By Don McIntosh
Faculty at the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) were the last at any Oregon public university to unionize, launching OT-AAUP (Oregon Tech-American Association of University Professors) in 2018. On April 26, they became the first faculty at any Oregon public university to strike. With no union contract 555 days after bargaining began, they struck at OIT’s Klamath Falls, Wilsonville, and Salem campuses.
Eight days later, university administrators came to terms on a tentative agreement that union negotiators say provides fair wages, reasonable workload, and secure benefits.
The biggest roadblock had been a management proposal to tie all raises to merit (as determined by administrators), and allocate a fixed pot of money for those raises, placing faculty in competition. In the end, management agreed to guaranteed increases of 2% to 3% each year through the life of the contract, including a 2% raise retroactive to last year. Faculty salaries at OIT are under $70,000 on average, the union says. The new contract also protects against overly burdensome workload expectations by giving faculty credit for the time they spend advising students and serving on academic committees. And it secures benefits, saying OIT can’t withdraw from benefits offered by the Public Employee Benefit Board unless it does so for all OIT employees, including a unit of support staff represented by SEIU Local 503.
OIT is a polytechnic university, teaching highly specialized courses on subjects like nuclear medicine and molecular imaging. So OT-AAUP members were shocked when the school brought on a company called Focus EduVation to provide replacement instructors for online classes. That didn’t go over well with students. Some students confronted instructors about being strikebreakers, and reported that instructors told them they’d been deceived, told they were COVID replacements, not striker replacements.
Leading up to the strike, the bargaining posture of OIT’s administration alienated faculty. On April 6, OIT’s independent faculty senate voted overwhelmingly to call for the removal of OIT president Nagi Naganathan. And the vote by OT-AAUP members to authorize the strike was 92%.
OIT’s lawyers tried to get the strike declared unlawful, arguing that it was “bad faith” when union leaders asked OIT’s board and president to replace the state attorneys who’ve represented the administration in the unsuccessful negotiations. OIT’s arguments were rejected by the Oregon Employment Relations Board.
Once the strike began, support was strong. Daily picket lines were well-attended and spirited. Teamsters refused to cross picket lines to pick up garbage or deliver packages. On April 30, organized contingents of student supporters entered administration buildings in Klamath Falls and Wilsonville to chant demands for a fair contract.
“What a huge thing it was to see our students supporting us, to see solidarity between students and faculty,” said union spokesperson Kari Lundgren.
Faculty returned to work May 5 and will vote on the agreement in the coming days. Once ratified, it will be in place through June 30, 2025.
“We hope now that the healing can begin” Lundgren said.