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Counter-convocation event participants rally for change

As Seattle Colleges continues to implement budget cut strategies which began in 2020 July, staff union members organized to stand against furloughs and lay-offs at a Counter-Convocation event on Wednesday, September 25.  With over 100 attendees collectively on Zoom and in person, the event ran simultaneously with the district’s official convocation event.

Organizers and speakers demanded that the district leaders stop furloughs and layoffs of workers who directly engage with students, and instead defund administrative positions. Their demands also include worker-led decision processes, transparency, and free tuition for students. 

Astro Pittman | The Seattle Collegian Phebe Jewell, an English teacher at Central since 2008, shares her concerns and demands regarding recent ‘austerity cuts’ made by the District

Some speakers and staff also view the progressive taxation of the wealthy as a necessary solution to provide more funding for the colleges. 

Covid-19 and decreases in student enrollment have caused dramatic reductions in federal, state, and tuition revenue. So far, this has led to twenty permanent layoffs, seven temporary layoffs, and 865 employees to expect furlough days by Nov. 25. Classified staff, hourly workers such as food service and custodial services personnel, will also not receive cost of living raises (COLA) for the next two years, which is expected to closely resemble a pay cut when accounting for inflation.

A total of 20 identified administrators at Seattle Colleges have also participated in furlough days and chosen not to receive their COLA increases for this fiscal year.

Anna Hackman, a professor of humanities at Seattle Central College, says workers have gathered at the Counter-Convocation event to send a different kind of message than that of the district’s official event, whose theme was “ENGAGE in community”.

The official event included several workshops focused exclusively on equity, but Hackman says she finds this insulting.

“The district’s response to this pandemic has been anything but equitable,” said Hackman at the counter event. “Their approach has been preemptive cuts and fiscal starvation that target the most vulnerable academic workers, and in the end our students.”

Classified staff, which many say is Seattle Colleges’ most diverse staff, have been the first to experience furloughs and layoffs. Workers have made it clear that these financial cuts have disproportionately affected women and BIPOC individuals as a result.

“On a day when the administration likes to brag about all the excellent work they are doing at a district level, we are reminding them that they don’t make the college,” says Hackman, “we do.”

Chancellor Shouan Pan has requested a 13% pay cut to the Board of Trustees, but his income would still be tens of thousands more than the Governor of WA, Jay Inslee.

“I respect faculty and staff coming together to discuss and share issues and concerns,” said the Chancellor of the Counter-Convocation event. “It tells me that people care.”

Pan states that Seattle Colleges has a structural deficit and could possibly face more cuts this year.

“We are committed to maximizing scarce resources to maximize student completion and to preserving the core functions the best we can,” says Pan. “This means we will need to realign staging and structuring in accordance with the available resources.”

No other directly involved leader at the district level responded to requests for a comment, and redirected the requests to respective Directors of Communications.

Mahim Lakhani, a web manager at Seattle Colleges, says the schools need to step up and do something for the workers. He also addresses a lack of ability for students to reach student services this summer and support staff members for students, citing Pan’s inability to receive more funding from the state, which he says has not increased in years, as a failure.

“The spirit of convocation is here,” says Lakhani at the event, “where we are talking about the problems we face and how we fight them.”

Sean, a student at Seattle Central who, like many other students, has been impacted by Covid-19 by a considerable loss of income, says he had to find out from a friend that the financial aid office had been furloughed, overworked, and understaffed.

“At a time where so many students are losing income, they need to adjust their financial status, and get in touch with counselors and advisors, why was there not more staff in these departments?” asked the student. “Why are the departments that provide access to helping students through catastrophe being cut and underfunded, during multiple, global, actual catastrophes?”

Later on at the event, attendees gathered to sing along to a musical performance by Dave Ellenwood, a librarian at Seattle Central.

“My momma was a teacher, and I’m a teacher’s son,” sang Dave Ellenwood on the guitar, joined by attendees, “and I’ll stick with the union, until this battle’s won.”

Astro Pittman | The Seattle Collegian Dave Ellenwood sings the Union blues with Counter-convocation event attendees

The group finished the event by marching to the district office to post their demands at the entrance.

At the event, Zahra Alavi, a faculty member at South Seattle College’s Basic and Transitional Studies Department, explained that when students call their virtual front desks on weekdays, nobody is there to answer due to their workers facing furloughs and layoffs.

