Employees of Portland Community College are at odds with college officials over union bargaining and the use of $54 million in federal COVID-19 aid money they say should help fund employee wage increases.
A complaint filed with the state's Labor Relations Board on July 15 alleges the college broke state union bargaining rules by communicating directly to faculty and staff about college leadership's stance on the latest round of labor negotiating. The complaint also says the college refuses to use a portion of its federal aid money to keep cost-of-living adjustment pay raises in place for employees.
According to a complaint filed by the PCC Federation for Faculty and Academic Professionals, PCC sent a letter to all faculty and staff on June 10, explaining the college's position regarding the latest union negotiating session. Union representatives say that constitutes "bad faith bargaining," which is against the law.
"Any union, the employer is not supposed to go out to the membership to persuade them or put pressure on the bargaining team," said Vincent Blanco, labor relations specialist with PCCFFAP.
The PCC employee union is asking the state to fine the community college, "because the PCC's action constituting the unfair labor practice was egregious," according to complaint documents.
The labor union is also critical of the college's decision not to allow neutral observers in the room during bargaining sessions.
"Our members just want to see what's going on to see that bargaining is transparent and on the up and up," Blanco said.
Blanco said in addition to the employees' qualms over the negotiating process, they want the college to use a portion of the estimated $54 million in federal COVID relief dollars to pay for living wages for employees.
"The college is saying these millions of dollars aren't to be used for employees," Blanco said. "We have enough stress going on, working harder than ever, working hard to reopen our schools."
PCC maintains there are strict rules for how that federal money can be spent, which don't include employee wage increases.
The June 10 letter to employees from PCC leadership notes the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) money is "one-time money and cannot be used to fund the employee compensation package. Use of the institutional portion of these funds is specifically limited to defray expenses associated with coronavirus, including lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses already incurred, technology costs associated with a transition to distance education, faculty and staff training and payroll."
Kate Chester, director of public relations for PCC, said the college's president, Mark Mitsui, hosted a handful of listening sessions in May, for faculty and staff. The goal was to provide information as the academic year was winding down.
"As a follow-up to the listening sessions, the president's cabinet shared a letter with the college on June 10 to provide factual information about issues that had surfaced at the listening sessions related to the re-opener on compensation between the college and the federations," Chester said via email to Pamplin Media Group. "PCC is bargaining in good faith, and it is aware of and abides by its obligations under the state's labor laws. The college will respond to the specific assertions in the complaint through the Employment Relations Board processes. There are no rules that prohibit the college from providing factual information to its employees, and the reasons the college did so were explained in the letter."
According to the letter, a $28.6 million, four-year employee contract was approved in 2019. Uncertainty about the level of state funding PCC would get, coupled with a decline in student enrollment, left PCC worried whether the college could fund the final two years of the contract. The employee unions and the college agreed that compensation for the final two years of the contract would be renegotiated if either state community college funds fell short or student enrollment fell below target.
The college noted student enrollment was projected to remain below 21,000 at the end of the spring 2021 term, which was lower than the number in the contract.
Blanco countered that the college has saved money during the pandemic — about $21 million by his group's estimation — through a combination of layoffs, hiring freezes, lack of travel expenses, reduced class offerings and reduced utility bills due to schools being closed.
According to the Employment Relations Board's complaint protocol, an administrative law judge is likely to review and investigate the complaint.
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