Union holds rally for embattled professor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Over 100 years ago, workers chose the first day of May to fight for an eight-hour day. This year we were reminded that sometimes we’re simply fighting for our right to work at all.

On May 1 of this year, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 177 hosted an evening of solidarity here to help gather support for an embattled professor who is charged with the crimes of celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., Day (he had Isaiah Rumlin, president of the local NAACP, speak at college festivities), and the most serious charge of helping to organize the other workers at his place of employment.

Professor Russell Pelle has been a long-time activist working on many causes. Teaching English as a Second Language at Florida Community College at Jacksonville for the last 15 years, Pelle has been denied tenure this whole time. College administrators are trying to claim that it was performance that has led to professor Pelle’s termination.

This claim is solidly refuted by all of his evaluations, where he has received nothing but the highest scores from the very people who are now trying to push him quietly out the door. Also, the people who have the most immediate experience of the professor’s teaching, his students, have begun a petition drive stating that Pelle is their best and most beloved teacher.

Earnie Hartless, president of International Association of Machinists Local 277, chaired the event. He told the gathering he believed “this man will be a legend some day.”

The spirited evening started with speakers from the professor’s own union, the American Federation of Teachers Local 2397. Former President Howard Denson and current President Gena Casas both gave beautiful opening introductory speeches. They informed the audience of Pelle’s dedication to his students, teaching and the work he did resulting in their recent victory in the union vote.

International students also spoke about Pelle. Farhood Aledany, a former political prisoner/torture victim and veteran of the insurrection against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, told the crowd that he has known injustice, and what has happened to Professor Pelle is injustice.

Andrew Vlcek, a student from the New Left, a progressive student group from the University of North Florida, expressed appreciation for Pelle, who has been providing assistance to the student group.

Eddie Dedmon, president of the North Florida Central Labor Council, gave a rousing speech. He said he was “pissed off” about the way a dedicated teacher like Pelle was being treated by the college administration.

Former Florida State Rep. and current Senate candidate Tony Hill was very charismatic as he reminded us, “If they can stifle our professors, heaven knows what they can do to you and I.”

Professor Pelle said that the college assumed that he was isolated due to his political views. But with all the people in attendance, and people speaking out on his behalf, he said, “I don’t feel isolated tonight.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org