In May 2002, Jan Cornell quit her job as an editor at UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies to become a full-time union organizer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA). She later became the president of the Staff Union at UVA (SUUVA).
But as of January 1, Cornell will be unemployed. CWA has cut SUUVA’s funding for failing to add new members.
“This was the one shot we had,” says Cornell. “As far as me, I am really in trouble—no jobs around here and in the middle of this huge economic crisis. This is positively the worst time CWA could have picked to do this.”
After a six-year run as president of the Staff Union at UVA, Jan Cornell is looking for a job after the parent organization pulled funding due to lack of members.
SUUVA has approximately 250 current members. CWA wanted it to have at least 1,000. UVA has roughly 17,000 full-time and part-time employees and faculty members. Unionizing was made more difficult because Virginia is a “right to work “state that outlaws collective bargaining.
SUUVA members can still choose to belong to a union. CWA is offering a merger with a local Verizon union in Richmond.
“I am calling the members right now to find out what they want to do,” says Cornell. “The overwhelming vote so far has been to just dissolve, because people don’t really want to be part of the union that’s 70 miles away.”
Cornell also questions whether a telephone union worker can represent a UVA employee. “They don’t know our issues, but CWA is offering that and they just didn’t kick the membership to the curb.”
Richard Verlander, district organizer for CWA and Cornell’s boss, says that the staff union at the University was an organizing project, rather than a full-blown union, with the goal of building a structure for workers, getting it started and becoming, eventually, self-sufficient. “In order for that to happen, there really has to be a sense of ownership and commitment on the ground, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen,” he says. Verlander says Cornell has done all she could to gather memberships and interest, but it just wasn’t enough.
However, a former union member, who requested anonymity out of concern for future organizing efforts, says Cornell’s leadership is to blame. “Jan failed the organizing project,” the member says. “She made a good try at it and it failed. She needs to step aside. Unfortunately labor is a lot like politics, not a pretty, pleasant thing to do.”
In her defense, Cornell insists that she was elected as president. “I would think that if my leadership ability was so poor, I would be un-elected from that job by the membership,” she says. Verlander says Cornell has worked really hard to get the project to become a reality. “Jan has done a tremendous job, and she hasn’t had the help she needed,” he says, acknowledging that only a few people stood by and helped raise awareness.
Cornell’s rapport with the University was also questioned. “What we need here is a better voice, and a voice that’s bitter is the wrong voice,” says the member. The most recent spat between the union president and UVA has been over the Human Resources’ Restructuring system.
Cornell believes her relationship with UVA officials is healthy and productive. “Everybody can say what they want, and we can play the blame game all day,” she says. “This is a sad, sad thing for employees because they don’t have anyone really to represent them.”
The member agrees. “UVA has become so corporate, it’s like working for a big corporation and we need the protection of a labor union here.”
Will Cornell be involved in any future effort? No. “I really have to worry about myself, getting a new job, keeping my house, my car, my everything,” she says. “I really think I put my all into this.”