FIRST LABOR UNION
STRIKE IN 12 YEARS
Imagine a college campus without student support staff – no Residential Directors, student advisors, or records and registration staff. Recruitment and admissions staff would be missing, the Counseling Center deserted, the Financial Aid office a ghost town.
The Evergreen State College resembled this reality when the Student Support Services Staff Union (SSSSU) began to strike on May 28, 2013 – the first Wash. State employee strike in over 12 years, according to the Washington Federation of State Emplyoees.
“With all due respect to faculty,” said Allie Van Nostran, secretary senior in the Student Activities office and alumnus of Evergreen, at the strike to an audience of over a hundred picketers, “when I came to Evergreen, I stayed here because of Student Activities.” Many other students echoed her sentiment, as well as supporting staff, faculty, and alumni. Student Andrew Pawlicki-Sinclair said, “Even if you don’t actively see student support staff yourself all the time, every single student relies so heavily on them.”
JUST CAUSE AND COMPENSATION
The SSSSU was formed in May of 2011. The union spent the next several months putting together their contract, and presented it to the college in January of 2012. The union’s contract bargaining team is made up of Academic Advisor Jean Eberhardt, Student Activities Advisor Courtney Bailey, Resident Director Justin Reuter, Men’s Basketball Coach Arvin Mosley, Publications Advisor Reaz Mahmood, and Leslie Johnson from the Counseling Center.
For 17 months, the SSSSU bargaining team met with President of the College Les Purce, Vice President of Student Affairs Art Costantino, Vice President for Finance and Administration John Hurley, and the college’s bargaining team, made up of other faculty members at Evergreen. Much of the contract has been approved, but the Union continues to negotiate for the approval of two additional articles – one article for “Just Cause” and one for “Compensation.”
“Just Cause means that we would have employment security. We are all ‘at will’ employees, and the college could fire us at any time without any reason,” said Courtney Bailey. The SSSSU’s Just Cause article would provide the union with increased job security and protect its members against the possibility of arbitrary dismissal. “Just Cause is something that our students have through the conduct code,” Bailey continued. “And it is something that all the other Unions have on campus. We are not asking the college to do anything different.”
The compensation article of the contract would increase the benefits that the SSSSU receives through the college. Because the SSSSU is paid on a salary, they are exempt from overtime pay. Justin Reuter said, “The College has four Resident Directors on call, 365 days a year. That means, for a quarter of a year, I am dedicating my evening to the college and to the students.” Reuter commented on how working overtime without pay is exhausting. “I could be working the whole night, responding to fires and facilities issues and students who need support,” he said. “Because the union is exempt from overtime pay, we don’t see our efforts reflected in compensation.”
Reuter and Bailey also talked about how Student Activities Advisors work evenings and weekends for student events, and how admissions counselors are on the road for an average of 60 to 70 hours a week during the fall. “Sometimes they aren’t home for three months at a time. They are not getting any extra pay for all of these hours they are putting in,” Bailey said.
In addition to these two articles, the SSSSU has not been given a pay increase to cover the rising cost of living for the past five years. Bailey says that the SSSSU looked at old census data, and discovered the average salary of a SSSSU member is the same as the average salary of an employee in Wash. State in 1992.
During the past year, both Bailey and Reuter have seen over 19 SSSSU members leave the college to find other jobs with higher pay or better job security. “I know of at least four people that are leaving the institution at the end of the year,” Bailey said. “Over a third of our Union has left.”
PREPARING TO STRIKE
Any union wishing to strike needs over 66 percent approval from the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE). The WFSE voted to give the SSSSU the ability to strike on May 10. Five days later, over 90 percent of the SSSSU voted to authorize job actions that could include a strike.
Les Purce communicated with the students, faculty, and staff through email throughout the month of May. In an email to all staff and faculty, sent on May 16, Purce wrote that the college has made strides to accommodate the SSSSU’s “terms and conditions”, saying that the college’s bargaining team offered a Just Cause article and new severance benefit, which were “consistent with the roles and responsibilities that these bargaining unit employees hold at the College.”
Debbie Brookman, a WFSE labor advocate working with the SSSSU, said that information in the email was misleading and that the Just Cause article the college proposed was not the same agreement the college has come to with other unions on campus. “What they failed to mention,” Brookman said, “is that they wrote [the Just Cause proposal] so they get to decide if and when Just Cause is applied.” Brookman also explained that the language of the college’s proposal would not allow for the investigation and dismissal of a SSSSU member to be reviewed by a neutral third party. “The college would retain the sole ability to decide if they agree with their own decision.”
On May 27, the college put forth a new proposal, including another Just Cause article and a pay raise of three percent for this year and one percent in 2014. During the strike, Purce sent out another email, this time to all students. He said the college “was surprised that the union let our offer expire and moved ahead with its strike action.”
Courtney Bailey said that the SSSSU did not take the college’s offer because the Just Cause article still did not match the Just Cause agreements that other campus unions have. Bailey also said that the union is looking for step increases to cover increasing costs of living, not a pay raise. She believes the union would be content with a lower pay raise, so long as the step increase was locked into the contract. “We are asking for 1 percent increase annually. It ensures that people who have been here for a while actually move up the pay scale.” As inflation and the cost of living continues to increase, the union would continue to receive the step increase.
The Student Services Union started picketing at five in the morning, along with students and some of the United Faculty of Evergreen Union members. The strikers positioned themselves at every entrance of the college, asking passer-byes to join them in solidarity by picking up a sign, not attending class, or crossing the picket line. “Withholding our labor is our greatest strength,” commented Bailey. “We have to show that we are valuable and important to the college.”
At 11 a.m., strikers and supporters gathered at a rally that was held at the bus stop by the college library. “The college can’t put students first,” said Justin Reuter to a cheering crowd, “when it puts student support services last.”
Many people who attempted to enter the college during the strike reported to Police Services that they were being stopped against their will and asked to talk or be given a flyer. “When we came today, there were protestors at the entrance, and we couldn’t get through,” said Terri Rose, an Evergreen alumnus. “I agree with what they are protesting, but access to Evergreen should be easy. They have the right to stand on the corner, to yell and hold their signs all they want, but I should not be detained and forced to hear what they have to say. That is not what Evergreen wants to stand by.”
Freshman Giulia Cole had a similar experience. “I was pulling into F-lot and they tried to keep me from parking, gave me some really nasty looks. Everyone in my program who drove today dealt with the same thing.”
Chief of Police at Evergreen Ed Sorger said that there were several dozen reports of people being harassed, and that people were “upset because they were stopped and confronted” by strikers. There were also a few cases of picket signs being hit against cars as they passed, but Sorger said these incidences were “few and far between.”
The SSSSU’s strike was a one-day event, but the union plans to continue organizing job actions and demonstrations on campus.
On Saturday, June 1, the college will be holding the Return to Evergreen event for alumni. Bailey mentioned that several prominent alumni speakers, including John Stocks (’81), Brian Rainville (’90), and Ray Goforth (’95), all of whom are involved in labor unions, will not speak at the event unless the college approves the SSSSU’s version of the contract.
Additionally, faculty member Lawrence Mosqueda said at the rally that he had plans to draw up a petition for alumni that are attending the Return to Evergreen event, asking them to withhold their donations to the college until the SSSSU’s contract is approved.
By Ray Still