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UPDATED: Potential strike at The Evergreen State College

UPDATE: On Tuesday, May 28, in the pre-dawn twilight of 5 am, members of the exempt staff union and their most zealous supporters gathered at Evergreen to insure that not even the earliest rising members of the management could sneak past the union’s picket line unseen. The congregation marked the beginning of the first strike by Washington state employees in 12 years. By the time of the 11 o’clock rally, more than 250 people were present, according to union organizers. Behind the picket lines, which guarded every entrance to the college, the campus was mostly quiet; a few students wandered across Red Square, but a trip through the Seminar II building found its classrooms eerily empty. The strike concluded at 7 pm that day and the union is deciding how to proceed.

—Joseph Bullington, May 29, 2013

 

The Evergreen State College plays host to frequent, poorly attended, and always awkward protest marches.  The rally by members of the Student Support Services Staff Union (SSSSU) on May 15 was no exception.  But if the short march from the CAB building out onto Red Square felt anticlimactic, through this action the union threatened a greater disruption.

At noon on that day, a couple dozen SSSSU members congregated in the CAB building.  The age of those present ranged widely: there were young employees, in their twenties or thirties, a well-represented middle aged group, and a few participants who seemed to be approaching retirement.  They were an odd spectacle, with their bright green union t-shirts pulled on over work clothes, dresses hanging out the bottom and shirt collars exposed through neck holes–a sight to remind us all that unity is not always the most comfortable or stylish thing.  But they wore the shirts with pride.

“Ladies and gentlemen, attention please!” someone yelled, his voice rising above the lunch-time babble in the CAB.  “It’s time to vote!”  And with that, the group headed through the doors and out toward the official polling place on Red Square.

The results of the vote are in: 45 of the union’s 55 members moved to strike.

In May of 2011, exempt staff at Evergreen formed the SSSSU to combat what they saw as unfair  and insecure employment conditions.  The union takes its unofficial title–the exempt staff union–from the status of its members as “exempt” from receiving overtime pay.

“A lot of us are regularly working more than 40-hour weeks,” said Leslie Johnson, a mental health counselor, at an SSSSU teach-in on May 20.  “There’s no compensation for those overtime hours.”

The vote to strike is the latest development in a bargaining process between the Evergreen administration and the union that began in February 2012.  Sixteen months and almost 40 day-long meetings have not secured the union’s first contract.  While the members of the administration’s bargaining team are paid for their time spent in the contract negotiations, the state ethics code prevents SSSSU members from conducting union activity during work hours or using work email addresses.  To go to the negotiations, the six members of the union’s bargaining team take leave without pay.

“What bothers me most is that it affects the students I work with and my co-workers,” said Courtney Bailey, a Student Organizations Advisor and member of the SSSSU bargaining committee.  Negotiations have gone on too long, she said; “that’s the reason we’re voting to strike.”

So far, the union has compromised on several of the more than 50 components of the original contract, explained Justin Reuter, a member of the bargaining team, but there are two points on which they will not budge.  “Deal Breakers,” Reuter called them.

The first is subsumed, in the union’s talking-point ridden lingo, under the term “fair compensation.”

The union is asking for a pay increase now, to keep step with the three percent increase management has decided to award itself.  In fact, Courtney Bailey told me, the administration has decided to grant the pay increase to all exempt workers except those represented by the exempt-staff union.  Instead, the administration has indicated that the size of the increase awarded to members of the SSSSU will be determined in contract negotiations.

“That feels really insulting,” said Bailey

According to Bailey, the members of the union, which includes academic advisors, athletics staff, and counselors of all kinds, make an average salary of $37,000.

“But that’s kind of a skewed number,” she said.  “Most of us are paid below the average.”  “We haven’t had a cost-of-living increase in five years,” Bailey continued.  According to census data, she said, the average salary of SSSSU members is equal to the average salary of a Washington State employee in 1992.

All state institutions in Washington, including community colleges, Bailey claimed, pay more than Evergreen.

“That really impacts our ability to recruit good staff members,” she said.  Or retain them for that matter.  According to Bailey, twenty of her fifty-some co-workers have left the school in recent years, and she says more people intend to leave.

As a solution, the union is pushing for the contract to include annual “step increases”–yearly pay-raises added automatically to employees’ salaries.

“I’m a better employee now than I was on my first day,” said Justin Reuter, who has worked at Evergreen as a resident director for three years.  “I take on more responsibilities now, and I think I deserve to be recognized for that.”

The second “deal breaker” is what the union calls “just cause.”  Right now, members of the exempt staff union are “at-will” employees, which means the college can fire them at any time without due process.

