Jan Cornell: The woman UVA can't ignore

Remember the protest a couple of months ago over the use of the N-word by a UVA supervisor? That was the work of Jan Cornell.

Her detractors call her an instigator exploiting a remark taken out of context; her supporters laud her for drawing attention to what they describe as persistent racism at UVA.

The always controversial Cornell was born to be a union organizer. She remembers her grandfather in Minnesota, a carpenter, getting up from the table and saying he had to go to a union meeting, and explaining to her what that was.

The president of the Staff Union at UVA has plenty of her own experiences in the work force. "I've been mistreated by employers and know about retaliation," she says.

Certainly Cornell knows about low wages. She can talk about being a single mother and taking her first job in 1975 for $3.35 an hour. She still recalls a job she had after moving to Charlottesville in the 1980s that paid $5.15 an hour. And her first job with UVA in 1989 that paid $14,000 a year.

Yet as big a gadfly as Cornell is to university administrators, this former UVA employee makes one thing clear: "I love the university. And I was never mistreated by UVA."

She lost sleep over whether to quit her secure state job and take the helm of organizing a union under the auspices of the Communication Workers of America at Virginia's flagship university. But here on SUUVA's second anniversary, she's confident she's exactly where she wants to be.

In 1970 when the National Guard opened fire on Kent State students, Cornell was in college across the state at Ohio's Bowling Green State University. "That was a turning point in my life when those kids got shot," she recalls. "They closed down all the Ohio colleges, and we were surrounded by the National Guard. I didn't understand how the government could shoot kids."

A product of the turbulence and excitement of that era, Cornell misses marches. "There's nothing like walking down the middle of Constitution Avenue in a march," she says.

Her favorite place to protest at UVA? In front of Madison Hall, the offices of the university's top administrators.

Cornell's labor negotiating skills were born when a company she worked for said it was canceling all health insurance. "Something just snapped," she says. "I said, 'You can't do that.' And we turned it around."

Now Cornell is trying to turn around UVA's policy of not talking to her because state law forbids public employees from bargaining collectively. "It's a myth," she complains. "They say talking to me is collective bargaining. You can't have collective bargaining when you don't have a contract."

Fortunately Cornell is a patient woman. She understands that she's not going to change things overnight. She knows that getting the thousands of classified workers she wants to join the union is a slow process.

And while many think of Cornell as a firebrand, she admits to shyness, and claims she's not really a hothead. "I'm emotional and compassionate toward the housekeepers and drivers and people who can't speak up because they'll get fired," she says.

Jan Cornell knows what that's like. She's been there.

Age: 53

What brought you here? Boyfriend (now happily ex-boyfriend) and I moved down here from northern Virginia so he could go into the construction business with his brother.

What's worst about living here? Too expensive. The salaries are too low for the cost of housing.

Favorite hangout? My office. Where else?

Most overrated virtue? That I am a "good" person.

What would people be surprised to know about you? I'm adopted and found my birth mother after 50 years.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Not to be vain, but I wish I was thin.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? To have been given the opportunity to be the president of SUUVA and to build the organization from the ground up.

What do people find most annoying about you? I'm pretty blunt and shoot from the hip. I'm not big on beating around the bush.

Whom do you admire? A labor lawyer– Jody Calemine– I met while he was in law school here. He has helped me out and given me great advice since I got involved with the Labor Action Group and the labor movement in general. He's the best person.

Favorite book? State of the Union by Nelson Lichtenstein

What subject causes you to rant? Living wage and social injustice issues. Cruelty to workers, animals, and kids is a big one too. Any cruelty makes me crazy.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? The technology

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? Our whole life is out there– our medical records, fingerprints, bank accounts, etc. No privacy.

What do you drive? Jeep Cherokee

What's in your car tape player right now? Moody Blues

What's your next journey? To Richmond– the AFL-CIO Legislative Conference

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I have had some "civil disobedience" issues. But not lately.

What do you regret? I regret not working in the labor movement before now. It is my life's work, and I wish I had started doing it 30 years ago.

Favorite comfort food? Macaroni and cheese

What's always in your refrigerator? Plenty of juices and bottled water

Must-see TV? West Wing

 Favorite cartoon? Cathy

Describe a perfect day. Talking to workers and getting 50 people to join SUUVA.

Walter Mitty fantasy? I'm living my fantasy. I have a dream job and a very happy life.

Who'd play you in the movie? Some kick-ass woman

Most embarrassing moment? While making a speech one time, I lost my train of thought and just stood there with nothing to say.

Best advice you ever got? From one of my old bosses at UVA– not to worry about everyone else and what they think, but to take care of myself and stand by my own principles, not someone else's.

Favorite bumper sticker? Unions– the folks who brought you weekends