College professors at Portland State University (PSU) voted overwhelmingly March 11-12 to authorize a strike, and could walk off the job as early as April 4 if no further progress is made in negotiations over a new contract.
The PSU chapter of American Association of University Professors (PSU-AAUP) represents about 950 full-time faculty at the school, which has about 30,000 students. It’s the first time PSU-AAUP has ever authorized a strike, and if they do walk out, it would be the first-ever strike by state university professors in Oregon.
AAUP spokesperson David Osborn said the strike authorization was supported by 94 percent of those voting, and turnout was an overwhelming “super-super-majority”— though he wouldn’t say the exact number.
PSU-AAUP President Mary King, a professor of economics, said members aren’t willing to accept concessions demanded by the university administration, particularly when the union went into bargaining seeking improvements.
King said agreement is being hindered by three bargaining stances taken by the university administration:
1) Its rejection of a cost-neutral proposal for greater job security. About 600 PSU-AAUP members are tenure-track or tenured, meaning they can’t be removed except for gross misconduct or dereliction of duty. But about 400 others are on one- or two-year contracts, and their number is increasing. King said every December, about two-thirds of them receive a letter informing them their contract has been “non-renewed,” meaning there’s no guarantee they’ll be hired back to teach classes the next academic year. Most end up later being renewed, but the feeling of never being a permanent employee creates an intolerable amount of stress, King said, and makes it hard for the university to keep talented faculty when they get offers elsewhere. “The rest of us cannot build a program around people the university won’t commit to. Students can’t be sure they will get letters of recommendation or advising, or take classes from them in the future.”
King said she knows one instructor who’s been on one-year contracts for 25 years.
“I was chair of my department for six years,” King said, “and I used to implore the dean to let me give multi-year contracts to people who I knew were well qualified, doing a good job in the classroom and were absolutely going to be needed the following year to help us keep them. And I was told, ‘no, this is the policy. Everyone has to be non-renewed. We need the flexibility.’”
King said PSU-AAUP wants what University of Oregon professors won last year in their first-ever union contract — a guarantee of multi-year contracts after serving four one-year contracts.
2) Its insistence on diminishing PSU-AAUP’s role in university governance. At PSU and at most universities, rules on faculty evaluation, promotion, merit pay, tenure, and post-tenure review are created and established by an elected faculty senate, using model language developed by the AAUP nationally. Since 1979, the PSU-AAUP contract has had a clause saying that if the PSU administration wants to overrule the faculty senate and change those policies, it has to get the agreement of AAUP. Now the PSU administration is proposing to eliminate that clause.
3) Its wage offer, which wouldn’t keep up with inflation, much less narrow the gap with faculty at similar universities. PSU is offering two 1.5 percent raises effective January 2014 and January 2015 — or two 2 percent raises if AAUP agrees to give up its say in university governance. King said it would take 2.8 percent raises just to keep up with inflation. AAUP is proposing two raises ranging from 3.25 to 5.5 percent, with the bigger raises going to the lower-paid faculty. King described wages as the least important of the three sticking points, and said the issue was less the money itself than about equity with administrator pay and increasing stability by reducing turnover.
“We are seeing big investments in administration and especially upper administration, at a time when this faculty is consistently uncompetitively paid, and we suffer major challenges of recruitment and retention because of it,” King said.
At a March 14 mediation session, little progress was made. Both sides are making preparations for a walkout. With 10 days notice, PSU-AAUP may now call a strike anytime after April 3, when the legally-mandated 30-day cooling off period ends.
The administration released a statement saying it’s developing plans to maintain classes in the event of a strike, with details will be announced soon.
Meanwhile, AAUP is reaching out to instructors at community colleges in the area asking them not to work as strikebreakers — teaching the classes of striking professors. And they’re calling on members of their sister union representing PSU’s part-time faculty — American Federation of Teachers (AFT) — to hold classes outside or on the picket line to show solidarity in the event of a strike. AFT and Service Employees International Union Local 503, which represents support staff, do not have a contract provision that says they may refuse to cross picket lines, so members could legally be disciplined for honoring the strike.
A group called the PSU Student Union has also been organizing students to support AAUP. Undergraduate English major Cameron Frank, one of the group’s founders, has sat in on bargaining sessions, and helped organize a Feb. 27 walkout by students to show support for professors. About 500 students took part.