By Zoe Deal
A four-day strike at Bellingham Technical College brought attention to an extreme disconnect between staff, faculty and administration that has been unaddressed for years, said Bellingham Educational Support Team President Alex Pieke-Dahl.
Though a new contract was ratified between the classified staff union and BTC administration Thursday, Sept. 28, larger issues at BTC remain unsolved.
“It all goes back to respect,” said Pieke-Dahl, BTC’s computer application support specialist. “I don’t like feeling like I’m not important by the administration. This strike and what’s happened over the past several months just represents what I’ve seen over four years.”
BEST, the college’s classified staff union, went on strike Sept. 25-28 after weeks of unsuccessful bargaining with the board of trustees. The changing needs of clerical, technical, instructional and retail staff at BTC was ignored by the administration, explained Pieke-Dahl.
BTC’s administration was unavailable for comment.
The contract isn’t working, Pieke-Dahl said.
“I think in the end we came up short,” Pieke-Dahl said. “Our members are disappointed.”
In the contract, union gains included minor increases in wages for some staff, paid time off during inclement weather and one added vacation day per year for some workers.
“After four days of strike, a lot of members were starting to become financially impacted,” Pieke-Dahl said, which was part of why they chose to finalize the contract.
Rehm said the longevity of the strike resulted from the failure of the board of trustees to come to the table in a timely manner. Even as proposals were exchanged, the administration didn’t budge, Pieke-Dahl said.
BTC Faculty Union President and information technology program instructor Greg Rehm said he believes the college isn’t prioritizing its community.
“We don’t have communication; we don’t have an administration that is engaged with us and finding out what we need for our students,” he said. “They don’t seem to value our work.”
Along with Rehm, all of BTC’s faculty agreed not to cross the picket line, resulting in cancelled classes. In the last strike at the college, the roles were reversed: the classified staff picketed during a faculty strike.
The faculty had no sense of control or knowledge of what was going on behind closed doors, Rehm said.
“It was heart wrenching and tough to be in that place,” he said. “But the faculty felt so strongly that that’s the only way it could be. We had to stand with our staff members.”
Rehm said they wanted to reach an agreement before the strike deadline Sunday night, but the administration was unwilling to change their position.
“We don’t want to be out of the classrooms,” Rehm said. “We want to be there for our students.”
The needs of the staff must be addressed at BTC to build a community that can support the students well, Pieke-Dahl said.
“There’s a revolving door going around here,” Pieke-Dahl said.
The lack of respect given to faculty and staff by the administration is impacting the students as classified staff and faculty look for new jobs, Pieke-Dahl said.
Steven Garfinkle, president of United Faculty of Western Washington, spent time supporting the picket with BTC staff during the recent strike. Garfinkle said he believes it is important for the entire state union system to be strong.
“A lot of our students transfer in from community colleges, and the technical colleges are a really important part of that framework,” he said. “The state does best when all of the state institutions of higher education are doing well.”
At this point, the unions at Western are strong, Garfinkle said. Though some former administrations were not faculty friendly, more recent administrations have been very open to faculty as part of a shared mission, he said.
“I don’t anticipate trouble, but I do anticipate disagreements,” Garfinkle said. “I think that the points on which we agree are strong enough that we won’t see the kind of disruption that we saw at BTC. But I 100 percent support what the union did at BTC.”
Pieke-Dahl said the strike at BTC was merely a symptom of an infection that has become a growing issue during the last few administrations. BEST’s vote of no-confidence in the current administration is proof.
“We have a problem,” Pieke-Dahl said. “There has never been an effort to sit down and try to figure out how to resolve these issues. It’s only when you have a crisis like this that all of the sudden there’s talk. But four weeks from now they’ve got their contract, they don’t have to do another contract with us or the BEA for another couple years, and it’s easy to put it on the backburner. It’s just going to fester again. And will it happen again? With this administration? With the way they’re operating it now? Yes, it will.”
The finalized contract will be released in 30 to 60 days. Pieke-Dahl confirmed the contract is effective upon ratification.