Portland State University–AAUP

By Edward J. Graham

The AAUP chapter at Portland State University, first chartered as a faculty bargaining unit in 1978, operates as both a professional association and a collective bargaining agent. PSU-AAUP represents more than 1,200 faculty members and academic professionals employed by Portland State at 0.5 FTE and above.

In spring 2014, PSU-AAUP reached a contract settlement after voting overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. As the strike approached, the bargaining teams entered into a twenty-four-hour marathon session of mediation that ended with an agreement. Thanks to the chapter’s university-wide activism, faculty members were able to win major contract advances after years of cutbacks and concessions.

Academe recently caught up with Pam Miller, the chapter’s president, and Phil Lesch, executive director of PSU-AAUP, to discuss the contract negotiations and the chapter’s continuous work to engage its faculty.

To what do you attribute your chapter’s accomplishment in last spring’s contract negotiations?

It was a deliberate process. We had a tremendous amount of activism within our own membership. That activism was based on the message that the administration was disconnected from the faculty, which resonated with our members.

We planned a very intentional buildup. It began with engaging the membership at varying levels of commitment. We developed a face-to-face network and trained organizers, each of whom was responsible for ten contact points. The idea was that by building concentric circles, we would have a core organizing group that could reach more than 50 percent of the members without having to send any e-mails or letters. That was very effective, and through that network we built greater and greater activism by asking for more and more commitment from our members. Small steps built to larger and larger steps to create a responsive network driven by activism and fueled, in large part, by the antiunion rhetoric coming from the administration.

One of the main strengths of last spring’s contract negotiations was the coalition that PSU-AAUP built with students and the student government. How were faculty able to work with and engage students to support their bargaining efforts?

Student participation in bargaining is critical to our continued success on campus. Faculty interests and student interests are closely aligned. The students were cognizant of the hostile strategy being employed by the administration to break our union, so they decided to take action. They created their own organizing group, called the Student Action Coalition, which concentrated on organizing students around the student issues that PSU was facing at the bargaining table.

Concerns such as increasing class sizes, a decrease in class selections, more contingent positions, social issues, and a reduction of classes offered during the summer were important to the students as well, and they combined their concerns with ours. We had a rally with the students that ultimately led to the call for a student walkout, and in the pouring rain we had over a thousand students with protest signs and speakers protesting the administration’s anti-faculty approach.

The engagement worked better when it happened with the students taking the lead, rather than the faculty involving the students. The faculty did a lot of grassroots work to educate the students about what was going on and directly engage their voice in the bargaining process, but the students ultimately took it upon themselves to show the administration that they were standing with their professors.

What makes faculty at PSU so open to unionism and issues of academic freedom?

Faculty have been unionized at PSU since 1978, so we’re an old chapter with a history of building faculty participation and shared governance around core AAUP principles. The union has had a very prominent place here, and it’s always been an AAUP chapter. It hasn’t always been active the way it is now, though. It was actually a somewhat sleepy chapter for many years, until this new administration came in from the outside with a different perspective on how to interact with faculty.

We take organizing and activism very seriously at PSU. We have a full-time internal organizer dedicated to organizing the faculty, even in the lull between campaigns, to keep them engaged and oriented to collectivism. We’ve got a lot of tentacles out to keep a pulse on issues affecting faculty, but we also have a lot of active and engaged members. We’re active in every process in Oregon that relates to higher education, and we’ve been able to build a coalition of faculty that has an important voice in the legislative process.

What is the biggest concern of faculty at your institution right now?

One of the biggest concerns faculty have is about the summer sessions, which weren’t included in the contract. There have been a lot of issues with summer sessions and contracts, most notably fewer courses, faculty being paid a lot less to teach, and less funding. Right now we’re studying the data from our members and from the administration to gauge our next steps.

Another concern centers on our new board of trustees. The Oregon university system has been almost completely dissolved, and there is no state board of higher education, so each university now has its own board. our board of trustees started in July 2014, and the first issue it considered was whether we should have an armed police force on campus. our union voted 70 percent against guns, and our faculty senate had a very similar vote. Students were also strongly against the proposal. however, it’s been decided that we will have an armed police force, and the process that led to this decision was very troubling to us as a union. It was also worrisome to all of us that, contrary to the student and faculty wishes, the president and board went ahead with the decision to allow guns.

The board is still new, so we’re going to continue to watch and see what happens.

What are some of the successful strategies PSU-AAUP has used to engage its members that other chapters could emulate?

One of the things that we’ve learned is that, when given the choice between a phone call, e-mail, and face-to-face interactions, faculty members will normally choose to interact by e-mail. But e-mail is probably the worst way to organize faculty, and we recognized the need to concentrate our efforts on face-to-face meetings. So we created a network of organizers to visit people’s offices and speak with them about important issues. That effort was largely successful because it allowed for a productive back-and-forth with our members and for a meaningful network of activism and engagement to emerge.

Ultimately, the way to engagement is through personal invitation, not merely through e-mails and op-ed pieces that leave a sense of disconnect between faculty and their union. It’s got to be a combined effort, with a heavy emphasis on personal appeals and invitations that allow the faculty members to see that their individual concerns are acknowledged by their colleagues.

How does PSU-AAUP engage with higher education policies, both on campus and in the state of Oregon?

Oregon ranks among the bottom five states in per-student spending on higher education, so it’s important for us to maintain an active presence in the state’s legislative process. our chapter and members have been active in the statehouse for years; when we go down to Salem and say, “This new idea about education reform will have a negative impact,” politicians listen to us and take what we say into consideration. Oregon is a relatively small state, so all of us who are active in state politics and legislation have gotten to know each other pretty well over the years.

PSU-AAUP’s voice becomes singularly important in those areas where we’re perceived to have an extra level of expertise. We adopt positions on legislation and initiatives, we support candidates, and PSU-AAUP leaders meet with candidates to hear their perspectives and to share our chapter’s position. We want legislators to call PSU-AAUP leadership when something related to higher education shows up on their desk—and perhaps not call the president of the university or the institution senate. It’s a very deliberate strategy, and the point is to have our state legislators and representatives understand that we exist to promote quality higher education.

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