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UPDATE – Evergreen State College bargaining unit votes overwhelmingly to OK strike option in ongoing contract talks

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on May 15, 2013 at 2:48 pm | No Comments »
May 15, 2013 6:10 pm

UPDATE: Student-services workers at The Evergreen State College  voted 45 to 5 today to authorize actions “up to and including a strike” this afternoon. The overwhelming vote does not mean a strike will happen, but it will be an option for the employees as they continue to bargain with the administration over pay and disciplinary issues at the four-year school.

The affected workers include counselors and academic advisers.

ORIGINAL POST: About 55 student-services employees seeking a first-time labor contract at The Evergreen State College were voting today on whether to authorize a strike or other job actions, while their ongoing talks with the college administration drag on for a second year. The college has offered pay adjustments for the workers but that apparently falls short of what the bargaining unit wants.

The workers, allied with the Washington Federation of State Employees, also want to secure just cause” rules to govern what happens when management seeks to discipline or fire an employee, according to parties on both sides of the talks.

“These are folks like academic counselors, advisers, (dorm) residence directors, athletic coaches, academic advisers, mental health advisers (and) career development staff,’’ federation spokesman Tim Welch said. “This would be the first vote on a possible strike in the modern collective bargaining era.”

Welch was referring the Personnel System Reform Act of 2002 that gave state employees the right to bargain for wages and health benefits rather than accept whatever the Legislature proffered.

Evergreen officials say they are continuing the talks, which have been going on for about 16 months.

“It’s a first-time contract with a group of exempt student services employees. First-time contracts take a long time. We still have some distance to go but we are working hard to wrap this up as soon as we can,’’ college spokesman Todd Sprague said Wednesday as the voting was under way by the members of WFSE Local 443.

Both sides declined to get into specifics of the wage offers and demands. But Sprague said in an email: “The college has made fair and reasonable proposals on terms and conditions of employment that would provide new benefits to these employees, including just cause for discipline and a new severance benefit, which are consistent with the roles and responsibilities that bargaining unit employees hold at the college.”

Sprague said the college’s position is tempered by a need to reach agreements that are sustainable and in line with other labor contracts on campus.

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire and about two-dozen labor groups did reach agreements last year on wage agreements for 2013-15 that affirmed the end of temporary 3 percent pay cuts from the 2011-13 period and also – in most cases – included no pay raises in 2013. But general-government workers were given the possibility of 1 percent pay raises in July 2014 if state revenues rebound, while other contracts for higher-education workers and nurses carried larger raises of 2 percent or more per year.

The Evergreen bargaining unit was formed after a 2007 law provided additional rights to higher-education groups. Negotiations have been ongoing for about a year and a half. But it is still unclear the union – which has additional talks scheduled with college administrators next Tuesday – would actually go on strike.

“It really depends on what the outcome is tonight. We’ll count the ballots,” Welch said. “It requires a two-thirds majority vote.’’

UPDATE: Reaz Mahmood, a member of the workers’ bargaining team,  said he expects the vote to favor a strike. He also said that is not the outcome any of the union members wanted in its talks with the college.

“This is something none of us is happy about. We are not happy this is what it takes to get our institution to look at this problem seriously,’’ Mahmood said.

No individual college employees on the union’s bargaining team agreed to talk about the situation.

There is a question whether strikes are allowed under state law, and Welch said it may be up to a court to sort that out – if things go that far.

But public employees have been on strike, including an eight-day walkout by Tacoma public school teachers in September 2011 over several issues, including reassignments of staff.

The federation’s general-government workers last went on what they called a “rolling strike” during the Legislature’s 2001 special session – when wages were the primary focus. “We wanted to conduct a legal strike because we didn’t want to be hauled into court. We did what was called a rolling strike,’’ Welch said.

The result was a series of short, scattered actions around the state that were carried out over a period of a few days and spared agency operations from closure.

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