David Bacon Stories & Photographs

By David Bacon
CFT Perspectives, 2/09

For Phyllis Eckler, a dance instructor at two community college campuses in Southern California, it’s self-evident that the problems of part-time adjunct faculty affect not only teachers themselves, but the very quality of education available to students. At Los Angeles City College, where she’s taught since the 1990s, the district doesn’t offer dance courses that lead to performances on the campus, and hasn’t implemented courses with a performance path for students who want to become career dancers.

“I’ve written the curriculum for three courses, and urged the district to adopt them,” Eckler explains. “My supervisor has gone to bat for me. But each time we get close to adoption, the college says they can’t pay me for the work I’ve put in. And I will not work for free.”

As a result, LA City College doesn’t offer an AA degree in dance. “It’s frustrating, because as an adjunct it means I’m not able to participate fully in curriculum development,” she says.

At Los Angeles, she teaches 10 hours a week of actual class time. That barely qualifies her for the district’s portion of the payment for health care benefits that it offers to adjunct faculty -- $2160 per year. But the actual yearly cost of the premiums is $14,097, or $1177 a month. That’s full third of Eckler’s salary. For full time, tenured teachers at LA City College, the district pays the whole premium.

The disparity in the treatment of part time, adjunct faculty inspired Eckler to become the second vice-president of the Glendale College Guild, AFT Local 2276, at the other campus where she teaches, Glendale Community College. There she was mentored by CFT stalwart Mona Fields not long after she came to work in 1988. “She encouraged me to sit in on meetings discussing part time issues,” the dance teacher remembers. “Then the previous occupant of that position had to step down. They asked me to run in a special election to fill the job. I was very interested, because it was a position specifically created by the local union for part time faculty. And that gave me my start with the union.”

Eckler grew up in Toronto, Canada, which she says gave her much higher expectations about labor rights and social progress. “Canada has always had be best conditions for adjuncts,” she explains. “People there have a socialist, humanitarian outlook, supporting living wages and full social benefits for everyone.” She attended York University, studying dance, and after graduation got an offer to join the Bat-Dar Dance Company. With Bat-Dar she toured Israel for a year. “It was a world-class company, with an international repertoire, and it was an honor for me to dance with them so early in my life.”

After the year ended, she went back to graduate school, this time in Southern California, where she got her MFA at Cal Arts. Afterwards, she had to decide whether to pursue a career as a performer. “I wanted a family, and that’s very hard if you’re always touring on the road,” she recalls. “And I always loved teaching. I tutored kids in high school, and taught throughout my college career. So it was a natural.”

For a dance instructor, however, finding a full time, tenured position is extremely difficult. First she got a job in Glendale, and then another in Los Angeles, living the life of the freeway flyer. Between the two campuses she teaches 16 class hours a week, almost a full time load of 18 hours. “But it often feels like we’re marginalized, not on campus to develop curriculum or participate in many ways that would be possible with a full time permanent position. Plus, you get hired every semester, which gives you a great feeling of insecurity. In my case, I have to work very hard to make my classes a success, and fill each one.”

Eckler’s union involvement has given her the feeling that change is possible, however. Today she sits on the part time committee of the California Federation of Teachers, and is an active member of the part time issues committee of the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, AFT Local 1521.

“Our whole part time committee used to be part of the Community College Council, where it didn’t have as much impact,” she says. “But a few years ago it became a committee of the California Federation of Teachers itself. That meant we could introduce resolutions directly to the convention, instead of sending them through the CCC. The resolution to change the part time percentage from 60% to 67% was one of our first. After it passed the convention, our legislative representatives took it up in Sacramento, and it was passed. I felt the union was really there for us.”

She also notes the union’s role in winning the improvements embodied in AB 420, and says some of her first activity at Glendale was to implement them on a local level. “First we got office hours, and then medical benefits. Winning parity was easy since the money was coming from the state,” she recalls.

At Glendale, Eckler’s courses produce dancers who often go on to four-year institutions, particularly UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. Some become performers themselves in the highly commercialized environment of Southern California. One group of her alumni, the Fanatix, has performed all over Los Angeles. At Los Angeles City College, without a career path for her students, she focuses on the role of dance in increasing their self-esteem and health.

“I think moving is an important part of being healthy,” she emphasizes. “People don’t realize the need to integrate the arts in education, and the support and money for it is decreasing. But arts education makes us out-of-the-box thinkers, which is one of the strengths of this country. We introduce new ideas to the world, and if we lose our creativity, we lose a very important part of ourselves.”

Eckler’s creativity is the wellspring of her passion for dance, for her students, for her union – her passion for justice.

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