Written by: Nick Gibson
On a Tuesday in mid-November, Clark College student Briana Carpenter showed up to her Small Group Communication course expecting a routine class period. However, before professor Jennifer Capell got the course started, she made an announcement. Capell warned the class of the possible upcoming teacher union strike and set up an emergency plan in case it interfered with their final exam.
Carpenter and her classmates had no idea that anything unusual was going on. “None of us knew when the strike was going to happen, and we still don’t,” she said.
The union that represents about 90 percent of Clark’s faculty including both part-time and full-time staff members, the Clark College Association of Higher Education (CCAHE) is negotiating a new contract for faculty. For the past 14 months, the union and Clark’s administration have been in heated deliberation over the new contract with no feasible resolution in sight. At a union membership meeting on Saturday, Dec. 7, over 300 members unanimously voted to authorize a strike. The looming possibility of the strike leaves many students confused and concerned as finals week start.
The union is seeking higher salaries for their professors, especially the part-time adjuncts which make up about 65 percent of educators at Clark College. However, the college said it cannot meet the union’s requests, citing dropping enrollment and other budget issues. Their latest offer would provide a retroactive one percent raise for all staff for the 2018-19 school year, and a four percent raise for the 2019-20 school year. In an email sent to staff and students, Clark College Interim President Sarah Fowler-Hill said this will be their best and final offer.
“Unfortunately, while we believe our proposal is fair and reasonable in light of the college’s financial limitations, we have been unable to reach agreement,” Fowler-Hill wrote.
Following the unanimous vote on Saturday, the CCAHE union released a statement on their website acknowledging student concerns, while also making clear their goals and intentions. They expected more from the school, and emphasized that the part-time faculty raises are a major sticking point. They acknowledged how strikes can be inconvenient for both faculty and students, but will eventually benefit both groups. Most importantly, they stressed that finals week will go on uninterrupted for students.
“We need a fair contract with compensation that’s competitive with K-12 and other community colleges — compensation that will attract and retain the best faculty in our region for our students,” said union president Suzanne Southerland in a statement published on the CCAHE website.
The vote to strike comes one year after teachers in eight local school districts went on strike in the midst of contract negotiations at the beginning of the 2018 school year. Vancouver Public School teachers received an average raise of 12.5 percent, while teachers in Washougal School District negotiated a 23.6 percent increase in total pay over the next two years. Most districts came to resolutions within the week.
The drawn-out negotiations and impending strike at Clark leaves many community members uncertain about the school’s future. Heather Moretti has lived in Vancouver for nearly 20 years, and her two sons attended local schools growing up. Her eldest, Xavier Moretti, took part in the Running-Start program at Clark while he attended high school. With her other son about to enter his junior year of high school, Moretti said she has some concerns about enrolling him in the same program.
“If these teachers aren’t being respected, what’s to stop them from teaching elsewhere?” Moretti said. “It would be a shame for our students to lose these valuable educators.”
Killian Bailey, a 23-year-old Vancouver native, attended Clark College from 2012 to 2014. He described his experience as extremely beneficial, and praised the professors he got to work with during his time there. He pointed out that many students are attracted to Clark due to its accessibility physically and financially. Bailey emphasized Clark must remain competitive in an area littered with options for secondary education, both for students and for educators. According to Bailey, Clark should be taking care of their teachers if they want to see enrollment numbers recover.
“I would like to see Clark invest in their teachers, and continue to draw in the high-level professors I know they have in the past,” Bailey said. “I understand there are always going to be budget issues, but I think the school would see a great return on that investment.”
For most students at Clark, school is business as usual. Carpenter is preparing for her three finals, and said she’s planning on attending next quarter, regardless of when classes might start.
Shanalee Gutierrez, another Clark student, said the strike has not affected her preparations for finals or her future at Clark. Gutierrez hopes the strike comes to a quick resolution. “I’m planning on becoming a teacher, and I admire how they’re standing up and fighting for what they deserve,” she said.