It was the opening plenary of Professional Development Week at the Community College of Philadelphia, when faculty and staff fill the Great Hall to hear their president impart his vision for the future of the college.

But that morning last month, CCP president Donald "Guy" Generals refused to begin.

"I will not be bullied," Generals told the crowd.

He was talking about the union members holding signs.

"CCP works because we do," one read. "There's an elephant in the room … where's our contract?" read another.

There was an elephant in the room: an English professor in a papier-mache elephant mask, its long, skinny trunk jutting out from her forehead.

The signs, held by 50 members of the Faculty and Staff Federation of the Community College of Philadelphia (FSFCCP), which represents nearly 1,500 faculty members, office managers, and other staff, were protesting the union's contract negotiations, which have been stuck in a stalemate for two years. Among the issues in contention: course load and health-care costs.

When the signs did not come down, Generals staged a protest of his own: He left the lectern and sat down.

About 15 awkward minutes went by, the only sounds being the hushed voices of audience members. Some left the room.

Eventually, after the signs were moved out of Generals' sight line, he got back on stage and finished his speech.

"I don't have a problem with freedom of speech," Generals said later in an interview about the brief standoff, "but we have to conduct the business of the college." The signs, he said, were disruptive.

Members of the Community College of Philadelphia’s faculty and staff union at a board meeting in January 2018.
Marc Meola
Members of the Community College of Philadelphia’s faculty and staff union at a board meeting in January 2018.

The last time the union hit the two-year contract negotiation mark, it was 2007 and its workers went on strike for two weeks.

But times have changed for organized labor, especially in the last year. See the likelihood of the Supreme Court's dealing a devastating blow to public-sector unions in an upcoming case and the National Labor Relations Board's swift rollback of an Obama-era worker protection.

"There's no question that these are challenging times" for organized labor, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. "This is not a time when you rely on the law."

One consequence of the "anti-union tenor" in today's political climate, says union treasurer and CCP biology professor John Braxton, is that the union is using its most powerful tool — a strike — more selectively.

Previously, said Braxton, who joined the union one year before its 1983 strike, if a union were to walk out, "there were a lot of people that said, 'I'm in sympathy with that.' "

"Now," he said, "it's just more work to win that sympathy."

That sympathy is crucial to the success of a strike, he said, as it shows the president and the board of trustees there's support for what the union is seeking. He pointed to the three-day Pennsylvania state university strike in the fall of 2016, during which students at West Chester University joined their professors on the picket line and those at other schools brought coffee and doughnuts to their striking teachers.

Braxton made it clear that a strike is not out of the question but that it's a risky move of last resort.

CCP union members staged a “grade-in” outside President Donald Generals’ office in 2017 to raise awareness about their contract dispute.
Marc Meola
CCP union members staged a “grade-in” outside President Donald Generals’ office in 2017 to raise awareness about their contract dispute.

So how does a union get what it wants without going on strike?

One tactic that has risen in popularity is to partner with community groups to elevate the union cause to a "common good," said William A. Herbert, a Hunter College expert in organized labor in higher education. He pointed to how the Chicago Teachers Union has seen success by aligning itself with student and parent groups.

CCP's union has taken some steps toward this, with a rally with students last year, and some, such as  English professor Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, attending board of trustees meetings to talk about how the contract dispute is a public education issue and how CCP has been left behind in Mayor Kenney's education push.

"CCP should have a high profile in the city," Johnson-Valenzuela said in an interview. "The college should be more respected."

Another strategy is to get a majority of members involved in the campaign as a way to send a message to the bosses that workers are united around a common goal.

One way CCP is trying to do that is with its "Unity Petition," signed by more than 700 union members and retirees so far, to show solidarity around what the union seeks. While a petition might sound meaningless in a time when Change.org and other online platforms have made it seem easy to gather a large base of signatures, a petition can be powerful in a dispute such as this if it's able to get an overwhelming number of members on board, said Dermot Delude-Dix, an organizer with the Philadelphia hospitality workers union Unite Here Local 274.

"Getting hundreds of people to do anything is going to take a certain level of structure," Delude-Dix said. "That's a statement in and of itself."

Especially if people are nervous about going on the record to speak out against management, which is a factor at CCP, said union co-president Steve Jones.

"A lot of our members, no matter how important they think the issues are, are a little bit hesitant to speak out forcefully," said Jones, who teaches English and English as a second language.

That's why, Jones said, the union developed other ways for members to speak out, such as the quiet demonstration at Professional Development Week, or the "grade-in" last semester, where about 30 union members occupied the hallway outside Generals' office.

The union also has instructed its members not to do work that isn't in their contract, a controversial move that resulted in both parties filing separate complaints to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. So far, the board has dismissed the complaints, and both have pending appeals.

These actions have not disrupted the college, according to Generals — "Business is moving along as usual," he said — who is experiencing his first contract negotiation since he started at CCP in 2014.

In the meantime, union leaders say morale among members is low, which Generals disputes, though Johnson-Valenzuela said people aren't quite angry enough to go on strike yet.

"But I believe we'd do it and that we're strong enough to," she said.