Classes at Bellingham Technical College could be canceled about a week after they started if contract negotiations between the faculty union and the college don’t gain traction.
The union, the Bellingham Education Association, voted on Sept. 13 to begin striking if a resolution with the college was not met by the end of Tuesday, Sept. 27. Fall classes at the college began Sept. 20.
The current faculty contract expired in June, said Don Anderson, a union spokesman and welding technology instructor. The union and college administrators first stepped up to the bargaining table in early 2016, he said. They continued throughout the spring and summer, and held the most recent talks Sunday and Monday.
Both bargaining teams were still at the table by around 6 p.m. Monday, Anderson said.
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“To tell you the truth, nothing substantive has come from the college until the last couple of weeks when it became apparent to us they were just dragging their feet,” he said. “We’re really stuck in a situation where we need a full contract that addresses all the issues that are important to us.”
BTC has 440 employees, including 170 faculty, said Marni Mayer, a college spokeswoman. The union represents 45 faculty members.
A strike would mean all classes, including those conducted online or partially online, would be canceled until the strike is over, Mayer said. Three years ago, a faculty strike canceled four days of classes at the beginning of the 2013 fall quarter.
The union representing the college’s maintenance staff, Anderson added, has said it would not cross the strikers’ picket line in a show of support should a strike happen.
We want to do everything we can to help our students but we really need the support of the administration to be able to do that.
Don Anderson, BTC faculty union spokesman and welding technology instructor
At the center of the talks are three concerns union members have, Anderson said: teachers’ workloads, classroom safety and compensation.
Administrators have asked instructors to teach around 20 credits – or four classes at five credits each – every quarter, Anderson said, adding that the norm at comparable colleges around the state is three classes. The union has offered to take on larger class sizes in order to make that work, but BTC has not been receptive to that, Anderson said.
Faculty are also increasingly being asked to do administrative tasks that take away from their classroom duties, he added.
In regard to classroom safety, Anderson said students have made threats toward faculty in the past. When those threats were later reported, administrators’ response, he added, “was not as quick and as complete as we needed them to be.”
The college also has not replaced counseling staff in recent years, Anderson said, going from three full-time counselors to one person who spends half their time counseling and the other half advising. This presents challenges when accommodating students who struggle with mental illnesses, Anderson said.
“It unfortunately puts the instructors right on the front line of trying to deal with students in very tense situations, which we’re not fully trained to deal with,” Anderson said.
Compensation also has been at the center of the negotiation process, Anderson said, with a dispute over the schedule for cost-of-living raises. The union, he said, has asked for 3-percent raises for each year the contract is in effect. The college has agreed to 1.8 percent, the same figure covered by the state.
The union, Anderson said, argues that the rate is below the national average for faculty at colleges like BTC.
“We really need that additional 3 percent, so we feel like that’s a fair request,” he said. “So far, that’s been a big sticking point.”
In a Monday statement, BTC said it had worked over the past year to develop a new student conduct code, a task force focused on shared governance that included faculty representation, and a college assembly, which also included faculty members, that would advise the college’s board of trustees.
“BTC continues to bargain in good faith and remains hopeful that significant progress will be made on an agreement with the faculty BEA union in time to avoid disruption in the education of BTC’s students,” the statement reads.
Students remain the union’s priority as the talks continue, Anderson said, adding that faculty concerns, like instructors’ workloads and classroom safety, affect students, too.
“We’re education professionals, and we’re in this business to help students learn,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to help our students, but we really need the support of the administration to be able to do that.”