Lessons from the Oregon Tech-AAUP Strike

Owls always negotiate.
By Ben Bunting, Franny Howes, C.J. Riley, Matt Frye, and Sean St. Clair

Faculty members at the Oregon Institute of Technology formed an AAUP collective bargaining chapter in 2018, after a protracted struggle to secure fairer labor practices. We began bargaining our first contract in fall 2019 and continued for more than 550 grueling days without reaching an agreement.

In April 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, OT-AAUP went on strike. For ten days, our members were on the picket lines—real and virtual—to demand more clearly defined and reasonable faculty workloads, fairer compensation, and more secure benefits. We reached a tentative agreement on our first contract in the early hours of May 4, bringing the strike to a successful conclusion. The contract enshrined our previous instructional workload and included new provisions to protect faculty members from excessive overload teaching. It also established a clear timeline for salary increases and tied the faculty’s benefits to those of the administration and staff.

Organizing any strike is a complex undertaking; striking during a global pandemic, and as a newly formed union, posed particularly daunting challenges. In what follows, we describe the most important lessons we learned from the strike.

Remember Your Constituents

Faculty unions that have gone on strike or come close to striking always say that student support is crucial, and that was very true for us. We remain incredibly grateful for the ongoing support of students before, during, and after the strike (even now, almost a year after we won our contract). This relationship is not transactional: our student support was won over years of teaching in classrooms and labs and through our mentoring of students in clubs and advising. It thwarted much of the antifaculty messaging that students heard from the administration. Students shared common cause with us because they believed in supporting faculty members and prioritizing education.

Our students worked hard to keep faculty spirits up during our picketing. They also created the best strike signs: one student in nuclear medicine held a sign depicting an X-ray with the text “I see right thru you admin,” while another carried a sign reading “Students will go nuclear for a fair contract”; a student in civil engineering went with “We need our faculty, truss me.” We could not read our university email or walk onto university grounds, but students could, and many were happy to tell us how the senior administration was communicating with them. Some students responded to the senior administration with pointed and hilarious memes and songs on the picket line. Our strike would have been much more difficult without our students’ support.

In the week leading up to the strike, we hosted a large Zoom meeting for any students who wanted to know more about our impending strike; the senior administration did the same. In contrast with the administration’s approach, we made sure to offer as much transparency and access as possible, answering questions directly without moderation or mediation. Many faculty members already had a strong bond with students in their programs, and this conversational approach reinforced that relationship.

While students have a major stake in the outcome of any faculty action, support from the community outside the university can also have a strong impact. Community supporters, alumni, and former faculty and staff members wrote letters to the editor in local, regional, and state newspapers; put up lawn signs; joined picket lines; and commented at public meetings. Our university’s campuses are not as large a part of our communities as are many other public university campuses, so every additional voice and sign in support of our faculty was significant.

Use Your Organizers

Organizers in your region may not know your chapter’s strengths and needs the way you do, but they are your connection to strategies and experience from previous strikes around the country. Be sure to openly state your concerns about going into a strike or very tense negotiations, so that they know how to best support your chapter’s work. And, more than anything, AAUP staff organizers can help you organize! A strike succeeds because of countless one-on-one conversations, and AAUP staff provided extensive assistance through trainings, coordination, and follow-up.

Our organizers met with our union’s executive committee and communication committee on a regular basis in the months leading up to our strike, offering tips and guidance for each action we were planning and letting us know what the potential worst-case scenarios could be if the state of negotiations did not improve. Without their expertise, we would have continued to rely on the internal mailing system we had set up to handle communications rather than recognizing the need to move to a commercial mass-mailing tool. Likewise, we would not have anticipated all of the needs of picketers on the first day of our strike.

Identify new Leaders

It may be obvious that faculty leadership is important for a faculty organizing campaign; some of this leadership may already exist, but leadership capacity will also need to be developed. Although cultivating new leaders should be an ongoing process for every chapter, a strike will provide new opportunities to harness the talents of your membership. A strike campaign succeeds because members have stepped up to motivate, inspire, teach, and support their colleagues. It depends on members’ taking responsibility for running picket lines, making phone calls, and leading chants. You never know who’s going to be adept at using the megaphone!

