Doral Police Department.