Turned into a winning union

April 29, 2014

Michael Chamberlain is a member of the faculty at Portland State University (PSU), a former Executive Council member of the PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and co-chair of the Strike Strategy Committee this year. Here, he explains how the faculty organized for their successful contract fight at PSU.

ON APRIL 3, the 1,000-member American Association of University Professors (AAUP) gave strike notice at Portland State University (PSU), culminating nearly a year of intense internal organizing, an escalating campaign of public actions and a strike vote.

This marks a dramatic culture shift at PSU. Our union had never taken a strike vote in our 35-year history. We had rarely been able to turn out more than 40 or 50 of our members for anything. One union leader used to complain, "We don't do collective bargaining, we do collective begging." It was a yearlong contract fight that brought about this shift.

PSU is an urban, largely commuter university located in downtown Portland. Our school has an enrollment of roughly 28,000. Faculty and staff are represented by three different campus unions. Classified staff are represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503. Part-time faculty are represented by the PSU Faculty Association (PSUFA), an AFT affiliate. The AAUP represents full-time faculty and academic professionals (APs).

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

Conditions for our teaching faculty have gradually worsened over recent years. The percentage of full-time, permanent faculty has declined from 70 percent to 30 percent, mirroring a national trend in higher education. Adjunct instructors, represented by the PSUFA, work from term to term. Many try to piece together a living by teaching classes at several colleges or universities in the area. Some qualify for food stamps.

Fixed-term faculty, who are represented by the AAUP, teach full time, but few have contracts for longer than one year. They receive a layoff notice every December, even if they have taught continuously at PSU for many years, and often aren't provided a new contract until a week or two before fall term begins. Many make less than $40,000 a year, even with PhDs.

The PSU administration, on the other hand, continues to expand in absolute numbers and in ratio to students and faculty. Salaries for administrators have continued to climb while faculty and staff salaries have stagnated or declined. University President Wim Wiewel earns nearly $500,000--and his mansion is supplied to him without charge.

The PSU administration entered our present contract negotiation with a very aggressive stance. It made take-back demands that targeted every section of our membership. It announced it would rip out whole sections of the contract, remove contract protection for tenure and promotion and eliminate past-practice protection. It attempted to take away job security for APs.

In response to the union's proposal to lengthen contracts for our fixed-term faculty, the administration proposed even shorter contracts. It offered us a 1 percent salary increase. This would have meant a wage cut when adjusted for inflation.

BY EARLY spring of 2013, a small layer of our membership had become deeply dissatisfied with the direction of the university and with our union's inability to leverage power to reverse this direction. With the agreement of our union's executive council (EC), we launched a strike strategy committee.

We proposed to the EC that the union open a strike fund account. We organized the first collection for this strike fund at the union's May membership meeting. We began publishing a bargaining support bulletin. We organized a picnic in the school's park blocks before one of the contract bargaining sessions, and then 30 of us attended bargaining to show support for our bargaining team.

A turning point in our campaign came at a workshop several of us attended at the AAUP National Collective Bargaining Council 2013 Summer Institute. At one of the institute workshops, an experienced organizer provided us with a very convincing plan for how to organize an effective contract action campaign. Central to this strategy was:

-- Creating a network of volunteer organizers who can effectively engage a large majority of the members in one-to-one discussions. These discussions are organized around series of "asks" to our members for deepening commitment to the contract fight.

Parallel to the one-to-one discussions, the union would organize a series of public actions, each escalating in size and/or militancy and culminating in the greatest possible pressure on the administration at the point of contract signing.

We invited this AAUP organizer to repeat his presentation in front of two workshops for our most active members back at PSU beginning of fall term. Through the workshops, we recruited 40 organizers and formed a leadership team that we called "the CORE." Each member of the CORE would be responsible for coordinating the work of several organizers. The CORE worked in close collaboration with the EC. Our union president and other EC members participated in the CORE.

PARALLEL TO the one-to-one discussions was a series of escalating public actions. Our first action was a silent vigil on the sixth floor of administration building outside a bargaining session. We set a goal of using our organizer network to turn out 70 of our members for the silent vigil.

Almost twice that many showed up. We packed the sixth floor of that administration skyscraper. And when the administration refused to begin bargaining unless we sent our members away, chanting broke out: "What do we want? Contract! When? Now!"

The following months were peppered with forums and speak-outs. In November, 250 of our members and supporters turned out for a march across campus to rally in front of the administration building. Two months later, we called an informational picket in the park blocks that run down the center of the campus. Some 350 of our members and supporters, picketing in the rain, were joined by 700 students who walked out of classes.

This series of actions culminated in a remarkably successful strike vote. On March 11 and 12, 84 percent of our members participated, and 94 percent voted in favor of strike authorization.