Having frank discussions with faculty colleagues at OT-AAUP events helped some to realize that the poor working conditions under which they had been struggling for some time were in fact a systemic, university-wide problem and not confined just to their department. This ability to develop a shared perspective through communication led to departments being more engaged with solidarity work.

Allowing leadership to develop organically may work well when you do not face time constraints, but there are also some essential functions that need to be filled sooner rather than later. We found that it’s important to have a communications team meet regularly and to make sure that all communications work doesn’t fall to only one volunteer.

Faculty members have varied expertise that can be extremely useful in areas such as communications, project management, technology, and even mapmaking. Strategically recruit leaders and volunteers with these capacities. At the same time, it’s important to train people who haven’t been involved in union organizing before. Even though we had identified media contacts to ensure that our messaging was consistent, we couldn’t control whom reporters would try to interview on the picket line.

Know Your Tools

Oregon Tech is a small university, and at the time of the strike we had about 160 faculty members. Our size shaped our approach; approaches that have worked for large bargaining units would not have been realistic for us. Oregon Tech also has multiple geographically disparate campuses, which meant that OT-AAUP had to create a strategy that could include everyone, not just faculty members at the biggest campus.

Of course, 2020 was the year of Zoom, and videoconferencing was essential for organizing during the first year of the pandemic. Prior to our strike, Oregon Tech used Zoom to conduct its regular business across the multiple campuses where it operates. Our chapter was at a slight advantage in this regard, having had a lot of experience with setting up and conducting Zoom meetings. The shift from small committee meetings and organizing sessions to large organizing meetings with more than one hundred attendees highlighted some of the skills that are necessary in using Zoom as an organizing tool.

All faculty members participating (not just the organizers, but especially them) must understand the full capabilities of their chosen communication tools, including functions such as premeeting registration, hand raising, muting and unmuting of participants, moderating, and identifying a host account. The same goes for text-based communications through mass-emailing tools, which can be much more complicated than blind copying a list of faculty email addresses in Outlook. Trying to learn these functions on the fly is stressful, time-consuming, and potentially damaging to your message.

We also found collaborative writing tools—particularly Google Docs—useful in enabling us to rapidly develop external messaging. A Zoom call with all participants on a shared document allowed us to draft, review, and finalize content on the fastest timeline possible. We also used “rage writing”—a helpful process that involves articulating in the first draft of written communications whatever you wish you could publicly say about the administration’s behavior or the state of negotiations—to clarify our issues and audience.

Larger faculty unions recommended and have had success using social media to communicate with faculty colleagues. Our faculty body is small enough that we found social media much more useful for engaging with outside audiences—students, parents, community members, and news outlets—than for internal communication. We used automated tools connected to our union website to push out news updates, blog posts, and other content on our Facebook and Twitter accounts. While we found that Facebook generated many opportunities for direct engagement, we also benefited from the work of students who independently created their own Twitter account, @OIT4Faculty, to support our messaging about our fight for a fair contract.

It is critical that faculty engaging with these tools have experience not only in using them but also in creating content that will be picked up by the platform’s algorithm and distributed as widely as possible. Additionally, faculty should understand the time and effort required to maintain a presence on these platforms before being assigned that duty—responding to comments on a single page or profile can easily consume someone’s attention for a full day, for example.

Share the Picketing Experience

The solidarity of a picket line can be a powerful experience, and it was especially so in our case, because many of us had not seen each other in person for a year. Being outdoors while also having a high vaccination rate and good mask compliance made picketing in person a low-risk activity during the pandemic. (Thank you to the national AAUP for providing masks!)

We also regularly streamed “virtual pickets” on Facebook Live. Several faculty members hosted the stream, which included interviews with faculty members and supporters as well as live cell-phone footage from the picket lines themselves. Striking faculty members who were not able to come to the picket lines in person for health or geographic reasons were able to join the virtual picket, as were supporters all over the world. While all of our campuses planned general strike activities in coordination, individual campuses were each given the ability to time their efforts to match their location. At our urban campus in Portland, faculty members picketed the campus’s primary entrance and marched along high-traffic roadways to raise awareness of our strike, while faculty members at our rural campus in Klamath Falls worked hard to draw students, colleagues, and community members to our picket location, going so far as to tag the campus’s main entrance in Google Maps as “Solidarity Corner.” Faculty members at the Klamath Falls campus continue to hold union events at that location.

