For nearly three years, the tenacious Jan Cornell has been the backbone of the Staff Union at UVA (SUUVA). Taking on the region’s largest employer as the only full-time member of SUUVA is taking its toll on her, though. As alarmed workers look to Cornell to explain the school’s quest for charter status, will she have what it takes to lead SUUVA through the union’s most important chapter to date?
WE THE WILLING
Even her typing sounds militant.
It’s 10am on a recent Monday morning, and Jan Cornell is firing off an e-mail toa SUUVA member in UVA’s Facilities Management department. At noon, UVA Vice President Leonard Sandridge would appear in the FM lunchroom, speaking and taking questions on UVA’s quest for financial freedom from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“I wanted our guy in Facilities to be there,” Cornell says. “I’ve already been to two of these forums. If I keep asking the questions, they say ‘Oh, that’s just Jan.’ We need to get new faces out there.”
So Cornell typed furiously, the click of her keystrokes echoing through the hallway and empty rooms of SUUVA’s office at 327 W. Main St., where it’s just her and a roomful of a brightly colored picket signs, with their frozen outrage, from past protests: United we stand, divided we beg. There is no context for the “N” word.
Taped to the cream-colored metal filing cabinet adjacent to her desk, Cornell keeps a sheet of paper tacked up, the unofficial union mantra: We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful.
“The willing is the union. The ungrateful are the workers. The unknowing is UVA,” she says. “The impossible is trying to start a union at UVA. Everyone has told me I’ve taken on an impossible task.”
Yet Cornell seems to thrive under the weight of impossibility. She’s channeling that feeling right now, it seems, as she writes to SUUVA’s guy in Facilities. She wants him to press Sandridge on how charter status would affect UVA’s 17,000 workers and their families.
So she shoots off the bullet points. “Benefits is the big thing,” she says. “Our big emphasis is that the new employees aren’t going to have much. We’re afraid they’re going to bring in the same personnel policies as the Medical Center… they have terrible personnel policies.”
Then the sound of her keystrokes thunders through the empty office, down the stairwell, the question resonating: What does it mean for the workers?
Despite Cornell’s attempts to transmit her passion via e-mail, it would turn out the guy in Facilities never made it to the meeting. He went to the gym instead.
“I was furious,” Cornell says later. “That’s the most frustrating thing with this job. I can’t be everywhere and do everything.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m the Lone Ranger here.”
SUUVA marks the evolution of labor activism that began at UVA in the late 1990s. A group of faculty, students and a few workers formed the Labor Action Group and demanded the school raise its lowest hourly wage to $8 from $6.50. Administrators, their arms twisted by noisy protests and bad press, complied.
Susan Fraiman, a UVA English professor and founding member of LAG, says Cornell was one of the first and most staunch staff members to get involved with the Labor Action Group. “The climate was so intimidating that there were a very few staff workers involved. She was one of the early brave ones to break the silence.
“Now, she can speak out with a little bit more impunity,” says Fraiman.
Members of LAG formed SUUVA in late 2001 to protest firings of innocent workers after a series of patient rapes were linked to a Medical Center employee. In May 2002, Cornell quit her job as an editor at UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and went to work as a full-time organizer for the Communication Workers of America, the powerful national union that backs SUUVA.
“It was a tremendous show of courage and dedication to the cause, if you will,” says Richard Verlander, a CWA organizer and Cornell’s boss. “Jan has been thrust into a role where she’s an outspoken advocate for workers, being in the media all the time, going up against very powerful people.
“Now that she’s got a couple years experience, she’s a much more confident leader.”
Cornell is UVA’s chief watchdog—a job she says she was born to do, ever since she learned about unions from her grandfather in Ohio. When employees want to do something about potential fire hazards or racial epithets, they talk to Cornell. If she can’t fix the problem with an e-mail or a phone call, then she’ll pass out the picket signs and make her case with a bullhorn.
“I’ve always stood up for the worker,” says Cornell. “I hate people who beat up on people who can’t fight back. I hate that. I hate the big company that can beat up on the worker who needs their job.”
SUUVA showed that a lot can be accomplished by a small group with a cause and some picket signs. Charter, however, is a different kind of fight for Cornell and the union.
