TVCC talks hit impasse, raise specter of strike

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

ONTARIO – A fight over pay at Treasure Valley Community College has produced the sharpest break in labor talks in the college’s 55-year history.

Administrators want instructors to teach larger classes and get less pay for seniority.

The 40 faculty members say the college is trying to make instructors pay for administrative mistakes that caused declining enrollments in recent years.

The dispute is not academic.

On Friday, college administrators triggered a process that could end in a strike. The college notified state officials it was declaring an impasse with the faculty’s union, the Treasure Valley Education Association. By this Friday, the college administrators and the union will each have to give the state their final offer for a new labor contract.

At the same time, the two sides will return to the bargaining table, where they have been off and on for nearly a year trying to hammer out a new pay agreement. The mediation this Friday and Saturday could lead to a new deal and head off worse.

But if no deal is struck, college administrators in February can simply impose pay and work standards on instructors without further debate in a take-it-or-leave-it posture. The faculty would have the option to take the deal or strike.

Gerry Hampshire, history and political science instructor who is the faculty union president, said “it’s almost a given that the faculty will strike” if the college insists on a deal instructors feel is too harsh.

“We’re very united. We’re very angry,” Hampshire said.

The labor turmoil comes as the college faces another rough financial year. Enrollment has dropped for the seventh year in a row, forcing a new round of budget cuts. New programs expected to boost the student count have been half as successful as expected.

Dana Young, college president since 2010, said the college can no longer afford the type of pay provided instructors. She said the college is pursuing a less-lucrative deal to help cut the college’s costs, which continue to mount despite the dropping enrollment.

“It simply isn’t sustainable,” said Young. “We have to be able to control costs.”

A key sticking point is class size. Under the labor contract that expired last June 30, the college set a minimum class size at 13. That meant instructors got paid full salary for handling classes of that size.

If fewer students registered for a particular class, the college offered the class anyway if it was required for an associate’s degree. If it wasn’t required, the instructor can opt to teach it for a reduced salary or the class was cancelled.

Several were cancelled this fall, and college officials said Tuesday they anticipate four classes will be cancelled for the winter session.

The college wants to remove the minimum class size, and generally provide full pay only for classes with 20 or more students.

“The whole thing is ludicrous,” said Hampshire. He said other community colleges require no more than 12 students as their minimum.

“We want small class sizes. We want more classes,” Hampshire said. “If you offer fewer classes, you get fewer students.”

Young said the college also wants to reduced so-called step increases — automatic yearly increases for instructors until they hit the top pay rate. In the most recent contract, instructors received 4.5 percent increases every year. The college, Young said, wants to cut that bonus in half.

But pay for instructors who have hit the top scale also is a sticking point. The expired contract awarded annual raises of 2.5 percent for instructors no longer eligible for pay raises. College officials this fall took the position they didn’t need to pay the cost-of-living raises because the contract was no longer in effect.

The faculty union in November filed an unfair labor complaint with the state Employment Relations Board, insisting the cost-of-living raises were still owed because elements of the expired contract go forward until a new deal is struck. College officials calculate that such raises would cost Treasure Valley about $32,000 this year.

Young said the college is already spending money it didn’t expect to this year because of the labor disagreement. She said college officials expected to have a new pay deal in place before the new budget year started, which was last July 1, that anticipated reduced pay costs.

“We have to have cost savings this year,” Young said.

Young said other employees not represented by the faculty union have not had general pay raises, and have in recent years been put on furlough to save money.

Hampshire said the faculty in the past has taken furlough days, but no longer agrees to do so. The union doesn’t buy the money woes.

“There is no budget crisis. That’s a fallacy,” he said.

He noted Young gets 20 days paid off each year in her contract in addition to normal days off. He said the school has spent money on “catered buffets for board retreats.”

He said the faculty is concerned with the dropping enrollment too.

“We’ve implored them and begged them” for years to address the decline, he said.

Hampshire said there is a chance with state mediators helping at the talks Thursday and Friday, a deal can be struck even though the clock is ticking on the legal impasse declared by the college.

“We can still agree on a contract,” he said. “A showdown is going to hurt the students.”

Young, though, sounded resolute to bring down the college’s labor costs.

“This is an important and pivotal contract for us,” Young said. “This is for the next 10 years of the institution.”