Just when you thought Portland might go a week without substantive drama around union contracts, Portland State University professors have moved a step closer to a strike this morning.
PSU's chapter of American Association of University Professors notified the Oregon Employment Relations Board it was declaring an impasse, after 10 months of negotiations failed to produce a contract. Both sides will now prepare final offers, then enter into a 30 day cooling off period, after which the union could strike and the university could impose its own contract terms.
The nearly 1,250-member AAUP says it's tired of years of budget cuts, and takes issue with administrators' funding priorities.
"We believe that it's absolutely imperative for PSU to pursue a student-centered budget," union President Mary King tells the Mercury. "We can't afford all sorts of secondary activities."
Those activities, she says, include questionable investments in athletics, real estate (such as the University Place Hotel) and outsized administrative salaries.
A message left with PSU's communications office hasn't been returned.
Administrators have asked academic units to find 6 percent cuts, and have chopped summertime course offerings, effectively diminishing instructor salaries, King says. And the union takes umbrage with the university attempting to strip its contract of provisions around instructor performance reviews.
"We're having problems with recruitment and retention," King says. "In this environment our administration has come after protections."
Not only is this the second possible educators' strike in Portland this year (Portland Public Schools last week narrowly avoided a walkout by its teachers' union), it's also the second looming clash at PSU. Last year, the school's services and office employees very nearly walked out on the first day of fall term.
The confrontations come on the heels of years of decreased state funding for the Oregon University System, a trend that has caused tuition rates to spike. The portion of the state's general fund being kicked to public higher education reached a record low of 4.8 percent—about $668.3 million—in the 2011-2013 budget. At the same time, the system's serving more students than ever. Enrollment has swelled by around 30,000 per year since 2000. Tuition has more than doubled since the 2001-2002 school year.
"We can't keep cutting academics without a quality hit," King says. "It's time to cut other things if we have to cut at all."
The AAUP scheduled an 11:30 am rally in the South Park Blocks.
Update, 4 pm: The union has corrected an earlier press release. The rally is now set to take place beginning 11 am on Thursday in the South Park Blocks.
Meanwhile, PSU has issued a release saying it's "disappointed" in the decision to declare an impasse "at a time when negotiations are making progress with a mediator."
The university says it's confident it can reach an agreement with the union, but that it's prepared in case the educators do strike.
"If an agreement is not reached, however, PSU has policies and procedures in place to maintain campus operations in the event of a strike by any group of represented employees, including faculty," the release says.