Ready for a strike at PSU

Sara Swetzoff, a post-baccalaureate student at Portland State University, reports on the stakes involved, as a faculty walkout looms at the university.

PSU students and faculty rally before the faculty's strike vote (PSU-AAUP)PSU students and faculty rally before the faculty's strike vote (PSU-AAUP)

ON MARCH 12-13, the Portland State University (PSU) chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) overwhelmingly affirmed support for a possible strike. The 94 percent "yes" vote reflects the determination of AAUP's faculty and academic professionals to secure greater stability for fixed-term faculty, fair salaries for all members, and shared governance around university decisions and workplace changes.

"This vote is a powerful statement by PSU faculty and academic professionals that academics and a student-centered budget must be PSU's overriding priorities. If forced to, PSU faculty and academic professionals are willing to strike to reverse the erosion of faculty stability and educator-led education at PSU," said Mary King, Economics professor and president of PSU-AAUP.

Faculty called a strike vote soon after facing the administration's latest contract offer, submitted on March 3 following AAUP's declaration of an impasse in bargaining. The contract makes only token improvements to the working conditions of fixed-term faculty and seeks to strip AAUP of its longstanding right to approve changes to tenure and promotion policy.

Jose Padin, a professor of sociology and AAUP member, underlined the significant breach of historical protocol represented by the administration's desire to remove union oversight. "Every prior administration going back 35 years has considered it reasonable to sign on to an agreement that provides a legally binding check against a president's unilateral usurpation of faculty power," he explained.

Phil Lesch, the AAUP executive director at PSU, agrees that this round of negotiations has been particularly hostile to faculty rights. "This year, the administration decided they were going to start a war. It wasn't like this last bargaining cycle. The administration's current position at the table undermines decades of bargaining history," he stressed.

Gerand Sussman, a professor of Urban Studies and Planning and AAUP member, echoed Lesch's sentiment, asserting that the administration's approach to bargaining suggests "a blatant attempt to crush the [faculty] union."

Elaborating on the broader context of the current negotiations, Sussman explained, "Altogether, this is a microcosm of the larger neoliberal economic approach. It encourages radical profit-centered approaches to both private and public institutions and a wholesale disregard for the commonwealth, for the quality of life for the majority, and for the preservation of public space and the public sphere."

With administrative salaries an average of 12 percent higher than they were 10 years ago, and faculty salaries on average 1 percent lower, it isn't difficult to discern where the university's priorities lie. Some positions, such as the provost and vice provost, have seen salary increases of over 40 percent during that same period. Meanwhile, PSU faculty salaries rank dead last in comparison with its peer universities both within Oregon and across the nation.

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The Road to a Strike

Every two years, the AAUP renegotiates their biennial contract with the administration. Negotiation for this biennium began April 24, 2013.

By August, faculty were already feeling frustrated at the bargaining table. With their current contract slated to expire at the end of that month, it was at that time that AAUP first convened a strike strategy committee.

Not long after, the university terminated the chair of the new committee. While the administration denies targeting individuals for their union activity, an "unfair labor practice" charge recently filed by AAUP with the Oregon Employment Relations Board alleges otherwise. Says Lesch, "They targeted a key activist and terminated him. This person was a member of our executive council. We started publishing newsletters back in August about the possibility of a strike this year. No sooner had that started than he was fired."

In September faculty were put on a temporary contract extension and negotiations continued. In October the administration contacted a state mediator.

"They were unwilling to even talk money until October, so the decision to call a mediator that early was odd," explained Mary King. "It was a very quick decision, and was understood as an attempt to steamroll the process."

On November 19, faculty rallied together with supportive students, staff and community members. Hundreds of participants marched from Smith Memorial Student Union to the administration's Market Center Building and held speeches on the front steps. Representatives from Portland Public Schools and a guest speaker from a Salvadorian labor union spoke in solidarity with PSU faculty, highlighting the broader crisis in funding for education and workers' rights. Portland Public School teachers recently came close to striking themselves, finally securing an acceptable contract the evening before the strike was scheduled to commence.

At the end of November, AAUP's extended contract once again expired. From that point on, it was renewed on a month-to-month basis until February. Since that time, AAUP employees have been working without a contract.

The past month has seen the situation crescendo into strike preparations. AAUP's press release on its decision to file an unfair labor practice charge at the beginning of February was quickly followed by the declaration of impasse on February 24. According to state law, an impasse may not be declared until at least 15 days of mediation services have elapsed. By that time in February, AAUP had already been in mediation on and off for nearly two months.

"After 10 months of negotiating, 40 hours of mediation and 10 hours of one-on-one with the chief negotiator, we are stuck," explained Mary King to students at the last general meeting of the PSU Student Union.