Success in these public actions was only possible through countless hours of one-on-one discussions with our members by an organizer network that grown to nearly 100 organizers. We carried out two campaigns, each lasting several weeks, to obtain the signatures of our members on cards committing themselves to attend actions and to vote for strike authorization.

We turned the vote itself into an action. It was held in a very visible room on campus, with literature and banners and table staffed by members checking off voters.

There were other components to our campaign as well. We repeatedly posted the campus with escalating leaflet messages. We staffed tables with a banner that read, "Ask me why faculty may strike for students." We did phone banking. An expanded communications committee did effective media work. We launched an external solidarity committee in the final weeks of the contract fight. This committee involved 30 to 40 activists from other unions and community organizations and was a valuable augmentation of our forces.

A key strength of our contract fight was our alliance with the students. The two principal student organizations at PSU are the Associated Students of Portland State University (ASPSU) and the PSU Student Union (PSUSU). The AAUP and the two other campus unions formed a coalition with these student groups called Together4PSU.

When bargaining began, in the spring of 2013, representatives of both these student groups had seats at the bargaining table. And when the AAUP voted to authorize a strike, both student groups publicly supported us. In addition, as our escalating campaign of public actions neared its zenith, PSUSU activists organized the student walkout to join our informational picket in the park blocks.

We were also aided by the example of the local K-12 teachers' union--the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT). Drawing important lessons from the 2012 Chicago teachers' strike, PAT mobilized and gave strike notice for March 20. Portland teachers forced the school board to back down on their demands for concessions and won a decent contract without having to strike. This has been very much in the local news for months prior to our struggle.

WE ENTERED contract talks with the PSU administration with a traditional bargaining approach. We made very moderate proposals to improve our existing weak contract. The administration, however, entered the talks with a very aggressive stance. If we didn't change our approach, we were not going to win the contract we deserved.

Our alliances with other campus unions and with our students also suffered dangerous weaknesses. Although we worked in coalition with the other campus unions, there was no serious attempt to coordinate our bargaining or our contract campaigns. In addition, all three unions have "no-strike" clauses in their contracts. This means that we are required by law to cross one another's picket lines if ours is in force.

Our alliance with the students also suffered from a political "Achilles heel." Our union leadership largely accepted the administration's "zero sum" paradigm that the funding "pie" for PSU is limited, and if one player gets a bigger slice, others must take less.

Therefore, our union had refused to take a stand for reducing student tuition for fear that this would undermine our ability to protect our own wages and benefits. In place of genuine support for reducing tuition and student debt, our union has been supporting a phony buy-now, pay-later scheme called "Pay-it-Forward" that is currently being studied by the state legislature.

On March 31, the union gave the PSU administration strike notice. We set the strike date for April 16. In the early morning of April 3, administrators backed down on all of their significant demands and slightly improved their monetary offer. Our bargaining team signed this tentative agreement, which was ratified by a nearly unanimous vote of our membership two weeks later.

One weakness in our new contract is that we retreated in the fight for our fixed-term faculty. We had originally proposed three-year rolling contracts for all fixed-term faculty after three years of service. The administration would only agree to provide two-year contracts after four years of service and only for 80 percent of the eligible fixed-term faculty.

We dropped our demand for paid maternity leave and for protections around summer teaching. We also lost ground in this contract in relation to pay. Half of our members will come out slightly ahead of inflation, and half will come out slightly behind inflation. This continues to widen the gap between the pay or our most privileged members and our least privileged.

WHEN WE launched the Strike Strategy Committee, we asked ourselves the question "What would victory look like?" That is, at the end of the contract fight, how would we know whether we had won or lost? The answer isn't about wages or benefits. It's not even directly about the contract. The answer lies in the strength of our union.

Would or union emerge stronger or weaker? Would we have a higher level of union consciousness among our members? Would we have increased solidarity, more willingness to stick together, more militancy, and more willingness to stand up for up for ourselves and for each other. If we achieved these things, that would be victory. By these measures, we scored a solid win.

What's happening at PSU is part of a broader pattern in the U.S. It's conditioned by the historic national defunding of higher education and the tuition crisis that accompanies this defunding. It falls within the context of the escalating attack on public services and increasing privatization. It's part of a historic shift of wealth from public to private hands, of the greatest concentration of wealth and the greatest income inequality since the gilded age of the late 19th century.

It's also part of the latest stage in an attempt to destroy all unions. With unionization of private industry reduced to 6 percent and the public sector still organized at nearly 35 percent, public-sector unions are currently the chief target of anti-union forces.

We have been living through times in the U.S. with few examples of successful mass struggles of working people. Apparent widespread apathy can be interpreted as resignation. But, at PSU, we have experienced a positive cultural shift that will not be easily reversed. As people see examples of how to fight back and win, apathy can disappear rapidly.

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