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BTC Faculty Strike for Fairness

By Edward Graham

For the faculty members of Bellingham Technical College (BTC) in Bellingham, Wash., the decision to go on a weeklong strike at the end of September didn’t come lightly. In fact, it was a matter of earning the respect that the faculty knew they deserved.

Bellingham Technical College (BTC) is in the far northwest corner of the state, about 90 minutes north of Seattle and less than an hour from the Canadian border. It’s an idyllic setting for the technical college, located only a few short blocks from Bellingham Bay and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island a few miles more to the west.

But after almost a year of negotiations between the administration and the faculty, it also became the setting of the first strike at a public college in Washington State since 1988.

Over the past six years, salaries for the BTC faculty remained stagnant while the school’s administrators voted to give themselves substantial raises. And for a whole calendar year, the faculty negotiated hard with the administration about how additional administrative workloads would be divvied up in the faculty’s contract.

But those were just two of the three main issues the BTC teachers wanted to address in their contract—and they weren’t backing down without a fight.

“The main issues were compensation, workload—there were no well-defined procedures or definitions for additional tasks that administrators are normally charged with doing—and the issue of covert surveillance,” says Tony Kuphaldt, a 15-year teacher of courses in the college’s instrumentation and control technology program and one of the spokespeople for the striking BTC faculty.

Covert surveillance? The issue first arose from a benign event that occurred on campus, said Kuphaldt. A “secret shopper,” someone paid by an outside company or organization to report on their experiences, visited the college posing as a perspective student to see what the intake procedures were like. That specific incident was a non-issue with faculty and administration, but the situation did bring up questions about the administration’s ability to spy on its own faculty. When the faculty tried to include language addressing the issue in their contract negotiations—language, it should be pointed out, that most K-12 educators have stipulated in their teaching contracts—the administration balked.

“We proposed some language that said covert surveillance must be done in coordination with law enforcement,” Kuphaldt says. “If it’s serious enough to spy on an employee, then we felt it was serious enough for them to call in the cops. The administration came back saying they reserve the right to monitor any employee suspected of misconduct, and that they reserve the right to do it at any time. We felt that was a real compromise on due process.”

Even before the strike began, it became increasingly clear that the BTC faculty’s demands stemmed from legitimate grievances. The Washington State House of Representatives sent a letter to Bellingham Technical College’s administrators imploring them to negotiate compensation increases for the faculty. The Legislature had earmarked $240,000 to BTC for the express purpose of using it for salary increases, but the college instead chose to use the money for other purposes.

“The significant increase in funding was widely understood to provide for local bargaining for compensation and workload, including addressing class size, after years of cuts and no COLAs,” wrote the chair and vice chairs of the state Higher Education Committee, and the chair of the state Labor & Workforce Development Committee.

So when push finally came to shove, the BTC faculty members of the Bellingham Education Association decided they had no choice but to go on strike. Several days later, a second union at the college—the Bellingham Education Support Team (BEST), a union comprised of BTC’s clerical, technical, instructional, and retail support staff and also an affiliate of the Washington Education Association (WEA)—voted to support their striking colleagues. While BEST members were not officially on strike, most honored the faculty picket lines and did not work during the strike.

For six days, from September 24th until the 29th, BTC faculty and BEST members effectively closed down the college in a last resort effort to ensure their contracts addressed the most pressing issues. Armed with signs and warm clothing, the striking faculty and their fellow support staff picketed the college through sunny weather and overcast, damp days. Some of them even wore yellow pins with a string of six zeros to signify the six years it had been since any raises or cost of living adjustments.

Their commitment paid off. Union and administrative negotiators were able to reach a 3-year contract that effectively dealt with many of the faculty’s pressing issues. The BTC faculty’s new contract included a 2.5 percent pay increase and higher stipends that included cost of living adjustments, pay raises for adjunct faculty, longevity bonuses, and improvements to contractual language regarding workload. Since neither side was able to come to an agreement on the issue of surveillance, there was no change to the contract’s language regarding its use—a veritable draw for both sides.

While union leaders say that the new contract is the first step in a greatly improved faculty-administration relationship, they are also quick to point out that none of this would have been possible without the dedication of the BTC faculty.

“Throughout the bargaining process—including the strike—leaders, members, and staff worked seamlessly to ensure that our focus at the bargaining table was consistent with those identified member interests,” says Greg Alarid, a NEA UniServ Representative with the WEA Fourth Corner, which represents almost 5,000 higher education faculty and staff across Washington State. “We’re at our best when members, leaders, and staff work together in a way that builds involvement and ownership—exactly the way we went about our task.”

BEST members also negotiated a 4-year contract that included a supplemental cost of living stipend, longevity bonuses, and increases to salary schedule steps. But, because the BEST members who participated in the strike were not compensated for their four days off once the new contracts were negotiated, they had to use leave or make up work days in order to account for the time off. As a result, the WEA started a fund to help offset the BEST members lost time and make them financially whole.

 "We decided to make a fund in the WEA that we as a faculty could voluntarily pay into to help the BEST members because they were voluntarily on the line with us, they went above and beyond, and we want to respect that,” says Kuphaldt.

While no educator wants to go on strike, the BTC faculty and staff were able to get much-needed changes to their contracts that enable them to become even more effective teachers. And, the strike served as a clear and effective indication that educators will stand up for the rights and respect they know they deserve.

“This strike sent a message to administrators in all community and technical college systems to negotiate in good faith,” said Shirley Potter, president of the Bellingham Education Association. “The preservation of this faculty and BEST and their willingness to say enough is enough-–we deserve a better deal—will certainly help faculties and support staff at other colleges to expect and demand more when negotiating their contracts.  I`m so proud of the commitment of our group for upholding the basic intent of collective bargaining!!”