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Strike Threat Wins In Confrontation Over Remote Work

Above photo: Faculty and professional staff at Portland Community College stopped management from ending flexible work arrangements. Ramy El Mongi, PCCFFAP.

When “Reclaim your Momentum” was unveiled as the theme for Portland Community College’s 2023 in-service training, it struck a discordant note with members of my union, the PCC Federation of Faculty and Academic Professionals. We hadn’t lost our momentum so much as we’d been subjected to two years of organizational restructuring in the midst of a global pandemic.

The reorganization had concentrated power at the top, and now the college president was rolling out her plan to end the flexible work arrangements developed for the pandemic. This was despite the fact that more than 60 percent of students were still accessing classes remotely, and nearly all students preferred to access services like advising, counseling, and financial aid via Zoom.

At the time, our members ranged from working fully in person to fully remote, with most somewhere in between. If there was a silver lining to the pandemic, it was flexibility in where we work, including freedom from miserable and sometimes dangerous commutes.

This was especially true for employees with disabilities, like my colleague Patricia Kepler, an accessibility specialist who is visually impaired and relies on public transportation. Returning to in-person work would mean taking the bus on dark rainy mornings, even on days when she has no in-person appointments. Kepler told me that flexible work arrangements had vastly improved her working conditions as well as those of colleagues with so-called “invisible” disabilities like ADHD, depression, anxiety, and chronic fatigue.

Now full-time employees were being handed new “hybrid” schedules that required them to be on campus four days per week and adhere to set hours that often interfered with student and department needs. Academic advisors who once could structure their days around student availability were barred from accepting evening or drop-in appointments. Faculty counselors were being forced to take lunch breaks at set times, rather than scheduling them around meetings with students.

Top Priority

Those who returned to on-site work found facilities in a state of disarray. Food services were not operating and entire buildings were closed. Shuttle buses between campuses were not running. Faculty who were teaching classes online didn’t have privacy or a quiet space to teach and meet with students. Plus, there were rodent infestations, broken printers, and Wi-Fi was often inaccessible.

To enforce the president’s plan, the administration leaned on provisions in our contract that required full-time faculty to be on campus 30 hours per week and gave managers near-complete control over the schedules of Academic Professionals—an employment category that includes overtime-exempt positions like Advisors, Employment Specialists, Research Analysts, and Accountants.

As we began contract negotiations in 2023, members made it clear that protecting the flexibility we had gained during the pandemic was a priority. At the bargaining table, management flatly rejected our proposals, and we realized that winning on this issue would require a massive organizing effort, including a credible strike threat.

Early in negotiations, we had insisted on open bargaining, including access via Zoom, as part of our ground rules. This turned out to be enormously helpful, as it allowed members to follow along in real time.

In between bargaining sessions, the union hosted weekly Zoom meetings for members to share what was happening in their departments, and educated members about their rights as overtime-exempt employees. The union publicized department-level pushback against directives via email, social media, petition drives, and organizing turnout to PCC Board of Directors meetings. We also filed an unfair labor practice charge on behalf of faculty counselors and academic advisors after management made a unilateral change to their schedules.

Even with all this effort, the administration did not relent until we presented a strike pledge signed by more than 700 of our members and requested mediation. And this was even before we started talking seriously about money at the bargaining table.

Forced The Issue

After more than a year of bargaining, we signed a tentative agreement on January 29 that protects our members against blanket directives about schedules and remote work. The flexibility we gained during pandemic closures is now codified in the contract, protecting our members from the whims of administrators and enabling them to meet students where they are at. The new contract was ratified on February 17, with 97.5 percent of our members voting in favor.

Our contract also includes 20 percent pay increases over two years and important gains for our part-time faculty.

As a member of the bargaining team, I would love to take credit for this victory, but if I’m being honest it was not well-written proposals or righteous arguments that brought us to this point—it was relentless organizing and solidarity across different employee categories, including full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and academic professionals.

Had the administration consulted our science faculty about the theme “Reclaim your Momentum,” they might have learned that momentum cannot be created, claimed, or reclaimed. It can only be changed through the action of force. That’s the power of a union.

Michelle DuBarry is a grants officer, and vice president for communication for the PCC Federation of Faculty and Academic Professionals.

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