For the past year, three of the Commonwealth’s flagship schools—UVA, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and The College of William and Mary—have pushed the State to grant them charter status. This year, the State underfunded the schools by a combined $89 million; UVA’s allotment of $365 million was $39.3 million short.
In drawing up their own charters, the schools would set their own terms with the State. UVA would likely request less money from Richmond, and in exchange the General Assembly would grant the Board of Visitors (basically the school’s board of directors) the power to raise tuition and float bonds.
Legislators must give UVA permission to draw up a charter. “Everybody I’ve talked to has liked the concept,” says State Representative Mitch Van Yahres (D-Charlottesville). “But the old story, you know… the devil is in the details.”
Van Yahres sits on a legislative committee to consider the charter question. He hasn’t seen any specific proposals from UVA, though.
SUUVA opposes charter, citing a comment by UVA President John Casteen that UVA under charter would be comparable to the Medical Center under codified autonomy. Given that several of SUUVA’s picket lines formed on the brick sidewalks outside the hospital, this was not a popular analogy among union members.
With about 300 members, SUUVA represents a small percentage of UVA’s 17,000 employees. Many workers worry about charter’s potential impacts, judging by the overflow attendance and pointed questions at recent forums. UVA’s own communications department has plugged the forums and posted charter news on nearly every flat surface around campus, yet administrators have released no details about exactly what would happen under charter.
“It’s not reassuring to people. If it was all on the up and up, they would have brought it out,” Cornell says.
Even though her guy in Facilities didn’t show up to question Sandridge, Cornell would be glad to know that the vice prez still heard plenty of tough questions after his talk in the Facilities Management Lunchroom.
On Monday, October 18, the tables in FM’s lunchroom were pulled out into the parking lot. Inside, workers packed into rows of chairs set up facing a podium, where Sandridge stood, speaking into a microphone that broadcast his voice to the back of the lunchroom and outside, into the parking lot. People sat at the tables, eating lunch and listening to speakers mounted on tall tripods.
Sandridge talked for about 30 minutes. He explained how the Commonwealth had been shirking its fiduciary duty to higher education. He said “frankly” and “candidly” a lot, but the words that followed could never exactly answer people’s main question.
People approached microphones in the lunchroom or outside. Most people wanted some clarification about how UVA’s charter would affect them.
Since UVA has announced very few details about what a charter might actually mean, Sandridge is left to say, “Until there’s a change, things will stay the way they are. Am I saying trust us a little bit? Well, yes I am. Does that sell? No, it doesn’t.”
Indeed. These answers didn’t seem to sit well with many employees. Brad Sayler, a computer technician for the Civil Engineering department, told Sandridge: “It’s the wolves watching the sheep here. Are we still going to be able to see what the fat cats are making around here?”
Sayler wanted Sandridge to guarantee workers would have a voice in their affairs under charter. Sandridge replied that it would not be in the administration’s best interest to irritate its workers.
Sayler says via e-mail he had heard of SUUVA, but feels they have little power because they can’t strike or collectively bargain. “I do think that through editorials in the local media, they have had an effect on the debate by helping to make the general public aware of the issues concerning UVA’s move to Charter status,” he says.
Indeed, the newspaper is where Lou Persinger gets most of his information about charter. During the Facilities Management lunch meeting with Sandridge, he stood up from his bowl of cheeseburger macaroni to ask whether UVA would permit unions under charter.
Persinger, an electrician, says working at UVA is “one of the better jobs I’ve had.” It’s less challenging than work at Dominion’s Bremo power station, but with better benefits and security than the private sector usually offers. He heard about charter from UVA, he says, but “the real eye-opener was public newspapers.
“As an electrician, there’s plenty of work out there,” says Persinger. “Smaller contractors don’t provide holidays and health care.” At UVA, he says, “you schedule when you want to be off, and you’re off,” which means he can coach tee-ball, as he’s done for his 6-year-old during the past two seasons.
“If I was working for a smaller contracting company, the boss could say, ‘Guess what buddy, I need you here.’”
Persinger doesn’t favor unions. He joined one at Bremo, because all his co-workers were members, but when layoffs came he got hit because he had only worked there for two years, and lacked seniority. “It didn’t matter if I was the good or the best, I was the junior guy so I got cut.
“I don’t think we need a union,” he says. “There’s some places where you need a union, at the slave shops, but this is no slave shop.”