Bring Children and Dogs!

When picketing occurs, be friendly, be cheerful, and be photogenic! Nobody wants to strike, but as a last-resort tool in negotiations, a strike sends a message that all other options have been exhausted. Despite uncertainty about our professional futures and our students’ academic present, in pictures of our picket lines faculty members are always smiling, for two reasons: first, we were all standing up for our rights and our needs as professionals, and second, many of us had brought our children (outside of school hours) and dogs to the event. This kept our spirits high throughout the day (we got to meet one another’s kids and dogs!) and made it more difficult for passersby to shout hurtful things.

Don’t Wing It

It is important to explain to your bargaining unit and your supporters the basics of how strikes normally work. Some people will already have relevant experience and knowledge, but don’t assume that everyone or even most members understand how strikes work. For example, we needed to explain why it was “good” that deliveries weren’t coming to campus—it showed recognition and solidarity from other labor organizations and put pressure on the university to come to an agreement as soon as possible.

At the same time, you can’t count on everything going according to plan. Senior administrators at Oregon Tech did not follow the typical playbook for declaring impasse or negotiating a strike settlement, and we could have better prepared the members of our bargaining unit to adapt to the unexpected.

Even our strike chants started with the basics and got more creative as the strike went on: we began with the straightforward “We are OIT!” and the slogan “I’d rather be teaching! I’d rather be learning!” before moving on (in a nod to our mascot) to “Owls are wise, owls are great, owls always negotiate. Owls don’t lie, they always care, an owl contract is always fair!” and (with apologies to the Spice Girls) “Now tell me what you want what you really, really want! I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want. I want to strike, I want to strike, I want to strike, I want to strike, I want a really, really, really, really, really fair contract!”

Get Media Attention

Write press releases about newsworthy developments that help move the story forward. Focus on the escalation of the campaign and provide a hook—a new, newsworthy piece of information or twist. If you’re not already a journalist, thinking in terms of “newsworthiness” may be unfamiliar, but this is how editors evaluate items they might assign to reporters.

Get used to organizing information by order of importance. Faculty are not used to writing this way! Try to recruit at least one person with expertise in communications to the group that writes press releases. The first paragraph should include a hook that will grab reporters’ attention. Make sure to include relevant information about who, where, and why along with quotes from chapter leaders, and be careful to avoid jargon. Your press releases should include a one-paragraph summary toward the end to help people who have not yet started following the story understand why faculty members are striking and what they are seeking.

Follow up each press release with phone calls to pitch your story. Try to develop relationships with individual reporters and keep an organized list of media contacts. Many outlets publish editor and reporter emails publicly, but you may have to identify contacts through other means. If you have no idea where to start, begin with local news outlets, then keep track of other news groups that pick up your story by doing a daily Google News search. AAUP chapters are also encouraged to consult with the national AAUP staff for assistance with compiling media contacts and crafting a public narrative.

Stay Grounded

Oregon Tech faculty have had an ongoing experience of traumatic betrayals stemming from the way we were treated by senior administration: what was said and done did not match up with the goals and values of the institution. You can control only whether your own side is acting in good faith, not whether you will be dealt with in good faith by your employer. Though you might enter the negotiation or strike process hoping that it will end in a conciliatory agreement between two previously warring sides, you should also be prepared for the discomfort and animosity to continue. Attempting to maintain a positive outlook and keep communications emotionally neutral can be difficult in the face of tactics that seem combative beyond reason. Keep your eyes on your goals and stay grounded in your values at all times.

Ben Bunting is associate professor of the humanities at the Oregon Institute of Technology, where he is also active in the honors program and in faculty governance. Franny Howes is an associate professor of communication at Oregon Tech, a cartoonist, secretary of OT-AAUP, and a proud former graduate student unionist. C. J. Riley is a professor of civil engineering at Oregon Tech with a background in general education reform and engineering education research. Matt Frye was assistant professor of communication at the time of the faculty strike; he has since left Oregon Tech for a writing position in industry. Sean St. Clair is professor of civil engineering at Oregon Tech and president of OT-AAUP.