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On Shared Governance

"What's been talked about at the bargaining table is more comprehensive than just funding--it's about shared governance," stated Eric Noll, legislative affairs director for the Associated Students of PSU and a board member of the Oregon Student Association.

"When students, staff and faculty are all in one room together, we can be a very powerful force and a resource to administrators when it comes to securing key changes at the state level. Unfortunately, we've been moving away from that in the conversations we've been having the last 10 months on campus," lamented Nolls.

King elaborated on the differences between the AAUP and the administration's approaches to governance. "The administration is limiting itself to using trite, meaningless stock phrases. We want a real "what are we going to do" conversation about how we can improve PSU together."

At a student info session held on January 30, student organizer Cameron Frank recounted the administration's reaction to Article 44, an item proposed by AAUP at the bargaining table. This article addressed caps on class sizes, caps on faculty workloads, and if passed would tie PSU salaries to the national averages set by peer schools. The article also requested the establishment of a task force to set criteria for the review of administrative performance.

"The administration refused to even acknowledge these demands," Frank said. "They went so far as to call the concept of administrative review 'ludicrous.'"

Such examples show how out-of-touch the university administration is. While the university issues campus-wide e-mails and statements promising that spring term registration and course schedules will continue uninterrupted, students are showing an increasing willingness to disrupt business as usual if that is what it takes to secure a fair contract for faculty.

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Students Stand up for Faculty

On February 27, the PSU Student Union organized 700 students to walk out of classes in support of faculty. It is likely that much greater numbers walked out of class at the appointed time, given that a number of faculty with courses taking place during the rally reported that their entire class walked out together.

At the peak of the walkout, which coincided with an informational picket and rally organized by the AAUP, more than 1,000 students and faculty filled the park blocks on PSU campus. Despite the rain and cold, upwards of 300 stuck around to hear fellow students, staff and faculty articulate their mutual solidarity and the important correlation between working conditions and quality of education on campus.

Rob Sisk, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503, told the crowd, "Education is the foundation of a stable and progressive society, and educators are the bedrock of this foundation."

Noll emphasized the broader crisis in public funding for higher education. "I have spent time at every single university and almost every single community college in the state, and we are not alone," he said. "Your brothers and sisters from across the state stand with you today."

Not long after the walkout, the Associated Students of PSU (ASPSU) issued a formal declaration of support for faculty, stating, "ASPSU has a strong sense that the learning conditions students face are a direct reflection of the working conditions encountered by our university's staff and faculty. It is with the student body's interest in mind that our institution takes a stance in support of PSU-AAUP."

As the administration continues to drag its feet, the student voice will be a critical factor in the outcome of the current negotiations. With the administration capable to e-mailing the entire student body at will, the PSU Student Union and AAUP have to work hard to make sure the truth reaches students.

For example, following this past Friday's mediation session, the administration informed the student body that faculty had chosen to end the session early. The Student Union's representative present in negotiations immediately challenged that version of events, clarifying that the meeting was always scheduled to end at noon.

In fact, it was the administration who changed the terms of the bargaining session at the last minute. Having led the AAUP to believe that they would be bargaining face-to-face, upon arrival the bargaining parties were directed to separate rooms for mediation.

"Meeting in this format has become one of the administration's favorite stalling tactics," a Student Union representative posted to the union's Facebook page. "Blame for any lack of progress rests squarely on the shoulders of the administration of their duplicitous behavior, baiting and switching formats at the last moment. If this situation comes to a strike in the spring, the administration has no one to blame but themselves," concluded the post.

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The Clock Is Ticking

According to the timeline put in place by the declaration of impasse, the earliest faculty could strike would be April 3. This current week is winter term exams, followed by spring vacation. Classes will resume Monday, March 31.

Faculty have indicated that, in the event of the need to strike, they would hold off until the second week of term, so that students have the chance to secure loans, scholarships and other services based on enrollment status.

While insisting that spring term course schedules and graduation dates will remain unaffected, the PSU administration has not yet offered details as to how exactly the university plans to temporarily replace up to 1,200 professors, instructors and academic professionals if they strike. A recent campus-wide email from PSU President Wim Wiewel instead promised that, "details will be announced in a timely fashion."

However, to many students and faculty it remains clear that the best way to avoid a strike is to meet faculty and student demands, and settle a fair contract as soon as possible. To this end, students are calculating how they can increase the visibility of their support and use their numbers to pressure the administration.

Cameron Frank, an organizer with the PSU Student Union and Student Action Coalition, says that the November rally was a turning point for student involvement. "What was demonstrated at the rally is that students are willing to take more drastic action," he explained.

"If the administration still continues to refuse to listen, then students will escalate tactics," he said, adding that on the day of the rally a number of students had suggested staging at sit-in at the building where PSU President Wim Wiewel and the administration have their offices. When asked if future actions might entail a student occupation of administrative buildings, Frank responded that, "all options are on the table."