Professors get contract after PSU drops takeaway demands

American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reached tentative agreement on a new contract with Portland State University (PSU) April 6 — three days after the union announced that a strike would begin April 16.

The deal was made possible when PSU’s administration dropped demands for concessions, and agreed to modest improvements in pay and job security.

AAUP represents 950 full-time faculty at PSU. They are scheduled to vote on the agreement April 15-16, with AAUP leaders predicting approval.

We stopped 100 percent of the bad and got 90 percent of what we were looking for.”  — Jose Padin, professor of sociology.

The agreement addresses union members’ top concern — lack of job security. At PSU, hundreds of “fixed-term” faculty have never felt like permanent hires, because they serve under one-year employment contracts, which sometimes aren’t renewed until just before a new academic year. The new agreement commits PSU to offer employment contracts of two or three years duration to all but the 20 percent least senior fixed-term faculty, once they’ve taught at least four years. AAUP had proposed that all fixed-term faculty get multi-year contracts after four years — something University of Oregon guaranteed in its first-ever faculty union contract last year — but in the end settled for 80 percent in order to get a deal.

Strike date setThe new PSU contract also provides a variety of salary increases: a 1.5 percent across-the-board raise retroactive to Jan. 1, 2014 that’s intended to bring members closer to salaries at comparable institutions; two 2.5 percent cost-of-living raises on Jan. 1, 2014, and Jan. 1, 2015; and a new salary floor of $40,000 for all full-time faculty and academic professionals.

PSU also agreed to form a labor-management-student task force to look at improving academic quality at the school.

The agreement contains no concessions by AAUP. PSU dropped a proposal to eliminate AAUP’s say over faculty evaluation and promotion policies, as well as a proposal to give management broad discretion to change anything not specifically spelled out in the contract.

“We stopped 100 percent of the bad and got 90 percent of what we were looking for,” said AAUP spokesperson Jose Padin, a professor of sociology. “We’re still not being rewarded commensurate to our service relative to our peers in comparator institutions, but in terms of stability there are big improvements.”

If ratified, the agreement will be retroactive to Aug. 31, 2013, and will run through Nov. 30, 2015.

 

Aggressive stance by administration prolonged the dispute

The contract settlement comes after a long season of frustration: The previous contract expired Aug. 31, 2013, and on Feb. 24, 2014, AAUP authorized a strike by a margin of 94 percent, with about 796 members casting a ballot. PSU’s administration could have settled months ago, but instead adopted a bellicose posture. It demanded concessions, and deployed a management-side labor attorney — Brian Caufield — who cursed and screamed at members of the AAUP bargaining team. Caufield was not part of the 20-hour-long mediation session that produced the tentative agreement. For those final talks, PSU President Wim Wiewel consulted by phone, having canceled a planned trip to Turkey.

Padin attributes the administration’s turnaround to a big increase in public pressure — and a realization that AAUP was serious about going on strike for the first time ever.

“It was no longer inside ball,” Padin said. “There were a lot of eyes on the president.”

I’m teaching an upper division and graduate-level class in U.S. economic history. Try putting that on Craigslist.” — AAUP president Mary King

Sister higher-ed union American Federation of Teachers-Oregon passed a resolution calling on members not to teach struck classes. Oregon Education Association scheduled a joint press conference with AAUP for April 7 outside Wiewel’s office.

PSU had announced it was planning to remain open in the event of a strike, but a letter to the administration signed by the heads of 25 academic departments said it would be “almost impossible,” to replace strikers with instructors capable of teaching their courses.

“I’m teaching an upper division and graduate-level class in U.S. economic history,” said AAUP president Mary King. “Try putting that on Craigslist.”

Up to 70 percent of classes were expected to be cancelled if the strike went forward, idling about 30,000 students.

The contract dispute also saw the emergence of large and active pro-union student group, the PSU Student Union, with about 800 signed-up supporters led by about 30 student activists. About 500 of them turned out for a pro-union rally Feb. 27. Two students also sat through the entire contract negotiation as observers.

 

AAUP, awakened to higher ed crisis, will stay mobilized

Padin called the contract settlement a first step in a long campaign in which faculty are in conflict with administrators over resources and decision-making.

“The crisis of quality of education as we feel it locally is the product of a scissors effect — state level defunding, and crooked priorities,” Padin said.

Those issues were examined in detail at an April 3 Workers Rights Board hearing that painted a pretty unflattering picture of Portland State. The Workers Rights Board, a project of the union-community coalition Portland Jobs with Justice, consists of panels of community leaders who hear testimony about union struggles. State Senator Chip Shields, a PSU graduate, and State Representative Jennifer Williamson, whose Oregon House district includes the PSU campus, were among the April 3 panelists. PSU has always been a “scrappy underdog” that has done more with less, said AAUP president King, but in recent years it’s lost focus on its mission of quality, affordable university education: Classroom instruction has fallen to just 33 percent of its budget, while administration, athletics, and real estate development have grown, along with tuition and class size. Grad student Joyce McNair said she was shocked to learn that her professors make just $5,000 a year more than she earns at her union job making Oreo cookies as a member of Bakery Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers; it made her question her decision to go into debt in hopes an academic career. At the close of the hearing, Shields read the panel’s recommendations: that instruction should make up 39 percent of the university budget in three years (back to the level it was six years ago), and 50 percent of the budget in eight to 10 years.

AAUP leaders said they’ll be campaigning for that, and also for a reduction of tuition and student debt, and an increase in state funding. Only three states spend less per student on higher education than Oregon.

“I have heard you, and I’m listening,” said PSU president Wim Wiewel April 7, addressing the faculty senate the day after the tentative agreement was reached. Wiewel said he had “not fully appreciated the extent of frustration and disagreement from the faculty about PSU’s direction. Of course I read AAUP’s statements, but my own interactions with faculty and staff over these years gave me a more positive impression of the campus mood. Probably this was some combination of your ‘Portland polite’ and my perennial optimism.”

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