It was business as usual at Clark College on Monday, the first day of the winter quarter. But the clock is ticking on this relative calm, and each day brings the Vancouver community college closer to a historic faculty strike.
The college and Association for Higher Education, which represents full- and part-time faculty, remain gridlocked over salaries. The two sides negotiated through the weekend with additional sessions set throughout this week. If a deal isn’t made by 5 p.m. Friday, faculty have said, they will walk out Jan. 13.
Clark College officials say they’re still working on a contingency plan should teachers walk out next week, but teachers were telling students it’s likely classes will be canceled. Several students said they were just hearing about the strike for the first time, and shrugged off the idea of missing a day or two of classes.
“It’s important that they reach an agreement,” said Sorya Baxter, a Running Start student in her second year at Clark College.
Tiawanna Cobb was among the couple of dozen people in line at the registration counter, waiting to pay her daughter’s tuition. Cobb, a social worker, isn’t fazed by the potential for her daughter to miss school.
“Teachers are the most underpaid people in the world,” she said. “Why not invest in them?”
Full-time faculty at Clark College made, on average, $66,350 in the 2018-2019 school year, according to Clark College. The starting wage for full-time teachers, who make up about a third of the college’s teaching force, is $53,000; the top wage for full-time tenured faculty is $79,000. Full-time faculty can make additional money by taking on additional coursework.
Median household income in Clark County is $74,060, according to U.S. Census data.
Union President Suzanne Southerland said Clark College’s starting wages aren’t sufficient to attract strong faculty, particularly given Clark County’s high cost of living. Median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver in November 2019 was $1,680; the statewide median is $1,473, according to Apartment List, a rental listing website.
Julie Lemmond, a full-time faculty member who teaches accounting and finance classes, said she’s been frustrated by what she describes as the apparent lack of movement from the college in 15 months of negotiations. She doesn’t want to go on strike, she said, but is ready to do so.
“I don’t think that’s the best thing for our students,” she said. “But we’ve got to get a competitive wage to keep good people.”
The union is also advocating for higher salaries for adjunct employees, who are paid between $2,925 and $3,037 for a five-credit, 12-week lecture course. Sydney Brahmavar is a meteorology instructor at Clark, teaching just shy of a full course load. Yet her 2018 salary, state records show, was $26,500. It’s become a running joke in her family, and she said students have also looked up her salary.
“I want justice and I want to be paid fairly for my work,” Brahmavar said. “I want to be treated fairly, and our students want us to be treated fairly. “
Clark College’s latest offer would retroactively pay all faculty a 1 percent increase for the 2018-2019 school year. Full-time faculty would receive a 4 percent salary increase in 2019-2020. Part-time faculty would receive pay as a percentage of full-time faculty salaries, tied to their course load and years of experience. Alternatively, the college has offered a 6 percent permanent salary increase to part-time faculty in 2019-2020.
In her latest note to the college community, Interim President Sandra Fowler-Hill said enrollment numbers for Clark College’s winter term indicate a continued decline, which could strain the college budget.
“We remain hopeful we can reach a settlement,” Fowler-Hill wrote.
Isaac Chan, a first-year student relaxing between classes in Foster Hall, said he was finding out about the walkout for the first time on Monday. He was unconcerned about the potential for a faculty strike, and said it’d be just like a snow day.
“I don’t want to fall behind,” Chan said, but added if teachers feel they deserve higher pay, that’s what they should get.
“They’re the ones teaching us,” he said.