Persinger is cautiously optimistic that charter might help, or at least not hurt, his situation. Others aren’t so sure.
Diane Rush is a cook at UVA and a member of the Employee Council—a group of employees from various departments that meets with administrators to discuss employee policies. During Sandridge’s speech, she sat three rows back from the podium, arms folded across her blue uniform, her eyes fixed on Sandridge and her face set in a skeptical glower.
After the meeting, she walks with two coworkers. None feel particularly reassured by Sandridge’s remarks.
“They just won’t tell us anything,” Rush says.
The CWA’s Verlander says Cornell sometimes feels that if charter goes through, it will be a defeat for SUUVA. Verlander, though, says employees are watching the administration closely and speaking up for themselves—and that’s good for the union.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they wouldn’t be holding all these town hall meetings if Jan hadn’t made such an outcry,” he says. “Now there’s lots of questions being asked. I view that as a victory.”
THEY CALL ME A MADWOMAN
When I called Carol Wood and asked her about SUUVA’s effect on the charter debate, the first answer I got was uncomfortable silence.
“I haven’t seen where that’s had an influence,” says Wood, who directs public communications for UVA and who then proceeds to list various ways UVA’s communications office has reached out to employees—flyers, e-mails, ads in The Cavalier Daily and notices in University-published paper InsideUVA, plus audio and video from charter briefings posted on the school’s charter website (www.virginia.edu/chartereduniversities/), which also allows employees to make anonymous comments.
UVA would have done all this anyway, regardless of SUUVA, says Wood.
“The only impact I have witnessed,” Wood wrote later in an e-mail, “is that during some of the briefings several questioners identified themselves as being aligned with SUUVA and their questions were peppered with statements based on misinformation.”
Perhaps Wood was referring to a meeting on Tuesday, October 19, when SUUVA member Dena Bowers stood up to question Sandridge during a forum at Jordan Hall in the Medical Center.
Drawing on Casteen’s statement that the Medical Center’s 1996 switch to “codified autonomy” represented the best model of what charter status would look like at the rest of UVA, Bowers suggested that some employees would be hurt if UVA’s benefits package matched that of the Medical Center.
“I think you are potentially confusing people here,” said Sandridge. “I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment of what we’re doing.”
Bowers said later that she was trying to make a point. “Because they haven’t told us anything else, all we had to go by was codified autonomy. That’s what I’m doing when I make these comparisons.”
SUUVA’s members don’t speak to UVA through the so-called proper channels—they confront, argue and shout through bullhorns instead of asking polite questions or sending anonymous e-mails—so the school’s administration has tended to dismiss the union as a band of misfits.
“I’ve not heard any mention of [SUUVA] in the charter process,” says William Crutchfield, a member of UVA’s Board of Visitors. “My understanding is that they represent a very small number of people.”
What derision UVA bestows on SUUVA, Jan Cornell wears like a badge. While they may not talk about SUUVA publicly, Cornell says she hears about insults administrators hurl in private meetings. “I heard one of them called me a madwoman,” Cornell says. “I said, ‘That’s good!’”
Cornell’s fellow union members have different ways to describe her leadership.
“She’s tough, she fearless,” says Sue Herndon, one of the original members of SUUVA. “It’s such an intense emotional commitment for her, it’s part of her whole makeup.”
Herndon says she was among the people telling Cornell that they might as well accept charter, because it’s going to happen no matter what. “She said ‘no,’” says Herndon. “She won’t let it die. It’s so intense for her.”
Her intensity, Cornell says, comes from her life experience.
Born in Minneapolis in 1950 and raised in Ohio by what she calls “straight Republican” parents, Cornell learned about unions from her grandfather, a carpenter.
“I learned that I wanted to go be a union organizer,” she says. “And I learned that a lot of people don’t like unions.”
After switching her major from language to business and graduating from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Cornell married at 23, had a child and lived all over the United States. She divorced a year later and went to Phoenix, Arizona, where her parents had retired. Her hard edge, her particular brand of class anger, she says, comes from life experience.
“I know what it’s like to be abandoned by a husband, to work for $3.25 an hour with a 1-year-old and no child support,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be on welfare.”
