More often than not, negotiations between colleges and labor unions consist of pitched battles over contract provisions and lots of lawyers. Harsh statements of rejection, harm, and bad faith are often present. Sometimes there are deadlocks and strikes.
But staff at a small community college in Roseburg, Ore., tried a friendlier approach — and it worked.
Unionized faculty and college leaders at Umpqua Community College negotiated a new contract for tenured faculty this year using a method called interest-based bargaining.
A hallmark of interest-based bargaining is that there are no lawyers in the room, said Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at UCLA. Instead, both parties come to the table with shared goals and interests outlined. The Umpqua teachers union and administration have identified quality education for their students and increased teacher pay as priorities.
The process often requires more time and prep work, and requires a deeper level of trust between administrators and faculty or staff unions, Wong said. But the goal, he said, is to emphasize common interests over personal needs and reduce tensions between groups.
The union and the college also save money on legal fees. Umpqua saved about $50,000.
The college’s relationship with the faculty union stands in stark contrast to recent labor strife at higher education institutions. Recently a graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington wrapped up a month-long strike to get their union recognized at the university; Indiana state officials have not backed down on the issue. Faculty and administrators at the University of Alaska Fairbanks still in conflict after almost a year of negotiations; the parties entered into mediation to try to resolve the standoff.
Although interest-based trading is not common in higher education institutions, Klamath Community College, another two-year institution in Oregon, first tried approach in negotiating a new contract with teachers in 2014.
Wong said this approach is usually most successful in public sector organizations such as colleges or local governments, which are driven more by a public service mission than by a profit-maximizing goal like in the private sector.
“They have a personal interest in providing a quality product for students and making sure the institution is doing a good job of providing educational resources for its students,” Wong said of community colleges like Umpqua.
It’s weird to say – I don’t know if “fun” is the right word, but I don’t remember a single time when we were angry and upset with each other or anything like that.
Dee Winn, chair of the Umpqua Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and an associate professor of mathematics, is a member of the Umpqua Teachers Union, which is part of the Oregon Education Association and the National Education Association. Wynn said the union has been in place since 2007 and previous talks were much more “adversarial.” The new approach felt more collaborative and put union and college leaders on the same side rather than on opposing teams, he said.
“It’s weird to say — I don’t know if fun is the right word, but I don’t remember a single moment where we were angry and upset with each other or anything like that,” he said. “As long as we can focus on that — that we’re all in this together — I strongly recommend always doing it that way.”
Rachel Pokrandt, Umpqua’s president, said she and faculty and union representatives approached the negotiations with a written record of all their interests. Pokrandt outlined the amount of money the college can allocate in its budget for salary increases, and faculty representatives outlined the degree of salary increases they expect.
The newly negotiated contract, which runs through June 2025, includes a 5 percent pay raise for all full-time faculty.
“We started like that, and then, frankly, after a while we didn’t even use the framework because it established enough trust that we could just start solving problems,” Pokrandt said.
The president said this approach also reduced the time they spent negotiating. While the first meetings in February lasted up to five hours, by the time they wrapped things up in May, the sessions had dwindled to an hour or two.
Pokrandt said she is now using the same method to negotiate a new contract with the college’s part-time faculty union.
“Often, outsiders to higher education think that our beautiful buildings, our sports teams, and everything else is our most important resource. And they don’t,” Pokrandt said. “Our faculty is our most important resource. So we’re going to move forward with an approach that is to make sure our wages reflect that.”