“Our students, particularly those of the global majority, cannot access an education when no one answers the phone, and no one is there to teach the classes,” said Alavi at the event. “This work does not happen at the district office; this work happens at our colleges…Which student calls are they answering?”

She says when bargaining contract negotiations for Basic and Transitional Studies (BTS) faculty, administration has “straight up denied workload equity.”

Basic and Transitional Studies faculty work more weekly hours than other instructors but are paid the same.

Annette Stofer serves as the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) District President for Seattle Colleges. She says AFT Seattle Local 1789, the union representing faculty, was able to negotiate reductions of weekly workload hours from 20 to 18. Though the goal is to reduce weekly workload hours to 15, which would ensure equal workloads for equal pay, the district administration didn’t agree. 

“We continue to push for that,” says Stofer. “That’s a big goal for our union, to get to workload equity for all the programs.”

She says the reason it is so difficult to negotiate workload equity is because of its high expense.  There are also other programs besides BTS who work more hours as well for the same pay as most other instructors, but the union has had less success on equalizing those workloads. This includes professional and technical programs that require weekly workloads of up to 25 hours.

Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), who negotiates contracts at a state level with all community and technical colleges jointly for classified employees (contrary to AFT which negotiates contracts with the district), was able to win hazard pay for employees temporarily until the state’s Covid-19 reopening phases progressed.

Steve Hoffman, a shop steward for WFSE Local 304, which represents classified staff across the district, says that the Seattle Colleges Administration didn’t agree to provide hazard pay for staff such as custodial services, an on-campus position that leaves these workers uncompensated for their increased risk in the midst of a global pandemic, after hazard pay was no longer provided by the state.

Classified staff won’t be receiving COLA’s for the next two years also as part of negotiations among the colleges’ representatives at the Office of Financial Management, who first wanted to cut the worker’s pay.

“They wanted to institute mandatory furloughs, at least every month. And what they wanted was furloughs that would amount to a 4.6% pay cut”, says Hoffman.  “Well, we didn’t go with that. What that means is that if we don’t get more revenue and we don’t get administration to pony up some of the portion that they grab for themselves, the colleges will be allowed to lay people off.”

Because of an article in their contract, if colleges have a lack of funds they are allowed to lay-off staff.

As budget cut’s progress, possible furloughs and lay-offs have also become a real possibility for faculty, alongside classified and professional staff, represented by AFT Seattle Pro Staff Local 6550, who have already begun to experience them. However, Stofer says this depends on what the district is willing to negotiate.

“Faculty has made it really clear, and our leadership agrees: if we don’t see a substantial give from the administration, and from that top tier, if we don’t see a commitment to keeping instruction strong, then why would we give up days?” says Stofer. “And we would have to see that the furlough days would actually help the financial situation.”

The possibility of cuts to faculty through furloughs and lay-offs seem all too real. With a significant reduction in enrollment, including a 40% expected decrease in enrollment of international students, part-time faculty could see lay-offs.

International student enrollment reductions are expected to result in a decline of over $8.9 million this fiscal year alone for Seattle Colleges, which will put the district and its colleges in an even  tighter financial position. This decline is expected to be the largest for Seattle Central, with an expected $5 million shortfall. 

This is expected to affect available classes and coursework this coming school year. 

Astro Pittman | The Seattle Collegian Event participants march to the Seattle Colleges District headquarters

If classes are cancelled due to insufficient enrollment, full-time faculty would have to take the workload from adjunct part-time faculty members, since their contracts outline a required number of classes to instruct. Almost 70% of faculty are adjunct/part-time, while the rest, a minority, are tenured/full-time. 

But this depends on whether faculty have a guarantee of protection of workload based on the faculty’s collective bargaining agreement. This agreement outlines how part-time faculty are compensated for cancelled classes, whether they are reassigned to other classes, receive “non-teaching duties”, or are unable to receive any workload. 

This is also dependent on the faculty member and their seniority at the college, says Director of Communications at Central, Robert Bonaccorso. 

Seattle Colleges’ 2017-2020 Faculty Collective Bargaining Agreement outlines that part-time faculty must be compensated for eight hours at the stipend rate if their course is cancelled within three work days before the start of the course. If the course is cancelled after the scheduled start date, part-time faculty must also be compensated for eight hours at the stipend rate, plus the percentage of the course taught. 

Seattle Colleges, the Board of Trustees and AFT are still in the bargaining process for the agreement to be used for the next few years. 

