Rules of the game

Robert Guitierrez, president of Klamath Community College in Oregon, earned the trust of the college's faculty union through fairness and trust. (Photo: KCC)

In his first contract negotiation with the faculty union at Klamath Community College (KCC) in Oregon, President Roberto Gutierrez faced a moment he’ll never forget — and a decision that would come to define his leadership.

The administrative team had met privately the night before and agreed on a figure they were comfortable spending on faculty salaries. As the union representative approached the board and wrote down the number that faculty were requesting, the college’s chief financial officer at the time shot Gutierrez a triumphant look: The faculty’s number was actually smaller than the administration’s.

Gutierrez had a choice to make: Accept the faculty’s number and call it a win for the administration? Or stick with the agreed-upon figure? Gutierrez called for the session to stop, saying the administrative team needed to meet alone in the next room for a few minutes.

“If our faculty representatives had been armed, I would have been a dead man,” he says. “They assumed I thought their proposal was way too high.”

This excerpt comes from the current issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.

As Gutierrez closed the door, the CFO began high-fiving other members of the administrative team.

“I stopped the celebration and said: ‘We came up with a number we said we could afford, and now you’re happy because we’re going to take advantage of our employees? That isn’t right,’” he recalls.

Gutierrez told the group he believed they should honor their original intention. “That was unheard of,” he says, “but the chairman of our board of trustees agreed.”

When they returned to the negotiating room, the CFO walked up to the board and wrote down the administration’s figure. “You could hear a pin drop,” Gutierrez says.

With this simple act, Gutierrez had earned the union’s trust — and opened the door for productive negotiations. In the end, KCC became one of the few unionized public colleges to implement a system of merit pay for faculty, a concession made possible by the good will his gesture had secured.

Trust and fairness are essential components in building strong, positive relationships with union representatives, Gutierrez and other college leaders say. Although negotiating contracts with faculty and employee unions can be challenging, it’s easier and less contentious when the two sides approach the process not as adversaries, but as partners in improving education.

Forge relationships

Some higher education leaders might resent the presence of unions on campus. But Bill Scroggins, president of Mt. San Antonio College in California, believes that strong union leadership and a robust collective bargaining agreement strengthen the campus community.

A collective bargaining agreement “gives us the rules of the game for employer-employee relations,” he observes. “If we have any issues, we have well-defined processes for resolving them.”

As a faculty member at El Camino College in the 1970s, Scroggins helped negotiate the first collectively bargained contract at that institution. Having sat on the other side of the table before, he understands that when employees are satisfied with their working conditions and feel they are being treated fairly, they are more engaged in their jobs and committed to the college’s mission.

Bill Scroggins, president of Mt. San Antonio College in California, says collective bargaining can strengthen the campus community. (Photo: Mt. SAC)

Union leaders are included within Mt. SAC’s key governance structures. They sit on the President’s Advisory Council and are involved in strategic planning. This not only gives them a voice in campus decisions; it ensures they won’t be blindsided as new policies are enacted.

“If we’re proposing a change to a policy or procedure,” Scroggins explains, “union members have a chance to say in those meetings, ‘Wait a minute: We think there might be some issues that affect hours, wages, and working conditions. We’d like to put that on pause until we can sit down and see what the implications are.’”

He adds: “We don’t solve problems at the end of the process. We try to address them early on.”

Frequent and honest conversations

Having a voice in campus governance is something union leaders appreciate.

“Many problems could be nipped in the bud if there was some discussion at the front end of the decision-making process,” says Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the United Faculty of Florida. “Taking faculty by surprise causes ill will that is entirely preventable.”

Fostering strong relationships with union representatives involves frequent communication. Scroggins meets regularly with the presidents of the college’s three unions not just when problems arise, but throughout the year.

“Each of the union leaders has an hour with me once a month, and they can also get on my calendar whenever they need to,” he says. “The minutes of my senior staff meetings are published for the entire campus community, and I give the union leaders an advance copy of those minutes so they can review what our senior management group is working on. That way, they are well prepared to answer faculty and staff questions about the direction our college is taking.”

Building trust

When the Supreme Court ruled last year in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 that public employees don’t have to pay dues to the unions that represent them in collective bargaining agreements, Scroggins made an unusual gesture.

“I sat down with our faculty union and said: This is going to impact your membership,” he says. “What can we do as an institution to make sure the financial impact of this ruling doesn’t limit your ability to function as employee representatives?”

After discussing the issue with union leaders, Scroggins extended the release time that the union president and chief negotiator have to work on union-related issues throughout the year.

“Those sorts of actions tend to build trust,” he notes. “They demonstrate our commitment to valuing the unions’ work.”

The investment that Scroggins has made in forging strong relationships with union leaders has paid dividends.

“We have very few grievances, and the ones we do have, we have a process in place to come up with good solutions,” he says. “We still have disagreements once in a while — but they are never disruptive.”

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About the Author

Dennis Pierce
is an education writer based in Boston.