Talks to continue in SOU contract tussle

A crossroads sign at Southern Oregon University. Drew Fleming photo
March 24, 2022

Administration, faculty views diverge on compensation, benefits

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

Southern Oregon University administrators and SOU faculty union representatives significantly differ on what details led to a breakdown in contract negotiations going back three years, drawing clear differences in perspective on how to resolve the issues.

SOU administrators responded Wednesday to an impasse declared by the university’s faculty union members — it’s first in history — that was announced after 5 p.m. Tuesday. While Association of Professors of Southern Oregon University (APSOU) members say the impasse was expected due to inequity in proposed pay raises, university officials say they believe there had been “significant progress” during two and a half days of mediated contract talks. 

Greg Perkinson, vice president of finance at SOU, is not on SOU’s administrative bargaining team, but sits on the executive team to which the bargaining team reports.

“It sounded like we were headed in the right direction,” Perkinson said.

“We were in the process of working with a mediator,” he added. “When the union declared (an) impasse, to be honest, I was disappointed. I thought we had a chance to get to some middle path.”

The administration had brought in a new lead negotiator to “change the dynamic and find a better way to communicate,” Perkinson said. “The lead negotiator’s strategy was to package everything in one bundle and that strategy was  ultimately really frustrating for the faculty, and in hindsight, which is 20-20, we would do that differently.”

Sara Adams, a senior accounting instructor at SOU and a member of the union bargaining team, said union members do not want a strike if it can be avoided and want to come to an agreement before it comes to a strike vote.

“This is unfortunate that it has to be an historical event,” Adams said. “Nobody wanted this … We were hoping to come to a resolution before it got to this point.”

Adams said union faculty members — specifically, senior faculty members — are not receiving equitable pay.

Traditionally, the university used what are called “pay tables” to attract and retain faculty, she said.

“The first offer by the administration was to take away those tables completely,” Adams said.

“Which would mean that any salary increases we would get would be kind of at the whim of the administration in a year that had decent financials.”

The SOU administration says they are trying to improve the pay tables, which Perkinson called “nuanced.”

“That was really scary because we’re thinking, ‘All right … I’ve been here nine years and I’ve never not heard the messaging that we are a sinking ship.’ We are continually in financial dire straits, so our thinking was, ‘Well, when are we ever going to have a year that’s positive and that they can justify an increase.”

Adams said another offer by the administration had the pay tables return, but compressed, with smaller increases as faculty members move up.

“Some of the faculty at certain levels would only be getting a half-of-a-percent (increase) as they went from year-to-year,” she said.

Adams said union members feel senior faculty compensation is being “sacrificed” for the sake of university savings.

“It allowed for a little higher of an increase for the younger faculty, but a compression once you got into the higher ranks and had been there longer,” she said. “It just really makes it less attractive for faculty to stay long-term.”

Perkinson, the finance vice president, said the university wants to retain its senior and junior faculty members.

“I get that they want more pay, although if you look at total compensation, their benefits package for healthcare and retirement is amazing,” Perkinson said. “Not everybody wants that robust of a benefits package, so I get that, but I think pay matters but at the end of the day, the total compensation that we provide them should matter as well.”

Negotiations continue 

SOU administration representatives emphasize that the impasse declaration does not end negotiations, but diverts the process into the Oregon Employment Relations Board’s legally required 30-day cooling-off period. During this time, the parties will continue negotiating.

“SOU remains committed to reaching a reasonable, negotiated settlement that is sustainable and serves all parties — our students, the faculty union, the university and the broader campus

community,”  President Rick Bailey said in a news release issued Wednesday. “We look forward to resolving any remaining differences while continuing to focus on providing the best possible educational opportunities for our students. Contract negotiations often boil down to economic issues, and that is the case in our situation. We are looking for a balance that recognizes our valued faculty members and enables the prudent operation and financial stewardship of our university.”

Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission noted in its “Financial Conditions Analysis of Oregon Public Universities” issued in May 2021 that “SOU is still facing a challenging financial future … and (is) working to turn it around,” according to the release.

Perkinson said in a news release that the university is addressing its challenges through collaboration. 

“With declining revenues, cost management is critical — the university community endured through the pandemic and devastating fires, and continues to look for ways to diversify revenues,” Perkinson said. “We are all truly in this together.”

