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Employees at The Evergreen State College go on strike; picket lines on campus

Post by Melissa Santos / The Olympian on May 28, 2013 at 10:10 am with No Comments »
May 28, 2013 5:16 pm
Public employees from throughout the state joined the picket lines Tuesday at The Evergreen State College, where 57 student services personnel went on strike. (Melissa Santos/Staff writer)
Public employees from throughout the state joined the picket lines Tuesday at The Evergreen State College, where 57 student services personnel went on strike.  Union members held a rally on campus from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. (Melissa Santos/Staff writer)

Updated at 1:22 p.m. to add quotes from Rep. Chris Reykdal, details about alternate Evergreen campus classrooms and quote from executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

Updated at 2:33 p.m. to add statement from The Evergreen State College.

Updated at 3:20 p.m. to add information on strike legality.

Student services employees at The Evergreen State College in Olympia went on strike Tuesday after failing to reach an agreement with administrators regarding firing procedures and pay.

The 57 Evergreen employees, which include resident advisers, academic counselors and athletic coaches, were joined by a few hundred supporters from the state employees union, the Evergreen faculty union and on-campus student organizations. Together they formed picket lines at 12 locations on the Evergreen campus, said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees.

Demonstrators allowed cars to enter the campus Tuesday, though they slowed traffic and encouraged drivers to turn around and not cross the picket lines.

As a result of the strike, some Evergreen faculty moved their classes off campus. Some campus facilities were closed, including the swimming pool, photography studio, student activities office and a few of the smaller cafeterias, said college spokesman Todd Sprague.

The strike follows six days of unsuccessful mediation efforts between college administrators and the union of 57 student services employees.

Courtney Bailey, a member of the bargaining unit, said the union members are fighting for a contract that prevents them from being fired or disciplined without just cause. Negotiations to establish the employees’ first union contract with the college began 16 months ago, Bailey said.

“We’re just asking for a fair process in termination, that they have to have a good reason to terminate someone,” Bailey said.

Bailey said Evergreen’s 57 student services workers also don’t receive annual step pay increases like other unionized employees on campus, which has been a sticking point in contract negotiations.

In a written statement Tuesday, Evergreen President Les Purce said that the college has already offered the student services employees just cause protections in disciplinary proceedings, as well as salary raises for this year and next year that are “comparable to plans for other exempt employees at the College.” Purce said that college officials were surprised the union chose to strike.

“The College remains committed to good faith bargaining, and we hope to reach a fair agreement as soon as possible,” Purce’s statement said.

Bailey said that the college’s offer would leave the review of disciplinary actions against employees in the hands of college managers. The union wants an independent review of decisions to discipline or fire employees, she said.

“We definitely have different definitions of just cause,” Bailey said.

Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said that it is likely that the student services employees will continue to strike throughout the week — though that may not mean a repeat of Tuesday’s picket lines.

“I don’t know whether it will be in this form, but there will be numerous actions this week,” Devereux said. “We’re going to decide day-to-day.”

Evergreen faculty members weren’t on strike Tuesday, but more than 65 of them still joined the picket lines to show their support, said Laurie Meeker, elected chairwoman of the United Faculty of Evergreen.

“The staff are really important to our work at Evergreen,” Meeker said. “All of those services (they provide) are critical to what we do in the classroom with students.”

Members of the faculty union already have contracts that promise just cause in termination and disciplinary proceedings, Meeker said. So do members of Evergreen’s classified employees union,  she said.

“It’s a basic workers’ right that we think that our colleagues should also have,” Meeker said.

Some students who arrived on campus Tuesday morning decided to leave and study elsewhere after they saw the effects of the strike.

“A lot of the campus is shut down because most of the staff is gone,” said Victoria Zoller, a 21-year-old senior at Evergreen. ”We’re probably going to go off campus to avoid the commotion.”

Zoller’s modern physics class was moved off campus Tuesday to the Washington State Labor Council building in downtown Olympia, she said. Faculty member John Schaub told students via the class message board that classes would continue at the off-campus location throughout the week if the strike continues.

At the labor council building Tuesday, three rooms on the first floor of the building bore sheets of yellow printer paper that identified them as part of the “Evergreen Solidarity School.” A handful of students attended class there about 1 p.m.

Other students decided to join the picket lines.

“They support our student organizations, so of course we want to support them,” said Dana Joud, 22, a member of M.E.X.A., a Chicano student organization on campus. ”They deserve to get their basic needs met.”

At a rally that union members organized on the Evergreen campus Tuesday, Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Olympia, said he stands behind the striking Evergreen employees, and characterized the college’s position as an attack on public sector workers.

“This community of the greater Olympia area, at its heart and soul is state government and The Evergreen State College,” Reykdal said. “When the Legislature fails to fund our higher ed institutions and subsequently they feel the need to attack workers’ job security, that’s a threat to our community.”

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 website.

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