The Portland State chapter of the American Association of University Professors filed an unfair practice charge with the Oregon Employment Relations Board earlier this month.
The charge accuses the PSU administration of “bargaining with the union in bad faith”—in other words, violating provisions laid out in the Oregon Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act.
“The bargaining act explicitly defines the boundaries of the behavior that the university must comport with in this collective bargaining relationship, but the administration is circumventing the system,” said Philip Lesch, executive director of PSU-AAUP.
The unfair practice charge was the latest development in contract negotiations until PSU-AAUP declared a formal impasse yesterday, which brought the union closer to authorizing a strike that could coincide with the beginning of spring term.
The charge consists of a multi-part list of complaints that, according to a press release circulated by AAUP last week, “challenges a number of actions by the university administration across different departments.” According to Lesch, the document is 80 pages long and includes 100 citations.
AAUP highlighted three main points of concern in their press release. These relate to, among other things, cases of faculty termination and changes to university policy.
First is the administration’s termination of the Chair of the Strike Strategy Committee. Recounted Lesch, “They targeted a key activist and terminated him. This person was a member of our executive council. We started publishing newsletters back in August about the possibility of a strike this year. No sooner had that started than he was fired.”
Chris Broderick of university communications disputed this version of events, saying, “The university does not punish employees because of their union activities. That would be illegal, and such an allegation or suggestion is false.”
Broderick could not give more details because the university does not comment on personnel issues.
The second complaint item in the press release charges the administration with imposing “unilateral changes to the policies governing merit increases and teaching loads” for faculty at the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning.
Gerald Sussman, a professor of urban studies and planning at PSU, explained that the administration refused to accept the latest iteration of the school’s internally-established governance guidelines, which outlined principles related to workload and merit pay decisions, despite the fact that these principles appear in a previously approved version of the guidelines.
“In other words,” wrote Sussman in an email, “the administration does not want to accept departmental faculty shared governance in these decisions.”
The third issue included in the press release cites the administration’s “unilateral decision to close the Graduate School of Education’s Early Childhood and Training Center and terminate its employees, without first notifying the association about the possibility of closure and bargaining about that decision or the impacts of that decision on the affected employees.”
The Graduate School of Education declined to comment. Broderick stated in an email that the elimination of positions at the center “followed PSU’s collective bargaining agreement.” Broderick acknowledged, “The union has begun the process to contest those layoffs, and the process is ongoing.”
Questions of procedure
According to Oregon law, the charged party—in this case, the PSU administration—must compose a detailed response to the allegations. The Employment Relations Board then uses that information to decide whether the case is eligible for investigation.
“We feel confident that the board is going to see this as a valid set of complaints and it will go to hearing,” Lesch said.
Since the passage of the Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act and establishment of the Employment Relations Board in the early 1970s, more than four decades of case histories have provided a well-established interpretation of what the law means, Lesch explained.
The Bargaining Act lays out specific protocol regarding the length of negotiations before a mediator is appointed, declaration of an impasse, fact-finding, strike, arbitration and so on. When this protocol is not being met, employees can file an official complaint with the Employment Relations Board, as AAUP did at the beginning of the month.
For Lesch and other PSU-AAUP members and their supporters, the situation is a clear-cut breach of fair negotiation procedure. “The administration has clearly been ignoring their obligation to bargain in the areas where they are required to do so,” Lesch said.
A ‘critical crossroads’
With 11 months of negotiations behind them and no contract in sight yet, PSU’s AAUP chapter is using every resource available to them to challenge the administration and draw attention to their demands.
For Lesch, the circumstances at hand are no less than a battle over which direction PSU will take at this “critical crossroads.”
“This year the administration decided they were going to start a war,” Lesch said. “It wasn’t like this last bargaining cycle. The administration’s current position at the table undermines 25 years of bargaining history,” he said.
Sussman echoed Lesch’s sentiment, asserting that the administration’s approach suggests a “blatant attempt to crush the [faculty] union.”
The next step for AAUP’s unfair practice charge requires the administration to compose its response to the allegations.
According to Lesch, the administration has assigned this task to a private legal firm, which has requested three weeks to compose the response. Once this step has been completed, the Employment Relations Board must decide if there is a case to pursue, then investigate and hold a hearing. The duration of this process could run into next year.
Editor’s note: It has recently come to our attention that Sara Swetzoff has been reporting on issues concerning the potential faculty strike while also maintaining personal involvement with the Portland State University Student Union—an organization that has come out in full support of the PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors. The Vanguard recognizes this is a conflict of interest that contradicts our mission to serve as a fair and balanced news source for the PSU community. We apologize for failing to catch this problem before the stories made it to print and have since taken action to ensure it will not happen again.