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Embattled Collin College Professors Gain Support of 'Powerful' Labor Leaders

Collin College has found itself embroiled in many controversies over the past few months.EXPAND
Collin College has found itself embroiled in many controversies over the past few months.
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Suzanne Jones never "in a million years" would have imagined she’d be a key player in a widely publicized labor struggle. Then again, it’s been a crazy couple of months for her and other Collin College professors.

The school let go Jones, an education professor, suddenly in January. She's one of four female educators whose contracts the school terminated this semester. Along with advocating for faculty input in the college’s COVID-19 plans, Jones had helped create a local chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a non-collective bargaining union. The college indicated both were reasons for her nonrenewal. 

So two weeks ago, Jones asked labor leaders for assistance: Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and the pro-union political figure Mike Siegel. On Saturday, the two will be touching down in Collin County to speak at an event in solidarity with the professors.

Jones is grateful for the support.

“I just have to take a step back and just watch it,” she said. “It’s crazy that someone would step in and do all this work for us on a moment’s notice.”

Called “the most powerful flight attendant in America” by The New York Times, Nelson emerged as a key labor figure in 2019 when she organized for a general strike. Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders credited her with ending the 35-day government shutdown that year.

During Siegel’s 2018 and 2020 runs for Texas’ 10th Congressional District, he earned widespread support from organized labor. He now helps lead Register2Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit geared toward helping Americans register to vote.

Siegel wanted to help the professors because their struggles touch on many issues: free speech, public health and the right to organize a union. The way he sees it, this is a case of a “Trump-style college president” who has abused his position of trust to fire four women without due process, in violation of their civil rights.

“Even though Collin County has not always been a hotbed of union activity, I’m excited to say that this Saturday will be,” Siegel said.

Brian Golden, president of the Tarrant County Central Labor Council, will also attend.

Unions are the last chance the American people have against the power of incorporated wealth, Golden said. Labor leaders advocate for democracy in the workplace, which is something that is desperately needed in higher education.

“If you can’t have free speech in academia, there’s nowhere else you’re going to have it,” he said. “That’s why we’re on board.”

Another outgoing professor, Lora Burnett, announced on Twitter that the president of AFL-CIO and the international vice president of the Teamsters are joining the effort.

After the event, Siegel and crew plan to block walk to educate voters about the Collin College board of trustees candidates “way down” on the ballot. Three incumbents will face off with challengers Jacoby Stewart, Misty Irby and Helen Chang during the May 1 election.

Another TFA officer whose contract wasn't renewed, humanities professor Audra Heaslip, said she hopes the broader national labor movement will take root in Collin County.

For a while, Heaslip hadn’t realized she’d begun to succumb to the feeling she’s in a losing battle. But, she said, it’s one worth fighting.

Now, with support from national labor figures, Heaslip feels like things could actually change for the better.

“It’s turning into this big movement,” she said. “I don’t think that Collin County has seen anything like this in a long time.”

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