Evergreen Student Support Services Union strike, a state first

An estimated 250 people gathered at The Evergreen State College (TESC) May 28 to strike for a “fair contract” for the Student Support Services Staff Union (SSSU).

Strikers asked campus goers to either join them or turn around and leave. Many campus services were unavailable, and some instructors held classes off campus to avoid crossing the picket line.

Organizers said this would be the first union contract in the state for employees typically classified as civil service-exempt staff.

Greg Devereux, executive director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the group of over 50 TESC student support employees is no longer exempt from civil service, so this is the first time they have been able to negotiate a contract.

“Both sides have made progress, but it’s not enough, and the team decided that this was the best way to get the attention of management,” said Devereux, “I think this is the beginning of a different dialogue.”
In an emailed message from Les Purce, TESC president, addressed to the Evergreen community, Purce wrote, “The College intends to maintain normal operations and employees and students should proceed under that assumption.”

Natassia Hollemon, 20-year-old TESC student, said her ceramics teacher, Aisha Harrison, held class in a building on Columbia Street in order to not cross the picket line. Hollemon said about half the class showed up.

“It was a real bummer that we didn’t have studio time because it’s a studio class,” Hollemon said, but the following day, class was to be held as usual.

She said, “I have to do some research. I don’t know what’s going on, so that’s what I’m going to do tonight.”

“We’ve been negotiating a contract for 16 months,” said Devereux, “We have signed off on 50 out of I’d say 53 articles. To us, the outstanding issues are really just two. One is just cause and one is fair compensation.”

A just cause article would require a “neutral outside party” to decide whether and how an employee gets terminated, said Devereux.

Jean Eberhardt, academic advisor and SSSU bargaining team member, said the article of fair compensation the union sought would mean exempt staff would receive periodic step increases in pay like other state employees.

Eberhardt said, “What’s behind all this is sheer, raw, blunt power. It’s UW, Western, Central, Eastern, WSU all saying, ‘Don’t let those lowly exempt staff get those things, because then our lowly exempt staff are going to have a hay day.’ And, that’s a key thing here. They’re getting tremendous pressure from the outside.”

Eberhardt said the union has lost over a third of their bargaining team since the beginning of negotiations, due to moving on or some other “shady” circumstances, and they were losing three that week.
“There’s like a 31-year step grid, but you never move once you’re on it. It’s bizarre,” said Devereux, “Faculty gets one percent every year, and we think that’s fair.”

“Faculty and classified staff have gotten steps for just over 25 years, and this group has not,” said Devereux.

In an email sent to all Evergreen students, Purce wrote, “With the help of mediation, there has been a great deal of progress in negotiations since last week.”

Purce wrote the college offered the union “just cause protection for both discipline and discharge,” pay steps of three percent on July 1, 2013 and one percent on July 1, 2014, “comparable to plans for other exempt employees,” and, “a proposed memorandum of understanding committing the College to exploring with the union development and implementation of an exempt step system.”

“We were surprised that the union let our offer expire and moved ahead with its strike action,” wrote Purce.

“We started coming up with really creative ideas to help Evergreen save face about giving us just cause, but not exactly just cause, some kind of modification of just cause,” said Eberhardt.

The union suggested a consensus-based group of four, two administration representatives and two staff members, but management said there must be a fifth person, Eberhardt said. The union would not agree to having the fifth person be someone from the president’s office; management would not agree to it being a faculty member; and, management “didn’t even answer” when the union suggested a student, she said.

“We’ve already given away most of what we thought was reasonable to ask for,” Eberhardt said. One piece the union gave up was overtime pay. Having no overtime pay is compensated by having “great bosses,” she said.

“There are jewels, but we don’t know how long they are going to be around, so we wanted to codify some things,” she said, even by just allowing people to take time off later to make up for over time.
“It was a really hard one to give up,” she said.

Ben Lucal, 29, TESC graduate, works in the college writing center. He is also a state worker but not in the same group. He performed folk songs in the roundabout on Evergreen Parkway with Monica Peabody, 49, a community supporter.

“These are people who dedicate their lives to the college who can be fired at any moment and who also get paid very, very poorly because they’re in this exempt staff category,” said Lucal, “What’s with this serf mentality?”

“They are not temporary. Their cost of living isn’t less. So, what gives?” said Lucal.

Eberhardt said, “Students love us. They will remember us forever, because we have helped them so much to get scholarships, to help them navigate this unusual curriculum. These are not things you can just plug another person into and they are up to snuff about how our curriculum works.”

“I think we remained overly optimistic for a long time that maybe things were going to improve with the administration, but they didn’t. So we were like, ’We have to do this before the school year is over,’” said Eberhardt.

The union chose that day to strike “because we didn’t want to mess with registration, because we care about the students. And, we didn’t want to mess with the academic fair,” Eberhardt said, “We actually did a little survey…we tried to pick a day when a lot of students were on campus.”

“There was a strike committee, tremendous cross-union participation in organizing this strike, and I’m grateful for their solid support — solid, solid support,” said Eberhardt, “I am indebted personally to all these people who have come here today to support us.”

Purce wrote in the email to the Evergreen community, “While state employees have the right to organize and collectively bargain to the extent authorized by law, they do not have the right to strike. The Attorney General will provide further guidance to the college based on the specific actions of the union.”