“That’s a very scary way to work,” said Courtney Bailey.  She sees it as part of her job to advocate for students.  Sometimes, she said, that means challenging college policies and decisions.

“We have members of our union who feel that [their at-will status] is used against them, to stifle their voices,” said Justin Reuter.  Just cause is the union’s attempt to end at-will by institutionalizing a process by which exempt staff can appeal disciplinary decisions.

Just cause, said Reuter, is a basic workers’ right and part of every other union contract at Evergreen.

“It’s in the social contract; we’re not inventing anything here,” he said.

In the administration’s view, what are the “deal breakers” that have kept this contract on the bargaining table for 16 months?

A winding trail of phone numbers, voicemails, and returned calls finally led me through the maze of bureaucracy to the Communications and College Relations department.  I was given a phone number for Todd Sprague, the Executive Director of Marketing and apparently the college’s PR man for its negotiations with the SSSSU.  But when I finally got in touch with Sprague, he could offer little help.  He directed me to a May 16 email from college President Les Purce to campus staff and faculty.  The email still represents “our general stance,” said Sprague.

Les Purce writes in the email that the administration remains committed to “good-faith” negotiations with the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE)–the state employees’ union to which the SSSSU belongs.  But, Purce writes, the administration “disagrees strongly with the factual accuracy of statements made by WFSE about the bargaining history and facts….”  Unfortunately for us, he does not get more specific.

Purce insists that the administration must consider not just the interests of SSSSU members but also “what is sustainable for the college, equity among different groups of employees…and potential impacts on the educational mission of the College.”  The administration (though he prefers to use “the College” as a synonym), writes Purce, has made “fair and reasonable” proposals, “including just cause for discipline and a new severance benefit.”  But collective bargaining requires compromise, he writes; “one side cannot demand that the other side accept its proposals.”

In an email, Todd Sprague assured me that it is “not constructive at this juncture to go into more detail about specific proposals and responses (or our disagreements on facts).”  Without those details, it is difficult to make sense of the discrepancies in the union’s and administration’s competing claims.

Courtney Bailey explained that the “just cause” provision offered by the administration and cited in Purce’s email does put in place adequate due process protections.  But it reserves the administration’s right to fire exempt employees at will if the college pays them one week of severance pay for every year they worked at Evergreen.

“That’s not Just Cause,” the union wrote in a response to Purce’s email.  “That’s ‘Just Because (I want to fire you)’.”

Exempt staff union activity has become increasingly visible on Evergreen campus in the last few weeks.  The green shirts have been donned with more and more frequency, and poster board signs reading “Fairness and Quality or Strike!” have shown up in more and more windows.  Now, in the days following the strike vote, the issue is debated openly by classes, faculty, and groups of students.  Will classes still be held if there is a strike?  Will I or will I not cross a picket line?

Solidarity has been offered to the small union from all directions.  On May 7, the United Faculty of Evergreen sent a letter to the SSSSU congratulating them for unionizing and pledging “solidarity with your members in your struggle for basic improvements in pay and working conditions through collective bargaining.”  Though the letter steered clear of mentioning a potential strike, the faculty union has since released a list of frequently asked questions which encourages faculty members not to cross picket lines.  A group of students calling itself the Student Staff Solidarity Coalition has formed to support SSSSU and is organizing students to not cross picket lines during a strike.  On May 9, another student group, Students for a Democratic Society, addressed a letter to the exempt staff union.  In the letter, the group admitted their “disillusionment with their [the union members’] attempts to climb the social hierarchy of capitalism,” but in the event of a strike, they pledged “to do everything we can to aid in the halt of operations at The Evergreen State College.”

Since the vote, the union has carefully avoided calling for a strike, hiding the threat in strings of words like “job actions up to and including strike action.”

“We don’t want to strike,” said Justin Reuter.  “We want a fair contract.”  Many in the union, it seems, hoped the threat alone would put enough pressure on the administration to secure the contract at the most recent negotiation meeting on May 21.  That is not what happened.  The union has called for a “Day of Action” on Tuesday, May 28 that will begin with a rally by the bus stop at the college’s main entrance.  It is increasingly likely that this action will evolve into a strike.  The goal will be to shut down the college.

The battle at the bargaining table is hardly the most glamorous fight. After all, how much passion and principle can survive such a long drag through the muck of bureaucracy?  But as the rumor spreads that the strike has become “official,” there is an unmistakable excitement in the air at the Evergreen State College such as precedes any mass disruption of routine.

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