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Evergreen college labor talks now in mediation; Tuesday strike looking more likely

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on May 22, 2013 at 7:49 pm with No Comments »
May 23, 2013 10:08 am
Greg Devereux, executive director for Washington Federation of State Employees - in a 2010 photo by Olympian staffer Steve Bloom
Greg Devereux of the Washington Federation of State Employees / 2010 file photo by Olympian photographer  Steve Bloom

Negotiators for a fledgling support-services union failed to reach agreement and administrators at The Evergreen State College in their final bargaining talks this week, and a two-hour mediation session also did not bear fruit Wednesday. With a date set Tuesday for a possible strike, Student Support Services Staff Union leaders say they still hope to work out a two-year agreement in a second day of mediation planned Thursday.

State workers in Washington “do not have a legally protected right to strike,” but state law does not expressly prohibit it, according to information posted on the state Attorney General’s Office web site.

“We are watching it. At this point the vote has taken place but no action has,” spokeswoman Jaime Smith of Gov. Jay Inslee’s office said Wednesday.  “Until they take some kind of action we’re just monitoring the situation.’’

The new union representing about 55 coaches, counselors, dorm managers and other student-services workers took a strike vote a week ago and agreed by an overwhelming margin to authorize actions up to and including a strike. The union, which is affiliated with the Washington Federation of State Employees, has been in talks for 16 months without a contract.

Top issues in the dispute with college President Thomas L. “Les” Purce’s administration are pay and what are called “just cause” rules to govern disciplinary actions and firings.

Evergreen spokesman Todd Sprague said Purce  invited the union into mediation on May 16 and that the college wants to reach agreement short of a walk out. Sprague also said last week that “it’s a first-time contract” and that “first-time contracts take a long time.’’

Sprague added in an email at the time:

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. …

In making and agreeing to contract provisions with respect to this bargaining unit of approximately 50 exempt employees, the college has to think not just about the interests of those employees, but about what is sustainable by the college, equity among different employees, and potential impacts on the educational mission of the college.

But the new union, which is affiliated with the Washington Federation of State Employees, says it is being denied job protections written into two other labor contracts for classified employees and faculty.

Greg Devereux, executive director for the federation which represents more than 40,000 employees in state agencies and higher education, said “both parties asked PERC (the Public Employment Relations Commission) to come in and mediate. Clearly we don’t want to have a walk out unless it’s necessary. But our folks feel very strongly about the issues.’’

He also said the new bargaining unit has proved very cohesive and is more militant than many he’s worked with.

“Nobody wants to strike but if we’re forced into that corner it’s what we have to do,” said Courtney Bailey, a member of the bargaining unit, late Wednesday. “I think we’ll have more of a sense after mediation tomorrow. We have a strike committee meeting … but we can call that off at any time.’’

“It’s going to be pretty much a mediation-all-day-if-necessary,’’ Bailey said of Thursday’s talks.

Devereux and Bailey both said pay is important for workers who lag their peers at other institutions. But both say the just cause issue may be more important, because two other unions on campus have explicit rights governing the way workers are terminated – and the college is balking at it for this group.

Bailey said the union has offered to seek out just-cause language that shortens the process used by other unions, but the college has not reciprocated with creative solutions to the disagreement.

In an email sent Wednesday to federation members across the state, the union said that a strike was likely and a “day of action” is planned starting at 7:30 a.m. next Tuesday. But even if a strike is called off, the union plans an 11 a.m. rally on the west Olympia campus’ red square.

Devereux said a strike would not be illegal be legal under state law. He cited a rolling walkout by general-government workers in 2001. The key was that essential services were provided – such as making sure there were nurses at work at Western State Hospital and other institutions where walkouts occurred.

He also said the union is in talks with the Attorney General’s Office.

The right-tilting Washington Policy Center, which has sought to undo collective bargaining rights for state workers, says lower court rulings have found strikes to be illegal but acknowledges there have not been appellate rulings.

Updated to correct the year of the last federation strike.

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