Portland Community College staff plan strike

Courtesy of Portland Community College

After over a year of bargaining, the Portland Community College Federation of Classified Employees (PCCFCE) will present their strike pledge to Portland Community College’s (PCC) board of directors on March 21. Meryl DePasquale, the vice president of communications for PCCFCE, provided some insight on the union’s decision to initiate a strike pledge.

“Our contract expired in July. We were seeing no progress at the bargaining table, and felt like we needed to do something to make management take us seriously,” she said. 

Classified employees at PCC are employed in a wide range of non-educator jobs, such as groundskeeping, IT support and custodianship. There are almost 700 classified employees represented by PCCFCE. All classified employees are part of the same bargaining unit, typically renegotiating their contract with the PCC administration every four years. Negotiations set the terms of work conditions for classified employees, including pay and benefits. 

“We began bargaining the previous February. Ideally, we would have reached an agreement close to the same time that old contract expired. So to be this long with an expired contract is unusual,” DePasquale said. 

The previous contract was negotiated  to last through 2023. DePasquale provided some further insight into the concerns of classified employees. 

“We had a four-year contract last time that was agreed in 2019, before the pandemic, and all the changes happened with the economy, including inflation. So our employees are feeling really squeezed right now because their wages have not kept pace with inflation,” she said.

Complaints about wages extend to issues outside of inflation. The Oregon Paid Family Medical Leave Act went into effect September 2023. The law is funded by a 1% tax on payroll, with 60% of the tax paid by the employee and 40% paid by the employer. PCC has applied this .6% tax on all employee paychecks since Sept. 15.

“We also have a situation where a lot of the rising health care costs are being passed down to employees, and our benefits are not going as far as they used to. So our paychecks are actually lower now than they have been in the past,” DePasquale said.

Many classified employees also take issue with many of their current working conditions.

“We’re extremely short staffed. And so a lot of classified employees are doing the work of two or three or four other employees,” she said. “That is incredibly stressful, so we have a lot of burnout in our workforce as well.” 

Under Oregon law, mediation ​can be initiated if the parties do not reach agreement after the initial 150 calendar days of bargaining. After 15 days of mediation and a 30 day bargaining period, unions may strike as long as they give 10 days of notice. Mediation between the PCC administration and PCCFCE is expected to begin on March 19. 

DePasquale spoke about the role of the strike pledge in the mediation process, saying that it helps the union. 

“We saw what happened with our sibling union, the FFAP. Having a credible strike threat and having their union be ready to strike I think forced management to take them more seriously at the bargaining table and in that mediation process,” she said.

The Federation of Faculty and Academic Professionals (FFAP), PCC’s union for educators, reached a tentative agreement for a four year contract this January. 

PCCFCE hopes to work out the contract during the mediation process. 

“We’re still cautiously optimistic that we can get this worked out; classified employees deserve a fair contract. And we are hoping that is something that we can arrive at. But if management won’t hear us, if they won’t take us seriously, then we will be forced to go on strike for a living wage,” DePasquale said.

A strike by classified employees could pressure management into hearing their concerns. 

“Basically, the college wouldn’t be running. If we were on strike, nobody would have unlocked the doors in the morning, nobody would have opened the parking lot so people could drive into the campus. It would be very hard to imagine business as usual continuing,” she said. 

DePasquale gave information on how to support PCCFCE’s efforts, explaining that there will be an event on March 21 before the strike pledge is presented.

“It’s during PCC’s board meeting. We’re going to be doing a practice picket starting at 4:30. Then we’ll all grab some food, and then we’ll go into the board meeting, which will be 6:30 to 9. If people are really interested, they could come to the PCC Sylvania campus and join us in solidarity at that event. As we prepare more for strike, I think that there will be other opportunities for people to get involved,” she said. 

DePasquale stated the importance of community support to PCCFCE. 

“I think it’s easy for employees, when they see the way management is treating us, to feel alone and powerless. The support that we have gotten from students when we were doing these direct actions — from the college community, from the Oregon labor community, from our sibling union and other folks at the college — has been so wonderful and has really made us feel connected. We’re hopeful that when we stand up for our rights, people will hear our voices,” she said. 

PCC Administration declined requests for an interview, but provided a statement in an email sent by James Hill, Director of Public Relations.

“We are committed to staying at the bargaining table with the Federation of Classified Employees (FCE). PCC has and will continue to bargain in good faith and to make every reasonable effort to reach an agreement,” Hill said. “We recognize that inflation and an increased cost of living have impacted many people, including the Classified staff, and we are prepared to address these concerns while also upholding our fiscal responsibility as a public institution that receives more than 60% of our revenue through government funds.” 

Hill also specified that the administration had reached a contract agreement in January with the FFAP union which was ratified in February.

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