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UC-AFT Member Spotlight--Ben Harder: Writing Lecturer and Unit 18 Chief Negotiator

BenHarder.JPGOne of the first things Ben Harder did upon joining UC-AFT was support his fellow lecturers on the picket line as a strike captain during our 2003 strike.  Ben went on to serve in several local and statewide elected positions and now he’s been appointed as the Unit 18 Chief Negotiator.  Starting union work with a strike may be an uncommon experience within UC-AFT, but Ben Harder is an uncommon individual.  Patient, detail oriented, smart and funny, Ben has the traits of a great negotiator. 

Insider:  How and why did you first get involved with UC-AFT? 

B.H.: In 2002 and 2003, I was a fairly new lecturer in an activist department. At that time, we were in the middle of very difficult contract negotiations, which ultimately got lecturers the possibility of continuing appointments. I was involved in protests and the two-day strike we had, and then started attending state-wide council meetings.

Insider:  What roles and positions have you held within our organization?

B.H.: In order, I’ve been a strike captain, local president, bargaining team member, state Vice President for Legislation, local grievance steward, and now Chief Negotiator for the upcoming successor negotiations.  

Insider:  You've been on the bargaining team in the past, can you describe what that experience is like?

B.H.: Wow. Well, bargaining can be like a thirty-four-hour department meeting, in which everyone tries to talk at once, and the Chair loses control, and people leave in a huff over disagreements of principle that make absolutely no difference in practice. 

On the other hand, bargaining is like buying a used car, during which the sales person always has to take the deal back to “the manager,” whom you never get to meet, for approval. The UC isn’t fully hierarchical, and it is unclear who actually makes decisions. Certainly their bargaining team does not have full authority. 

The process is occasionally so bad that I feel somehow involved in a Turing test, trying to decide whether our counter-party is a human person, a group of human people, a corporate person, a collection of corporate persons, or badly programmed artificial intelligence(s). 

And yet, we make progress. 

Insider:  This will be your first contract as chief negotiator, what do you hope to accomplish in terms of the bargaining process, and also outcomes?

B.H.: We have established some clear goals. First, although Lecturers have an opportunity to achieve a continuing appointment in theory, this has sometimes be denied in practice, through chance or confusion, but also through malevolence on the part of various actors in the University. We need to improve the contract language about the pathways to a continuing appointment in the UC and demand universal compliance to our contract language, so Lecturers don’t get churned out of their departments.

Also, many people don’t know that up to half of Lecturers don’t get any benefits, including Social Security. This is astonishing. Really, UC instructors should be covered by SSI. 

In terms of process, the team hopes to participate in a more formal, structured negotiation with the University, and improve our communication with our members during the negotiations. Successor negotiations are so sweeping and intricate that the parties really cannot just approach them in an ad-hoc manner. We also need two-way communication with Lecturers, first to create a democratic--in the broadest sense of the term--approach to giving power to Lecturers, and then to create the organizational strength necessary to get the University’s attention if negotiations appear to stall. 

Insider: UC-AFT is beginning to circulate a bargaining survey for all members of Unit 18.  Can you say something about how important member input on the survey will be to the bargaining team? 

B.H.: Yes, we are sending out a survey about the upcoming bargaining, and we hope everyone will respond. We are starting with priorities identified by the grievance stewards and staff, and we're asking members to respond to them. We also hope to hear directly from members about their priorities. I cannot stress how important it is that we get the thoughts of the people we are representing at the bargaining table. Without that, the bargaining team is just five individuals guessing at what the group wants. 
Oh, and on the survey is my email address: blharder@ucaft.org. People can email me, talk with their local campus leaders, or contact their local campus representatives. All of these avenues will get information to the team.  We’ll also be spreading the word about bargaining with email updates, blog posts, possible future surveys, and if I can get hip enough, Twitter.

Insider:  You teach in the University Writing Program at Riverside.  The workload language in the Unit 18 MOU has improved workload in your program.  Does that inspire you and give you hope for the possibility of further improvements in our contract? 

B.H.: Of course it does. For example, we are looking at moving class sizes back down to reasonable levels. After the crash, we suddenly had people teaching hundreds more students in each course. Also, we have to deal with the workload creep brought about by increased telecommunication possibilities. Just 30 years ago, instructors were forgiven for not reading their mail on Sundays. Now, we face a population of students and supervisors who seem to believe that we should become 24-hour customer service representatives. That just isn’t sustainable.  

Insider:  What do you love about teaching writing, and what do you find most challenging about it?

B.H.: I love teaching writing because good writing cannot be taught. It is most challenging because good writing cannot be taught. I love helping students learn to write well in their own voices. That is a task that’s both coldly pragmatic and ultimately luxurious. Few things harm one’s academic and professional progress like poor writing, and few things are as universally unacknowledged as excellent writing.  

Insider:  What do you love about teaching at UCR?

B.H.: I enjoy the intellectual riguer and rising reputation, but I love the student demography, with its diversity and high percentage of first-generation scholars. I’m strange for my home town because I am a third-generation college graduate. My grandfather graduated from the University of Minnesota back in the 1920s, and both of my parents have four-year degrees. On the other hand, when my mother and father first went back to Minnesota to start farming with my grandfather, the three of them were the only college graduates in our church. I don’t know the college attendance rate in rural Minnesota now, but before 1970 or so, it would have been very low. About half of both sides of my extended family have enjoyed higher education, so I can see the struggles and rewards for first-generation college students, and I can also see the cultural changes that must be endured by those who leave their communities for the academy. I’m interested in students who attend college because “everyone does,” more interested in those who attend because of their drive for economic advancement, and most interested in those who, in spite of the expectations of their family or community, are scholars.