Solidarity to carry us forward

On March 12-13, the Portland State University (PSU) chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) voted--by an overwhelming 94 percent margin--in favor of a strike. PSU's "last, best offer," submitted to the union on March 3, not only does little to improve the working conditions of faculty, but seeks to strip the AAUP of its longstanding right to approve changes to tenure and promotion policies. At stake in the contract is stability for fixed-term faculty, fair salaries and shared governance around university decisions and workplace changes. A strike could come as early as April 3.

Jose Padin is a professor at PSU in the Sociology department and a member-organizer of the AAUP. He talked to Jamie Partridge about the issues in the contract battle--and how the union has prepared itself and the campus community for a strike.

Faculty and student supporters rally for a fair contract at Portland State University (PSU-AAUP)Faculty and student supporters rally for a fair contract at Portland State University (PSU-AAUP)

WHAT DO you do at PSU? What is your role in the AAUP?

I'VE BEEN a professor at PSU for 18 years. I'm in the Sociology department. I teach courses on inequality generally. Union struggles are a central part of what explains either inequality or equality in any society, so it comes close to what we're fighting here.

PSU-AAUP could be going on strike as of April 3. What are the main issues here?

WE HAD a strike authorization vote earlier in the week where an overwhelming majority of the faculty and the academic professors came out to vote and 94 percent voted "yes" to authorize. That means that if we go on strike, it's a strike that will be called by management, not by us, because we already said we mean what we say. We stand for quality higher education, and it means no gimmicks--money back into the classroom for students and for educators.

To be specific, there are three things that we stand for. First, equitable pay--we have growing disparities within the university that are tearing apart the fabric of the university. We have hundreds of dedicated faculty who are on contingent contracts and are making $37,000 a year, so they have double dose of insecurity: contingent contracts and bad pay.

Another issue is faculty stability. Again, it strikes at the issue of contingent contracts--we want to reduce the number of them. Ideally, we'd like to abolish them. We want everyone who works here to have more sense of job security.

We're in education--in order to give your best, you need a secure and stable environment. The administration of Portland State University is going in the wrong direction. They're pushing aggressively and borderline bullying faculty to sign onto an agreement that would create more and more instability in our ranks.

The third point is contractual protection for the role of faculty and shared governance. We have kind of a German "co-determination" system here, where the union and the faculty historically are involved in policymaking. It makes a lot of sense because it's an educational institution, and we're the only ones who know about education here, not necessarily the administrators. So we're willing to go to the mat to protect our role in that.

Interestingly, the courts in the United States tend to protect the institutions of higher education against lawsuits for educational malpractice on the premise that educators are in the driver's seat, and they know best.

HOW DO these negotiations differ from past years?

THE ADMINISTRATION has opened so many articles that have been there untouched for 35 years. We've had a union since 1978. Our first contract was in 1979, and two of the big things that we're fighting for here--that we could go on strike for--have been ratified by 17 administrations and biennial agreements. This administration wants to rip up that contract and doesn't even feel the need to provide a rationale. They just say, "It's right."

THERE WAS a strike vote with an overwhelming majority turnout--the largest turnout in the history of the AAUP. How is the rank and file feeling? What have you seen in terms of the views and the confidence of your colleagues right now?

WHAT I'VE seen is a rebirth of people who work here. This has been a very difficult and really depressing year, and after the results of the strike vote came out, I see people standing up proud, with a new bounce and a smile, and you feel the warmth of solidarity carrying us forward.

I'm not just waxing poetic. The quality and the feeling here in the workplace has improved substantially just as a result of us coming out and casting that vote.

STUDENTS HAVE been quite involved in this process and the union has stated that the faculty's teaching conditions are the students learning conditions. That's the same theme that the Portland public school teachers put forward in their contract negotiations. Can you talk about what that means in this particular fight?

WORKING CONDITIONS are learning conditions for a number of things that we're fighting for--two of the three big things: faculty stability and adequate pay.

It's very difficult for an educator who doesn't know if she or he can pay the bills, or if she or he will be here next term, to really dedicate themselves to their students the way they want to. There are too many distractions. And I'll tell you it affects the workplace generally.

I'm a tenured faculty member, and it would seem that some might ask why am I even standing for these issues? I have a "cushy" job, as it were. It just fouls up the whole environment, especially as the majority of faculty start to be on a contingent contract. It just makes it a hard place to be for everyone.

A MAJORITY of the faculty is on contingent contracts?

RIGHT NOW, I'd say about two-thirds of the teaching here is done by people who are on what we would call contingent contracts. There are different levels of contingency. Some people have a one-year contract, some people have a one-term contract, some of these people are part-time, some people are full-time, but they don't know where their income is going to be coming from in six months.

ON FEBRUARY 27, hundreds of PSU students walked out in support of their professors. What would you say about the state of student-faculty solidarity, and do you think that the students are really taking on this fight as their own fight?

THEY CERTAINLY have, and they're an inspiration for the faculty, I think. People working in institutions of higher education can often be very conservative, because it's very easy to make us feel guilty about hurting the students. But when the students stand up en masse, and say, "No, you can't stay quiet," they're giving us permission to take action for them and for us.

We've been building this solidarity for at least a year at PSU. We have an umbrella--four union organizations that include the AAUP, the American Federation of Teachers chapter that organizes adjunct faculty, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and then the PSU Student Union. We didn't know where it would go, but it's turned out to create new solidarities that are allowing us to I think successfully wage a struggle now.

AND THAT unity was built also in the struggle of the SEIU-PSU, which almost went to a strike?

WHERE DO you see this particular contract campaign taking you. What do you see in the future?

WELL, I see educators, workers at this university finding themselves a new voice, a new form of self-confidence and discovering that we can actually take back our educational institutions from people for whom education is a secondary concern. They could be running any type of business. They don't understand the importance of stable, warm, strong and committed relationships in creating students and education.

We need to take back our institutions. For the first time, it feels that people have the confidence that we can do it, and that we must do it.

CAN YOU talk about how this struggle fits in the larger fight against the corporate domination of education, which seems to be increasing ?

I DO think that we're part of a larger national and historical wave. We're not an exception here. We have all taken inspiration from the teachers in Chicago and their struggle against all odds that also inspired the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) locally.

I'm sure it inspired the teachers in Medford [who went on strike for 11 days]. It inspired the faculty at the University of Illinois in Chicago, who walked out a couple of weeks ago.

The discussion of the extremes of inequality in this country is now becoming an open subject--we see the campaign in New York City where Mayor Bill de Blasio talks about attacking inequality every day. So something is changing around us.

ANY LAST words about this struggle?

I'D LIKE to emphasize that this is not only an educator and student coalition, heartening as it is, because I've seen it in the case of the PAT and their struggles, the students definitely carried them through difficult times. But this is a broader community struggle.

We've seen people not only from a variety of unions, but faith organizations, KBOO [community radio], Jobs with Justice, etc., come together. We're saying, "PSU, this is our university, it's a public university."

We're going to put the "public" back into that university--and we want to thank you all for doing that. We owe you, and we'll continue caring together.