Bellingham Technical College faculty strike could last a week

Court: Strike is illegal, but negotiations must continue

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 24, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - A Bellingham Technical College faculty strike could continue for a week after a court commissioner declined to issue an injunction Tuesday morning, Sept. 24, forcing teachers to return to work.

After a weekend of contract negotiations that continued late into the night Monday, representatives for the Bellingham Education Association faculty union and BTC, along with mediators from the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission, could not reach an agreement.

As a result, the faculty went on strike Tuesday as about 2,500 students were scheduled to start the first day of fall quarter classes.

Union representatives did not respond to the financial portion of the school's Monday night offer, said Marni Saling Mayer, BTC spokeswoman. The school then decided it would seek an injunction against the strike, she said. The two groups appeared in Whatcom County Superior Court at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

A lawyer for the college argued the strike was not only against the law but also caused irreparable harm to students because they could not receive financial aid money until classes start. Under state law, college faculty can't engage in strikes; in return, the board of trustees can't stage a lockout.

During the hearing, Superior Court Commissioner Fred Heydrich said he understood the strike to be illegal, but that the law discourages courts from getting involved in strike situations.

"This is not a situation with broken windows and people throwing bombs," Heydrich said during his decision. "I don't think it's right to enjoin the strike at this time, but the longer it goes on, the closer we get to the point where there may be irreparable harm."

In particular, Heydrich voiced concern for harm to the student population. He urged the two parties to negotiate in good faith. They will be expected in court Monday, Sept. 30, if they have not reached an agreement by then. Negotiations continued Tuesday.

About 84 percent of BTC students have to wait to receive federal financial aid, something many rely on to pay rent and bills, until school is in session, said Kerena Higgins, the assistant attorney general representing BTC during the hearing. Those with work-study jobs could not start work as normal Tuesday, and with no definitive end to the strike in sight, students could be asked to change their schedules to make up for missed instructional hours.

Despite these concerns, many students are standing behind the faculty, said Adam Segaar, a 27-year-old welding student at BTC.

"The faculty at BTC is one of the best you'll ever run upon," Segaar said. "They guide our lives in the right direction, and they don't ask for much."

Segaar receives federal financial aid, veteran's benefits and has a work-study job in the welding department. He quit his other job to attend school and said he only has a few hundred dollars to live on until the issue is resolved. As a welding student, Segaar needs a specific number of hours in the classroom to get his certification, so each day missed could impact his year, he said.

"This is a trade school, you learn by doing it," he said. "We can't build our skills if we're not in class."

Segaar and fellow welding student Danielle Gabriel, 31, said they and other students want the school to offer the faculty the higher salaries they are asking for so everyone can return to school.

All 176 faculty members were on strike Tuesday, Saling Mayer said. BTC has a total of 299 employees.

Some members of the classified staff and other unions on campus decided not to cross the faculty picket line in solidarity with their cause. The classified staff union, Bellingham Education Support Team, is also in negotiations with the school and requested joint negotiations with the faculty staff Monday, Saling Mayer said. It was unclear if and when the negotiations might merge.

Members of the Teamsters union, which represents facilities and food service staff, refused to pick up garbage from campus Tuesday, a picketer told fellow BEA members in front of the courthouse.

The school has made at least four offers to the union since a two-year contract expired in June, Saling Mayer said.

The union is asking for a three-year contract with across-the-board faculty salary raises of 3 percent in the first year, 2.5 percent in the second year, and an undefined raise during the third year for faculty stipends, union liaison Tony Kuphaldt said.

The faculty has not received pay increases since 2008, Kuphaldt said. Neither have they received pay cuts, something a BTC press release said the college was able to avoid in 2012 and 2013 when employees at other colleges and state agencies took 3 percent salary cuts. This year BTC received money from the Legislature to counteract 3 percent cuts during the last biennium. The school used that money to hire staff for positions left empty during that period to avoid cutting salaries, according to a release.

Faculty members also want the college to clarify or add contract language regarding work load and surveillance of faculty and staff.

BTC's latest proposal, as of Monday afternoon, was for a three-year contract with various salary and stipend increases. The cost to the college in the first year would be $133,801, with additional costs in the next two years, according to Saling Mayer.

A BTC statement said, in contrast, the latest demands from the faculty union would cost the college in excess of $287,000 the first year, more than double BTC's offer.

The administration posted its latest offer here (PDF).

BTC faculty and classified staff receive above-average wages compared to others in the state community and technical college system, according to a school release.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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