Tracy Lai, a full-time faculty member at Central, and a member of the AFT Action Team which engages with members to garner support and awareness on union issues and concerns, says it’s also important for the Board of Trustees to engage more thoroughly with their connections to be key advocates for workers and students.

“They have these other connections,” says Lai. “But I don’t see how they are working to advance these other [issues], addressing job loss.”

Though part-time faculty do not have as many protections as full-time faculty, Lai says she understands that the difficulty for the action team in engaging part-time workers is time availability and overwhelmingness. She worries about one of her own colleagues’ health because of this reason.

“What I hear more about is the challenge of juggling too many jobs”, says Lai.

As workers across all three Seattle Colleges grapple with the actions that the District administration has taken to accommodate budget cuts as a result of Covid-19, there is a determined sentiment in the air to stand united against what staff are calling austerity from the district’s budget cutting strategies.

According to organizers, Pan’s Strategic Budget Reduction and Future Planning Task Force said that the most vulnerable workers would not experience furloughs, but just a few days later, they were the first to experience a range of furlough days.

The task force was organized to “recommend potential district-wide budget reduction strategies.” Although layoffs and furloughs were not amongst the most encouraged strategies, they were the first proposed by the district.

On Aug 6., AFT Seattle Local 1789’s Executive Board responded to the task force and budget cutting strategies implemented in a letter to the Chancellor, Board of Trustees, and Task Force Co-Chairs with a similar argument.

The Executive Board says in the letter that they have “concerns that the colleges are moving ahead with their financial decisions regardless of the commitments made in the task force report.”

A more distinctly outlined concern is how “recommendations to protect the most vulnerable employees with the lowest salaries did not receive a prominent place in the task force report that was released to the District.”

The letter also reveals that Seattle Central “has a list of five or six programs under consideration for reduction or closure.”

Similarly positioned to the faculty and staff demands at Wednesday’s Counter-Convocation event to defund administration, the AFT Local 1789 Executive Board wrote that “cuts to administrative salaries and positions should occur before instructional programs are targeted.”

As faculty and staff gathered Wednesday morning to also demand transparency and worker-led decisions and processes, AFT Local 1789 seems to stand behind its members. In the letter to district leaders, another major concern highlighted is “the complete lack of financial data showing the estimated cost savings from each of the budget cutting options.”

Another clear suggestion that the Executive Board outlines was to simply “be transparent and democratic.”

On Aug 13., the Chancellor responded to AFT Seattle Local 1789’s letter. The response outlines replies to Local 1789’s concerns. 

Pan clarified that the Task Force was not meant to work through specific budget cuts, but only to provide broad strategies. He also provides the total anticipated district savings from just four furlough days, $635,000. 

Responding to AFT’s concerns about protecting vulnerable employees, the letter says it’s “our understanding that members of the Task Force had rigorous discussions about applying equity principles to the recommended cost-saving measures”. He also adds his understanding that the “final wording on this topic was decided by the votes of members of the Task Force.”

The Task Force is currently on hold, partly due to a deficiency of information from the state legislature about changes to financial support or allocations to colleges, indicated in the first letter.

Though colleges have been asked to model a 15% reduction, Pan’s response explains that the state legislature is not anticipated to meet and make specific decisions on budget reductions until after the November election, likely in January 2021. 

Astro Pittman, Editor in Chief at the Seattle Collegian who had spoken at the Counter-Convocation, offered a question directed at the district: “What do you want your legacy to be in the midst of this history making moment in time?”

While workers across the district were being asked to accommodate lay-offs and furloughs this past summer, those and many more are now facing the incoming year with the worry of what their employment status may look like in the weeks ahead.

Similarly, students, being unable to reach staff and crucial student services, also face a year of uncertainty as they foresee an unprecedented moment.

District administrators, receiving scrutiny from across the district and also potentially facing more cuts, are now in a position to craft the legacy of Seattle Colleges in the midst of a global pandemic and insurgent social justice movements.

Yet labor unions, faculty, staff, students, and district administrators each remain steadfast in pursuing their often conflicting demands and interests. 

Alexa Villatoro

Alexa is an avid writer interested in economics, international relations, and U.S. politics seeking an A.A. with an emphasis on Global Studies. She is excited to pursue investigative journalism as a career. She loves traveling around the world to learn about new cultures. At any moment in time, she is probably researching something or crafting the perfect movie score playlist for studying featuring Hans Zimmer or Howard Shore.

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