United Faculty of Florida at UCF President Robert Cassanello said as votes were being counted, and recounted, during the union presidential election last August, he had to periodically go to a secluded corner of the Fairfield Inn parking lot to remove his cat mask.
The fresh midday air was a welcome stress reliever for the associate professor of history. There were already been several people telling him he won, but he said he did not want to believe it until the count had been made official. That election day, Aug. 7, was almost 17 years to the day since Cassanello was first hired by UCF in 2003, and nearly 15 years since he first joined the union in 2005.
“It was the counting of the ballots that was really getting to me,” Cassanello said, reminiscing on the day. “I couldn’t stay in the room more than 30 minutes at a time. I just had to leave.”
Cassanello, a quarter of the way through his two-year term, has faced presiding over a full renegotiation of the faculty's collective bargaining agreement, changing union practices in order to be more democratic, transparent, and encourage more participation, and steering the union through the rest of UCF's remote semesters, which will end fall 2021. Now, with union decertifying legislation making its way through the Florida Senate, a whole new issue has made itself known.
These are tasks that he said caused him to lose quite a bit of sleep, only getting three to four hours a night.
"I have to be the cool head," Cassanello said. "I have to be the person that doesn't panic, that doesn't stress out. You got to burn that off somewhere, and so where I've burned that off is I don't sleep."
Cassanello was elected with a final tally of 173-75. With that kind of support, Cassanello said he and other elected candidates that ran with him under one ticket felt like they had a “mandate” to do things differently than their predecessors. Cassanello said he believed if these issues were fixed, it would make navigating the pandemic easier for the union.
“We needed to create a leadership team and lead a governing culture that was stable and was democratic and was transparent,” Cassanello said. “If the ship was righted, we could sail through the pandemic.”
Towards that goal, Cassanello said he got a mass email system set up and bolstered the union's grievance and bargaining committees between assuming the presidency on Sept. 1 and Thanksgiving. The union was entering into a full renegotiation of the faculty's collective bargaining agreement that November, which occurs every three years. Cassanello said bolstering the bargaining committee was important so that the committee members are not spread too thin when they are negotiating a certain articles in the agreement.
"You can't just have six people working on 14 articles," Cassanello said. "We need x number of people so that you have teams of two on an article until you can get them all done."
Union Vice President Beatriz Reyes-Foster, associate professor of anthropology, experienced all of these initiatives firsthand. She said that Cassanello’s leadership facilitates teamwork and that Cassanello himself displays a willingness to listen and is not afraid of being challenged, showing how he is not insecure about his leadership.
“I feel safe disagreeing with him and expressing my ideas because I know he’ll listen,” Reyes-Foster said. “Regardless of whether or not he agrees with me, he will at least hear me out and I think that is the most important quality in leadership.”
Even as he took on the presidency, Cassanello was no stranger to the union life. He said that, through conversations and research, he learned his maternal grandfather, Savario Montalbano, was in a dock workers union in New York City. His father, Richard Cassanello, worked for a New York City steel company and was in the union there, and his mother, Maria Montalbano, would tell him stories about when she was a seamstress and was part of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
“I think he would always be thinking about the many and what’s best for everyone,” Joseph Cassanello, Cassanello's older brother, said.
Joseph Cassanello is no strangers to unions either, having been in two airline mechanics unions during his seven years in the industry. He came away from the experience with a few pointed criticisms of how unions ran themselves. He said how unions do not always have professional representation and that it was often “junior employees” who become victims in economic downturns, taking a full pay cut when more senior members did not.
However, Joseph Cassanello said he thinks the UCF faculty union will not have such issues because his younger brother is a logical thinker and compassionate to every person he represents, great qualities for a union president.
Cassanello's nephew, Michael Cassanello, brought the family's union membership to four generations when he joined a flight attendant's union while getting his bachelor's degree.. Now, he is about to graduate with a master’s degree in public administration from UCF. For as long as he's known him, he said his uncle was both a teacher and leader.
“I think everything that he's done up until now has prepared him for this, this new part in his career,” Michael Cassanello said.
As Cassanello continues to serve out his term, he said he will try to avoid the pitfalls of past union presidents that came before him when they “just started doing things on their own.”
In the opinion of Chapter Council Member John Raible, an associate instructional designer for the Center for Distributed Learning, that is not going to happen to Cassanello.
“I think [Cassanello’s] dedicated to the greater good,” Raible said. “There’s some people when they’re in positions of power that they have aspirations to advance their own agendas or their own careers, but I think he was willing to run for president out of a sense of service.”
With UCF planning a return to normal operation in the fall, a whole new set of challenges are on their way. The incoming state budget is expected to make cuts to higher education, and, while Cassanello already had concerns about the union's low membership, it could lead to the union's decertification if a bill in the Florida Senate passes. The bill requires certified unions need to have at least 50% membership from its bargaining unit. As of January, Cassanello said the UCF's faculty union is at 31% membership.
In the meantime, Cassanello said he is still making continued efforts to increase effective communication in the union. One such measure is the launch of a union podcast. In its first episode, Cassanello will give his State of the Union address and answering other members' questions. The podcast is scheduled to debut on May 1 and will post episodes monthly for five or six months to asses its viability.
"A lot of people have been approaching us saying 'Hey, you should do a podcast,' or 'I wish there was dialogue going on,'" Cassanello said. "So, we're sort of responding to that and hopefully there will be people who want to engage and consume an immediate project like that."
Cassanello said he had no expectations to succeed in his professional life. Yet, he said his professional life has been getting better and better with each passing year. Now, he said he is very aware of how if he had done just one thing differently, he would not have gotten to where he is today, and he said he was sure well going to appreciate it.
“Some people kind of want you to extinguish your imposter syndrome,” Cassanello said. “I embrace it.”