Perkinson, who has been at the university since 2017, said the university’s most recent offer includes average pay raises of 6.25 to 9 percent over the three-year period, or 2-3% increase each year, beginning in September 2022 for the majority of union membership, with some junior faculty members receiving increases of 9 to 12 percent pay increase. Perkinson said SOU’s wage offer is more than double the nationwide average for faculty, and its benefits offer is the best for any state employees on the West Coast.

He said the offer rejected by faculty union members include provisions for the university to pay 95 to 97 percent of faculty members’ medical, dental, vision and life insurance benefits. It also included, on average, an amount equal to 33 percent of faculty members’ salaries being paid into state-sponsored retirement accounts.

Perkinson sees the difference in opinions about what is being offered as a communication breakdown.

“Faculty seemed to not recognize (a) longevity pay increase in the pay table as a pay raise,” Perkinson said. “If we can come to an agreement, then their pay raise will be a function of that agreement.”

But that’s not how Adams and fellow union members see it.

Adams counters that the university is not offering them a raise this year in the traditional sense.

“The core of the disagreement is about equitable treatment of the faculty,” states a news release issued by Adams and the union Wednesday afternoon, “and about contract components, which make it more difficult to attract and retain quality faculty.”

APSOU officials say the administration has been disproportionately compensating the university’s faculty for a decade, a scenario that the union has been trying to remedy for just about as long.

APSOU officials say they have not been treated with adequate respect and reciprocation in the bargaining process. Faculty union members say it took the administration five months to get a response on their bargaining contract. 

“We’re told that we’re important, but there’s this underlying feeling that it’s not true,” Adams said.

Adams said one union member describes the current bargaining process as “toxic” and “dysfunctional.”

“We’ve seen faculty leave because they’re frustrated with workload and salary and the (lack of) appreciation from the administration about what we do,” Adams said. “We don’t want that to happen. We want to keep SOU a place where faculty stay long-term and that I believe is the key to student retention.”

Faculty union members also called into question a 3% raise for SOU administration officials that Perkinson said occurred last year, while they don’t believe they are being offered a raise this year.

“We get the financial struggles, we understand that piece and we have made sacrifices in these negotiations to help in that way,” Adams said. “It’s hard to buy that story from them when they are giving themselves a 3% raise.”

Perkinson said university administration officials have received three cost-of-living adjustments over the past six years, including in 2021.

“That means there are also three years where we had no pay increase,” he said. 

“If you look at say, 9% over six years … that’s nothing to celebrate. I’m not trying to be trite about that.

“The administrative team will often not receive an increase as a way to help balance the budget in a given year so it’s great that we got a pay increase last year — It’s fantastic, and part of that is, we were able to work together to save a lot of money during the pandemic and then when we couple that with the federal relief, the last financial year was more positive than the previous couple.”

Perkinson says the faculty union will receive a pay increase falling between 1 and 2% this fall, which he admits is “pretty modest.”

“If you look at the faculty pay over time, they’ve had their generous pay raises,” he said.

Asked if reductions in pay increases for senior faculty could impact retention of faculty, Perkinson responded: “If you’re an employee, whether you’re faculty, classified, or administration, your desire to stay on the team is really a personal choice that I think is a function of how you feel when you go to work that day, and I want faculty to feel good when they go to work.”

Perkinson said the university will have a website available on Monday or Tuesday with updated financial information available to the public.

Perkinson said both Provost Sue Walsh and President Rick Bailey are “absolutely willing” to talk with faculty regarding the contract negotiations.

He said the university is developing a plan to accommodate students in the event of a strike.

“We don’t currently have a plan. We were not expecting this scenario, but given this indication, we’ll have to be prudent and develop  a plan in case they do decide to strike.”

Hypothetically, if a vote is taken among faculty union members and more than 50% vote in favor, a strike could occur in early May, according to Adams.

SOU union faculty members say they are being flexible on compensation offers, in hopes that SOU deals with inequities in pay for faculty members.

The university began negotiations with its faculty union last July 29. A nominal salary increase

occurred in September. The parties met 10 times before the university filed for mediation on Feb. 7 — the second phase of the OERB negotiations process, in which a neutral mediator helps the parties find common ground and resolve outstanding issues.

The declaration of impasse by union negotiators means that both the union and the university must now submit their “final offers” and cost summaries to the OERB. The declaration also triggers a required 30-day cooling off period, after which the university will have the legal option of implementing all or portions of its final offer — but negotiations may continue during that period, which will expire April 29.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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