Professor, union organizer, fired by Florida Community College at Jacksonville
After 15 years as a Professor of English as a Second Language at Florida Community College at Jacksonville (FCCJ), community activist Russell Pelle has been told he will not be offered another teaching contract. The issues of free speech and the right to organize a union are front and center in the college's actions.
According to Pelle the firing is not due to his performance on the job, "I would never claim 'perfection' on the job, but I have been 'satisfactory' for 15 years," but rather, the real reason is political. Pelle has been actively involved in efforts to organize, and achieve recognition for, a union of teachers there, American Federation of Teachers Local 2397. The vote on union recognition is expected in April.
In the incident that led to his dismissal, Pelle was Chair of the FCCJ Downtown Campus Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration Committee. "I invited Jacksonville NAACP President Isaiah Rumlin to be our featured speaker, never suspecting that this would be a problem" he recalled.
Pelle said a higher-up at the school told him to tell Mr. Rumlin that when he speaks at FCCJ for the event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he must not say anything "too political or too controversial."
"I told the person who instructed me to deliver the message that I strongly disagreed with the message, asked that they deliver the message themselves, and stated that I did not want to be associated with the message. I am not that kind of a white person."
Pelle said that he felt trapped. He applied for tenure in June 1998 and has been fighting for it for four years. "I believed that the order for me to deliver the message emanated not from the person who imposed upon me to do so, but from the highest levels of the FCCJ administration. I believed that if I refused to deliver the message, I would be fired for 'insubordination,' but if I did deliver the message, under protest, I would, as a matter of principle, have to include my comments clearly disassociating myself from the message, and thus that I would be fired anyway. It was a lose-lose situation for me."
"When I delivered the message, by email, I clearly disassociated myself from the contents, and stated that I had argued against sending the message, and was embarrassed to have to relay the message."
Pelle says that Mr. Rumlin understood that Pelle was not at fault, but also wanted to make sure the school could not get away with this sort of violation of free speech. So Rumlin suggested a press conference to expose the school. Pelle recalls, "Out of concern for me being fired, Brother Rumlin agreed not to call a press conference until after I could arrange for him to speak with FCCJ administration. Even though I saved FCCJ from a very embarrassing press conference (out of fear of being fired because my wife is pregnant and my son is sick), FCCJ administration 'stabbed me in the back' by firing me anyway."
Since Pelle does not yet have tenure, and since his union is just now seeking recognition to collectively bargain to represent FCCJ faculty, the union can do little to defend him.
An active trade unionist, Pelle has been his union's delegate to the North Florida Central Labor Council for several years.
He said he suspects that the FCCJ administration hopes that some faculty will be intimidated by his firing and not vote for union recognition. Perhaps the opposite will be the case, though. "Now I am 'free' to openly advocate for the union-and defend the honor of Dr. King. What are they going to do? Fire me?"
His students are shocked at his firing, and have expressed their support, and Pelle has received support from his colleagues as well as trade unionists around the city.
The firing takes place in the midst of massive attacks on free speech and the freezing out of dissent. And in Florida, those who continue to question the legitimacy of the elections, whether they be NAACP leaders, or members of the faculty of Florida's public schools, have come in for scrutiny and punishment under the Jeb Bush administration. Many charge that Bush's attacks on public employees through "Service First" were direct retaliation for the protests by unions against his anti-Affirmative action plans and against the race-based rigging of the 2000 elections.
Pelle was one of those who worked to get support for and attended the March 2000 'March On Tallahassee' to protest Jeb Bush's anti-Affirmative Action 'One Florida ' plan) although he says he was "directly blocked by the FCCJ administration from building support for the march on campus." Pelle has been active in civil and human rights issues since highschool. He has also become involved in human rights issues of concern to his students, who are mostly refugees.
Pelle concludes, "In fighting for my job, I feel I am not only fighting for myself. Our democracy and rights are under attack by an illegitimate 'resident' of the White House who, in spite of losing the popular vote, was 'elected'by the votes of 5 Republicans on the US Supreme Court. The Jeb Bush administration - well, I need not say more, except that they also want to purge our educational system of persons who think."
Russell Pelle will speak about his firing and the situation at FCCJ, as well as free speech issues after the 9-11 tragedy, on Monday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. at the Civic Media Center in Gainesville. For more information call the Civic Media Center. If you wish to contact Pelle, email him at email@example.com
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