Cornell remarried, and her job transferred her from Phoenix to northern Virginia in 1980. The “rat race,” she says, got to her, so she and her husband moved to Fluvanna County. She worked odd jobs before taking a job as a secretary at UVA in 1989.
She worked her way up, eventually becoming editor for all her department’s publications and earning the nickname “eagle eye” around the office. At the same time, she joined UVA’s Employee Council, which she now calls “ineffective” because she says administrators don’t really take employee viewpoints into consideration.
“I worked there for 12 years,” she says of her time at UVA. “I was happy there. I had a great job. I never had a problem working for UVA.”
Cornell was working as an editor for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies when SUUVA had one of its first rallies. Cornell’s picture landed on the front page of the next day’s Daily Progress.
“I thought, ‘The shit’s going to hit the fan now,’” Cornell says. Her supervisor, Sandra Stallard, called Cornell into her office for a meeting with her and two associate deans, Cornell says.
Stallard, she continues, was “nice.”
“She said, ‘You can’t worry about what anybody thinks,’” says Cornell. “I always knew I wasn’t going to get in trouble. Without her support, I couldn’t have done the things I’ve accomplished. I hated leaving there.”
NOT A DONE DEAL
There’s no doubt, says SUUVA vice president Elizabeth Coles, that the union is having an effect on working conditions.
Coles, a Medical Center employee, joined SUUVA after an incident in her office in which Coles says she was unfairly punished. With SUUVA’s help, Coles filed a grievance and won her case.
The power of Cornell’s voice was evident recently, says Coles, in a situation that occurred in a hospital room where old mammography films are stored. A worker there had been complaining for months to her supervisor about conditions in the storage room—mildew growing on the rafters, film stored on the floor or piled so high that it touched the lights, broken ladders. Coles said she made a list and e-mailed it to Cornell, who forwarded the list to a Medical Center supervisor.
“I was very polite,” says Cornell. “I just said these things should be fixed, and if not I could call the OSHA.”
Two days later, Coles says “they had people with suits and ties on down there. Everything is corrected now.”
Coles says she recently sent Cornell an e-mail, thanking her for her work.
“I wanted her to know that if it wasn’t for her being so persistent, sending out e-mails and keeping us on top of everything, we would be so much in the dark,” says Coles. “Jan does feel overwhelmed sometimes. She feels like she’s going up against a wall. We try to assure her and support her.”
It will take more than e-mails to derail charter, but last week Cornell did hear what she considered to be good news from the governor.
On Tuesday, October 26, the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried the news that charter status won’t be as easy to attain as it once might have seemed.
In a meeting with about 75 leaders of Virginia colleges, the first of six planned forums on the charter proposal, Governor Mark Warner expressed reservations about the plan. According to the report, Warner seemed especially concerned that smaller colleges would suffer if the Commonwealth’s three flagship universities pulled away from the State.
Reached by C-VILLE Weekly, Warner flak Ellen Qualls said the governor has “tossed out how it will impact the state work force,” mostly from the point of view of smaller colleges. Schools like VCU and Longwood University say that without the lobbying muscle of the three flagship schools, higher education will continue to get less funding from the State.
Warner also advocated a new research university in economically depressed southern Virginia, and he seemed concerned that charter might hurt that plan. “We just wanted to slow the conversation down a bit, and make sure all these voices get heard,” says Qualls.
Cornell, who met with Warner last spring to express her concerns about how charter might affect employees, says Warner is “the only one who has said one word about employees” in the charter debate.
“Why weren’t the employees at the meeting?” Cornell wonders. “Why are employees so insignificant? Everyone is sloughing them off, saying, ‘Oh, don’t worry about them.’ Well, somebody’s got to worry about them.”
LOOK FOR THE UNION LABEL
Fast facts about the Staff Union at UVA
Membership: About 300 staff andclassified employees
Affiliation: SUUVA and the Graduate Labor Union (for UVA grad students)affiliated with Communication Workers of America in January 2002.
Dues: $10.70/month for full-time employees, $5.35/month for part-time employees
Meetings: Every other Tuesday
Fringe benefits: According to the www.suuva.org, card-carrying union members enjoy, among other benefits, extended happy hours at Baja Bean and four-cent copies at ALC.
What does “right to work” mean? Virginia is a “right to work” state,meaning that unions cannot forceworkers to join.—JB