Strike wins big gains for faculty at Clark College

By Don McIntosh

After 15 months of frustrating negotiations, it took just two days of striking for about 500 community college faculty to win the best union contract they’ve ever had.

Members of Clark College Association for Higher Education (CCAHE) voted 257 to 9 on the third day of the strike, Jan. 15, to approve the new three-year collective bargaining agreement. The new contract includes raises of as much as $11,064 a year, and for the first time puts part-time faculty pay on a path to parity with full-timers.

“There were people crying, they were so happy to get these raises,” said CCAHE president Suzanne Southerland. “It was a significant win for everybody.”

The new agreement includes a 1% raise retroactive to July 1, 2017, when the previous three-year union contract expired; plus a 9% raise retroactive to July 1, 2019. Salaries for full-time Clark College faculty will now start at $62,049 and top out at $87,403.

But possibly even more important: A side agreement that’s part of the contract will reduce the college’s incentive to shift course load to lower-paid part-time faculty who teach on limited-term contracts. Known as “adjuncts” in academic lingo, the part-time faculty have up to now been paid a flat rate for each credit hour they teach. Now they’ll be paid a salary based on their course load that’s calculated as a percentage of what the college would have paid if a full-timer taught it, and that percentage will increase each year. Part-timers will begin making 65% of the full-time rate, and that will rise to 67% in July 2020, 69% in July 2021, and 72% in July 2022. Southerland said the union will push for that percentage to continue to rise until it reaches at least 85%.

“The ultimate result,” Southerland said, “will be faculty who can commit more of their life to students at one institution, have more academic freedom, and be more a part of the bargaining unit.”

Clark College, a public community college,  serves about 9,000 students at its Vancouver campus. CCAHE, an affiliate of the Washington Education Association (WEA), represents about 190 full-time and 360 part-time faculty there. Clark isn’t the region’s first institution to agree to link adjunct pay to full-time, Southerland said. The Evergreen State College in Olympia does so, and in December, Portland Community College instructors ratified an agreement that will pay part-timers 70% of the full-timer rate by Fall 2022.

Southerland said Clark’s win may inspire other academic unions to similarly push back against the erosion of full-time permanent teaching.

“The strength and solidarity our union showed going on strike in the snow, in the dark, in the rain … I think that’s what got us the contract. The community and the administration saw we were serious and totally determined to get this done.”

The two sides won’t have much time to rest and enjoy the new accord: The contract they signed expires June 30, 2020, and they’ll likely begin bargaining the next one in a few months.

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